Kim Hyeonjoo

Historiography of Feminist Studies in Korean Contemporary Art History

I. Introduction

The purpose of this research is to critically examine the historiography of feminist research in Korean contemporary art history. In the Korean art community, feminist art emerged in the mid-1980s and greatly contributed to the development of contemporary art. Feminist studies in Korean art, which began to blossom in earnest in the 1990s, expanded its scope from Korean contemporary art to Western contemporary art and to Korean modern art. This research focuses on Korean contemporary art, feminist art, and women’s art (yeoseong misul), which started from the mid-1980s, from a feminist perspective and analyzes major scholarly research outcomes, such as articles in academic journals, Master’s theses and PhD dissertations, and monographs published starting in the 1990s.1

I collected research papers by searching the Research Information Sharing Service for several keywords, such as feminism, Korean feminist art, Korean women’s art, feminist art history, and female artists. The papers were available through academic databases, which enabled me to access the papers via interlibrary loan. The statistical data of the papers collected in this way showed a large variation depending on the database. The keyword “Korean women’s art” returned 2,500–3,000 papers, which was the largest number. The keyword “feminist art” returned 620–770 papers, and “Korean feminist art” returned 260–430 papers. Among these, many resources were not related to scholarly research. Especially among the monographs, a few were published with feminism as the main subject, and some were reproductions of previously published papers. As I cross-referenced this list to my own list from past studies and shortlisted them based on the papers’ academic merit, there remained approximately eighty papers that research Korean contemporary art from the 1980s from feminist perspectives. After I removed Masters’ theses that reproduced similar content, the meaningful research papers numbered only approximately fifty to sixty. Considering there have been thirty years of feminist studies in art history, this number shows a quantitative increase in the research, yet we cannot say that the development in quality matches the development in quantity.

This research examines how feminist research in Korean contemporary art history emerged and became established in the historical time and space of Korea from the 1980s. This paper intends to examine various perspectives and methods of researchers, the formulation of and change in the concepts of art terms related to feminism, and the main topics in feminist art history research and, in doing so, suggest the unsolved problems and future expectations.

II. Overview

In the processes of collecting, classifying, and analyzing the sources, I was able to confirm some facts that I had already roughly assumed. First, theoretical research on feminist art in Korea began in the early 1990s, and it noticeably increased in quantity from the first decade of the 2000s. This change is related to the increase in new female researchers who graduated from related majors, such as art history, art theory, or museum studies or who returned from studying overseas. However, the great majority of their studies are a repetitive introduction of Western feminist theories and studies on famous female artists—in particular, US feminist theories and practices. This tendency is attributed to Korean academia’s inclination to English-speaking culture and to the influence of the first generation of feminist scholars, who studied in the United States, in the field of education in Korea.2

Second, although there are many graduates who studied theories in contemporary art, only a few feminist researchers continuously study Korean contemporary art from feminist perspectives; thus, there is a limit to profound critique and dynamic discussion.

Third, because the terms related to feminist art and its concepts are not yet clearly defined and the number of researchers is not ample enough, it is doubtful whether multifaceted methodologies of feminist research are sufficiently developed to study Korean contemporary art. Yet, it is evident that researchers made great efforts to apply and combine various theories from Western academia and feminist studies in order to develop interdisciplinary feminist research.

Fourth, more diverse research subjects and topics need to be developed. Many papers focus on art from the 1980s and 1990s, on artists who are already classified as feminist artists, or on some famous artists whose work can be easily studied from feminist perspectives. For this tendency, I think the midcareer researchers are responsible, to some degree, for having neglected undiscovered artists and resources.

The phenomenon of leaning toward specific artists and subjects is an overall characteristic of the field of Korean feminist art research, but the points mentioned above are also common problems in Korean art history. Since the 2010s, however, research topics and time periods have been expanded, and the topics are being diversified to include exhibitions, spaces, and feminist analysis of male artists’ representation of images of women. These signs of desirable changes are encouraging.

