Minjung Art

Minjung Art is everywhere in Gwangju. This art movement of the 1980s showcased and celebrated realistic art scenes that focused on the power of the people. An excellent example is the government commissioned mural by Hong Song-dam, one of the most acclaimed and radical Minjung artists, on a wall of Chonnam National University. This movement was a great rebellion, not just of dictatorships, but also of capitalism as a whole.

Interesting pieces of Minjung art used methods of Buddhist temple paintings. Using scenes from traditional Buddhist religious paintings, especially scenes of hell, Minjung artists connected to a very old Korean painting tradition yet infused it with popular sentiment.

Another point of note of the Minjung movement was the sarcasm that art was unique or special, especially to a particular artist. This positioning of the artist as irrelevant may be why the movement eventually sputtered out. Artists creating without recognition? While this is still a strong sentiment by many Gwangju artists, it doesn’t always help the artist to survive economically. There is still a huge shunning of commercial appeal of artwork in Gwangju by many artists. In fact one of my Korean art colleagues states that some Gwangju artists think that if you are commercially successful, then the art really isn’t any good, that you’ve become part of the ‘system’ and because of this you are tainted as is your art. Good art is that which is not saleable.  I think it stems from the remnants of the Minjung movement.

Minjung means “art of the masses.” It not only was an art movement but a cultural movement. It aimed to overthrow elitist culture. It rejected anything Western and created its nationalistic sentiment by giving art back to the masses. The content leaned back to the peasant image of Korea as an ideal type of life.

The first generation of Minjung artists focused on reality and the theme of humanity within industrialized society. The second generation focused on reviving traditional art forms and working in collaboration. A resurgence in folk art, Buddhist art, woodcuts, and genre paintings became their clarion call to nationalism. Both generations wanted to produce art in which the masses were the main subject matter and that the masses could understand the nationalistic message.

Still today you can witness the influence of Minjung art. Lee Jo-heum’s painting of a street filled with people and video game monsters in realistic detail is a modern spin about identity within contemporary Korea. Taking the realism of Minjung which he grew up around here in Gwangju, Lee seamlessly incorporated his own fights and questions against hegemony.

Some critics say that Minjung art helped stem the tide of Westernization in art in Korea. It re-introduced a focus on realism in art after the 1970s Monochrome Art which was fairly inaccessible for the average person to understand.

Check out Youngna Kim’s 20th Century Korean Art to learn more.

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