The researchers who have persistently conducted research on feminism in art are all women, and because their areas of specialty are varied, for example, Korean modern art or Western contemporary art, not many researchers have consistently included these women’s research in their publications by applying feminist perspectives. They include the first generation, of art historian Kim Hong-hee; the second generation, of art historians Yun Nanjie, Oh Jinkyeong, and myself; and those now in their 40s and 50s, namely, Jin Whuiyeon, Yang Eunhee, Koh Dong-Yeon, and Shin Ji-Young (art historians), Yang Hyosil and Kim Joo Hyoun (aestheticians), and Kim Young-ok (who calls herself a feminist image critic). More recently, “young feminists” are straddling curating and writing and crossing the border between online and off-line, and I anticipate that they will eventually produce meaningful results.3

For a long time, a general introductory study of feminist art history relied on translations of publications by renowned Western female scholars, and few monographs provided overall insights into Korean contemporary art from feminist perspectives. Kim Hong-hee’s Yeoseong-gwa misul [tr. Women and art] (2003) is the only monograph that provides an overview of Western art history as well as Korean art from the modern era to the (then-)contemporary era of the 1980s and 1990s.4 Kim’s monograph, which is a collection of revised versions of her previously published research papers and critique essays, helps the reader understand the context of Korean art at the time when each article was initially published; however, the book lacks a consistent perspective and overview of the discussions in the monograph.

Shin Ji-Young’s monograph Kkotgwa punggyeong: Munhwa yeongu-ro bon Hanguk hyeondae yeoseongmisulsa [tr. Flowers and Landscape: Contemporary Korean Women’s Art History as a Cultural Study] (2008) makes a meaningful attempt to deconstruct and re-write art history from a consistent perspective.5 Published with the aim of introducing eight female artists who are active in Korean contemporary art to the international arena, Jin Whuiyeon’s English publication Coexisting Differences: Women Artists in Contemporary Korean Art (2012) highlights the differences among these artists’ subject matter but considers female sensibility as their common ground.6

Symposia with feminist themes, held at major art history academic conferences from 1997, also contributed to boosting research in this field. Among them, “Korean Contemporary Art History and Feminism,” the second academic symposium of the Korea Association for the History of Modern Art, held in 2000, was a meaningful academic event that shed light on Korean contemporary art from a feminist perspective.7 Among the four research papers on the 20th-century Korean contemporary art presented at the symposium, Oh Jinkyeong’s research paper (2000) is constantly quoted in the subsequent research on women’s art in the 1980s.8

The Korea Association for the History of Modern Art’s 2010 academic symposium, “War and Gender in Korean and Japanese Art Histories” gathered together Korean and Japanese feminist scholars to compare and discuss various methods for and problems of remembering war in Korea and Japan. The Association of Korean Modern & Contemporary Art History held the 2013 symposium “Re-thinking Feminism: Korean Modern and Contemporary Art and Women,” and the 2019 symposium “Women, Art, Institution: Art History in the Age of the #MeToo Movement.” The current paper, Yang Eun-hee’s two research papers, and Park Sohyun’s discussion are the research on Korean contemporary art published as the outcome of these two symposia.

Written for the 2013 symposium, Yang’s article (2014) is the only research that provides an overview of the importation and practice of feminist theories in the Korean art scene.9 Yang, who excels in both feminist theories and feminist practice, accurately identified the important issues around the procedure of adopting feminism in Korean art: the role of art magazines in the early period of the Korean adoption of feminism; the problems of confusing art terms; the circumstances of the importation of texts on feminist theory in the 1990s, which were influential to research on feminist theories and its spread, and their translation status; the first-generation women art historians who studied in the United States and their roles in the research and education of art history in the early 1990s; the presence of male intellectuals who actively participated in the production of texts on feminism; and the current condition of feminist art and the evaluation of its success and failure, based on Yang’s in-depth interviews with female specialists who were active in the curatorial and research fields. Yang successfully conducted this vast amount of research as a sole researcher. Her paper provides a concise summary of the studies that have been sporadically made, and thus provides basic resources for the next generation of researchers. Her work also enabled me to easily conduct the research for this paper.

III. Imports of Feminism and Positions of Researchers

Art magazines played a significant role in the first few years when feminism began to be expressed in the Korean art scene in the late 1980s. This was only a decade after art history had been established as an academic discipline, and when the Association of Western Art History, which was launched in 1989, published the only academic art history journal. As platforms for the presentation of research and critiques, art magazines are invaluable resources to understand the circumstances around the early period of feminism in the Korean art scene. As examined in previous publications, the term feminism first appeared in the art scene around 1988 via art magazines.10

As issues related to feminism burst onto the art scene through the exhibitions From Half to Whole (1986) and Women and Reality Exhibition (1987–1994), such art magazines as Space, Misul Segye, Korean Art Critics Review, Wolgan Misool, Gana Art, and SUN Art Quarterly competitively published special issues from 1988 to 1993, introducing Western feminist theories and women artists and delivering the voices of the art scene. Such publications were the art magazines’ quick response to the climate and critique of the domestic feminist art scene, which developed in the form of group movements.

Despite having been intensively discussed in art magazines, feminism only appeared in several individual articles from 1994 and in one special issue in 2008. Yang argues that the reasons are as follows: the Korean art scene being tired of feminism; the closure of the annual exhibition Women and Reality, which was the pivotal exhibition for feminist art in Korea; and the attitudes of the art community to safeguard art from the bifurcation of apolitical art vs. political feminism.11 In addition to Yang’s points, it should be noted that the platform for discussion of feminist art has shifted from art magazines to academic journals. The full-fledged feminist art exhibitions from 1994 onward were accompanied by the publication of exhibition catalogs that contain academic research outcomes. Also, academic journals, launched one after another, offered platforms for specialized research and presentation.

Theoretical research on feminist art began with Kang Taehee’s 1990 article “Feminist Art and Theory in America,” and Kim Hong-hee applied feminism to Korean contemporary art in 1992.12 As a pioneer who built a theoretical foundation with a consistent feminist approach in her fieldwork, critique, and art administration, Kim Hong-hee played a key role in laying foundations for these three areas. As a starting point for feminist discussion, Kim’s research has, however, been uncritically reproduced by the next generation’s research projects, and her opinions are also the subject of criticism and reconsideration.13

There were many male theoreticians who actively participated in the discourse of feminist art theory in its early period. Yang explains the circumstances around how they gradually disappeared in relation to the role of female scholars, who returned from their studies overseas and taught art history at universities. According to Yang, the male intellectuals who showed their interests in feminism encountered postmodernism and adopted feminism because they considered it “a sort of intellectual trend.” As the domestic and international social circumstances changed, they shifted their interest from feminism to other topics, for example, mass media. In the meantime, the first generation of female scholars, such as Kim Youngna, Kang Taehee, and Song Misook, intermittently published articles from feminist perspectives, and their activities were related to their role as educators who trained many female scholars.14

In fact, in Korean academia and cultural sectors, many intellectuals, regardless of their gender, have a tendency of swiftly introducing and being preoccupied by new knowledge from Western academia, maximizing the use of this knowledge, and moving away from it. Yang seems to point out this tendency in a very carefully put euphemism. To put it more bluntly, male intellectuals, such as Lee Jong Seung, Eom Hyeok, Ra Wonsik, Seo Seong-rok, and Lee Ju-heon, temporarily presented themselves as intellectually progressive and receptive to women’s issues; however, after 1994, they disappeared from the field of feminist discussion. From the mid-1990s, as female specialists who consistently maintained feminist perspectives appeared one by one and feminist theories became more sophisticated, those male intellectuals disappeared, because, with their shallow knowledge, they could no longer intervene in the field, unlike how it had worked in the early period of feminism. The male intellectuals’ move shows the repetitive process of preoccupation with and breaking away from new foreign knowledges in Korean academia.

Of course, feminism is not the only alternative that opens up new reflections in art criticism and art history. There may have been logical grounds for these male intellectuals to readily leave the feminist discourse. For example, there was a prevalent idea that cultural theories and postmodernism are more progressive and more general theories than feminism for encompassing humanity. There was also the prejudice against feminism, that is, feminism is seen by some as a separatist and essentialist, narrow-minded theory that cares only about women, not about general human issues, and that therefore is irrelevant to men.

In the first domestic academic symposium on the theme “History of Modern Art and Feminism,” in 1998, Jung Hun-Yee defined feminists as “those who cannot compromise or agree with the cultural norms that suppress part of humanity” and “both men and women” who criticize the logic of oppression and “seriously reflect and practice” a society with no oppression.15 Jung’s emphatic statement that feminism is “not a discourse only for women and by women”16 was powerful in dispelling the misunderstandings of and prejudices against feminism in our society.

Unlike male intellectuals, a great majority of female scholars, including the first generation of feminist scholars, have intermittently published on feminist research, taking ambiguous and fluid positions, such as identifying themselves with feminism in the introduction and then distancing themselves from feminism in the case studies. Among them, there are meaningful studies, such as Kang Taehee’s 2002 article, but there are problematic studies, too.17 When Korean feminist researchers discuss Western feminist art history, they tend to feel more comfortable to take an objective distance because of their inherent position as the Others of the West. In contrast, when they discuss Korean contemporary art with feminist perspectives, their position of political correctness intervenes; thus, they occupy an ambivalent position between the identification and distance.

Song Misook’s 1993 article shows her ambivalent position as a female researcher writing about feminism. In the article, she claims that in the Korean art scene, the feminist target of “the strategy for ideological transformation aims at women, prior to men” and that “the biggest obstacle” is to change the consciousness of female celebrities who have no consciousness as women.18 Having maintained an objective perspective when displaying her extensive knowledge of Western feminism, when it comes to explaining the Korean art scene, Song reveals her contradictory position and ignorance of Korean feminist art in the 1980s. Her statement is an unconscious repetition of the patriarchal rhetoric: the enemy of women is women—a claim to maintain the power system that has relied on division among women. At this moment, Song becomes a feminist scholar who speaks as a man. Pointing this out is not to undermine her achievement as a scholar, but, rather, to emphasize how patriarchal thinking is deeply rooted in daily unconsciousness among women and how difficult it is for us to recognize it. Above all, writing art history from feminist perspectives begins with challenging the norm that art history is an objective and neutral study; therefore, it requires constant questions and reflections on the relationship between the subject and oneself and on the researcher’s position. A researcher’s position can change depending on the context of her time and space, and on her relation to class, race, and sexuality.

IV. Contested Terms and Concepts: Yeoseong misul (women’s art), yeoseongjuui misul, peminijeum misul (feminist art)

In the construction of Korean art history from feminist perspectives, not only academic research, but also field research related to exhibitions has made a significant contribution. As part of this process, one of the urgent tasks was to define the terms and concepts related to feminism. Although sporadic, discussions were had about some key terms, and these discussions began by translating foreign terms. As feminist theories were imported from English-speaking culture, much confusion emerged with such terms as feminism, feminine, feminist, and womanists. By the late 1990s, the translations of these terms had largely settled down.

Of the key terms, the modifier feminist had been mistranslated to yeoseong (adj. noun. women or female) and the modifier feminine had been mistranslated to yeoseongnonjeok (adj. female-theory-like).19 Their translations were later established as yeoseongjuuijeok (adj. feminist) and yeoseongjeok (adj. feminine), respectively.20 When feminist referred to a human, both the Korean translation and the Korean pronunciation of the English term were used, such as yeoseongjuuija and peminiseuteu for a feminist, and yeoseongjuui and peminijeum for feminism.21 For a certain period, the terms feminist and womanist were used interchangeably, resulting in confusion, but this confusion no longer appears from the mid-1990s.22 The English term feminist art now firmly translates to peminijeum ateu, peminism misul, or yeoseongjuui misul.

Moreover, the discussions on the definitions and categorization of yeoseong misul, yeoseongjuui misul,23 and peminieum misul had taken place from the 1990s and more actively developed in the 2000s. Defining each term is not easy, however. The term yeoseong itself is not a fixed or essential term, but a very flexible term, and its meaning and category change depending on the researcher’s interpretation and purpose. Among them, yeoseong misul is the most inclusive and contesting concept, and it is divided into two categories.

One is yeoseong misul as the term that defines activities by female artists who practiced art through Minjung art (People’s Art) in the late 1980s. For that reason, yeoseong misul is a “historical term” that emerged from a specific context of Korean art in the 1980s.24 It is distinguished from yeoryumisul (women’s wave art), which refers to the art created by women who express women’s femininity and feminine sensitivity without a sense of criticism of the existing, male-dominant system. Yeoseong misul is also distinguished from peminieum misul (feminist art), as the former does not indiscriminately accept foreign art trends but, instead, focuses on domestic problems. Regarding the styles and attitudes of Yeoseong misul, many problems were pointed out, such as its failure to establish “a feminist aesthetic or methodology,” due to its strong ideological purpose,25 and its failure to express “a communal sensitivity of various women and the cultural diversity within women.”26 However, there is no disagreement in the evaluation that Yeoseong misul was the first feminist art that spontaneously sprouted in Korea’s special political situation in the 1980s with a sense of feminist consciousness. In particular, Yeoseong misul was the activist art that practiced the feminist core value of “activism” through social activism and art activism and that became the matrix for the later feminist activist art. This evaluation of Yeoseong misul suggests a viewpoint that, in Korean contemporary art, the flow of feminism has not been halted and that it continues from then to now.27

Another meaning of yeoseong misul is to collectively refer to art produced by women. “The work by those who are biologically and socially classified as women” is broadly referred to as “art by women” or “art of women.”28 Yeoseong misul, however, does not simply mean art produced by biological women; it comprehensively means the art that naturally represents women’s experience, feminine sensitivity, and femininity. This includes many female artists who are aware of their gender but who do not advocate feminism for many reasons, such as rejection of the political nature of feminism,29 a lack of opportunities for self-reflection due to their ignorance in theoretical studies,30 and concerns about their work being categorized in limited terms. Yeoseong misul has been established as another aspect of feminist art, through conceptual changes in the two exhibitions that advocated feminism in the 1990s.

Kim Hong-hee, who organized the 1994 exhibition Woman, the Difference and the Power, termed the work by female artists whose femininity or feminine sensitivity was “naturally or unconsciously expressed” yeoseongjeok misul (“feminine art”)31 and classified Pyohyun Group, Kim Wonsook, Kimsooja, Yang Juhae, and so on, as the essentialist feminists in the exhibition statement. On the other hand, Kim defined feminism as verifying and criticizing “women’s issues and gender structures.” She classified such artists as Yun Suknam and Park Youngsook as socialist feminists, referring to those who participated in Minjung art and exposed femininity and raised women’s issues in their art with a feminist consciousness. She called Lee Bul and Oh Kyung-hwa new generation feminists, who were influenced by postmodernist culture.

Kim argued that it is meaningless to distinguish between “yeoseongjeok misul” (feminine art) and “yeoseongjuui misul” (feminist art), because the work is ambiguous in its appearance and has a fluid identity between women and feminists, as presented in the work of contemporary female artists; the difference is only in their attitudes and orientations.32

In the exhibition Women’s Art Festival 99 Patjis on Parade, held on a larger scale several years later, what Kim Hong-hee called yeoseongjeok misul (feminine art) was replaced by yeoseong misul (women’s art). The exhibition considered yeoseong misul a meaningful concept that encompasses the art created by female artists, including the so-called yeoryu (women’s wave) artists to provide a “herstory,” and that attempted to analyze the characteristics of yeoseongjeok (feminine) in yeoseong misul and how the femininity is represented in the artwork.

Through this process, along with feminist art, yeoseong misul has become established as a category of feminist research that can be interpreted in various ways from feminist perspectives. Between the late 1980s and the late 1990s, yeoseong misul became a term that contained within it completely different concepts with different historicity. It is still a complex concept that is both the same as and distinguished from feminist art. The Incheon Women Artists’ Biennale is the most sharply contested case in relation to the concepts and categories of yeoseong misul and feminist art in the Korean art scene.33 Research on the “yeoseong misul” that has two different concepts occupies a significant part of the history of Korean feminist art; therefore, omitting research on that part will cause a huge gap in the research on feminist art history.

On the other hand, defining feminist art based on Western theory also continued. This research emphasized the nature of feminism as a daily political science, as Lucy Lippard defined feminism as “neither a style nor a movement,” but, rather, “a value system, a revolutionary strategy, a way of life.”34 As mentioned above, Jung Hun-Yee pointed out that feminism is not just a discourse of women, but also a critical reflection on the “male” discourse and the masculinity that has governed our society as the cultural norm.35 Kim Hong-hee suggested the definition of yeoseongjuui misul as “to challenge the sexist structure within the art world and to re-recognize and re-evaluate women’s art.”36

In many art history studies, the terms yeoseongjuui misul and feminist art are used interchangeably. Western feminism, which presented various theories, concepts, and prospects ahead of us, is, however, accepted as a more comprehensive concept than yeoseongjuui. Although the two terms continue to change and expand through specific historical time and space, there are differences in the contexts in which these terms are used.

Peminijeum misul (feminist art) tends to refer to Western art and a movement encompassing criticism of the dominant ideology, subversion of existing systems, and change in the real world with a strong political practice. Yeoseongjuui misul is related to the 1990s women’s art and culture movement and is mainly used to refer to works that tend to reveal femininity, feminine sensitivity, and the experience and reality of women, who are oppressed in a patriarchal society. Some researchers are careful in choosing the terms in consideration of these differences, but in many cases, these two terms are used arbitrarily or compatibly according to the author’s intention or the context. In addition, the term post-feminism appeared at the 2008 Incheon Women Artists’ Biennale Symposium titled Women’s Art in the Age of Global Post-Feminism; however, a specific definition and the critical discussions on the term did not fully develop and ended up being a one-time event.37

V. Various Research Methods

In the domestic art history community, feminist research tends to be understood as just one of the methods in art history and as a peripheral discourse. When the new art history emerged in the late 1980s and established itself in European and American academia in the 1990s, feminism was reduced to a methodology of the new art history by neo-left male scholars, who could not deny the progressiveness and legitimacy of feminism as an alternative to the art-historical convention. Feminism in Korean art history was in the same situation.

One important factor of this situation is that Korean art history has pushed feminism aside as a methodology in order to maintain the conservative academic tradition, which has focused on analysis of styles during the process of art history’s establishment in Korea, and another factor is the lack of researchers’ active practice and effort to overthrow the closed structure of art history in order to build a new art history.38 In a circumstance where the humanities in academia are at stake, domestic art history has established itself at the periphery of the humanities. Being a feminist researcher, therefore, implies that the researcher’s political choice remains firmly on the periphery and that it requires more intense practice for the researcher to change society. In the 2000s, having lost the habit of engaging in daily politics and social change, feminism became established at domestic universities as a branch of or even as a course in art history in academia. Even these changes were only implemented at some women’s universities and by female scholars. No one, including myself, who has been involved in art history and art theory can be excused from the charge of contributing to such an outcome.

Regardless, female scholars of contemporary art history should be fully acknowledged for their efforts to break away from the way art history constitutes knowledge based on formalism; for re-examining art history using various methodologies; and, in doing so, for shaking its foundation. Feminism is fundamentally interdisciplinary, and feminist research in contemporary art is no exception, so it has been actively utilizing various methodologies from other academic disciplines. Feminist researchers adopted the discourse of power and deconstruction in poststructuralist discourse—which critically reflects on the ideas and institutions that have been the basis of Western culture and society—to Korean contemporary art history. They also filtered the new subjects in psychoanalysis, postcolonialism, and cultural studies through feminist perspectives, by adopting the 1970s French feminists’ abject theories and women’s writing (L’écriture féminine), as well as Judith Butler’s performative gender theories. As Korean researchers read Linda Nochlin’s work as the textbook of feminist art history, they paid attention to Nochlin’s sociological methodology to build a narrative of herstory against history in their research. Herstory positions female artists as the subjects, giving them an opportunity to speak about their lives and paving the way for research on women artists from a feminist perspective.39 Conscious researchers are not unaware that, as Griselda Pollock pointed out, adding a female artist to art history may expand existing art history, but does not subvert it.40 However, it should not be overlooked that these studies contributed to the expansion of basic data and research subjects and, in the process of accumulating feminist research, laid the foundation for subsequent research.

Depending on the research subject and question, different methodologies can be used. In my case, I use the methodologies that I think appropriate according to the research topic. For example, for research on why feminism is not properly evaluated in art history, I used the deconstruction method for meta-criticism to reveal the structural problems of art history as a patriarchal discourse and the contested power relations of related groups surrounding exhibitions.

Homi Bhabha’s theories of identity are effectively used in discussions on the multi-layered identity of female artists who have been engaged in all-round activities in the art world at home and abroad since the 1990s.41 In the research of diaspora female artists, such as Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Yong Soon Min, and Jin-me Yoon, decolonial feminism reveals how the languages of contemporary art work in the complex relationships among ethnic nationalism, colonial experience, and cross-border identity.42 A series of studies on the second- and third-generation Korean Japanese female artists adopt the diaspora theory as a method to question the nation, people, and identity of Korea and Japan from the perspectives of nationalism and gender, and to reveal the diversity and differences of minorities living on the border between two nations.43

Shin Ji-Young, a student of Griselda Pollock, drew great attention by suggesting the possibility of changing the norms of art-historical convention by writing women’s history of art using cultural research and psychoanalysis. She left academia, however, and it is a huge loss for the field to no longer be able to see her intellectual growth. Yang Eunhee and Jung Pil-Joo, a researcher who combines sociology and art history, revealed a gap between reality in the art world and voices in the field by using qualitative methodology involving conducting and then analyzing interviews with Korean female researchers or female artists. In research on female artists in their 30s to 50s that appeared after the 2000s, Judith Butler’s performative gender theory was used as the main methodology, as body and sexuality emerged as important topics.44 Kim Young-ok, who has long been a critic of Korean contemporary art through literature and feminism, published a collection of critical writings that analyzed Korean contemporary artists’ works, Imiji peminijeum: Jendeojeongchihageuro ingneun sigagyesul (Image Feminism: Visual Art through Gender Politics).45 Her position as an outsider of art history, not a researcher in art history, enabled her to dismantle art history more freely. Considering the reality in which a small number of female scholars continue feminist research in Korean contemporary art history, it is difficult to say that a new methodology has been developed. However, it is clear that qualitatively improved studies are appearing as a result of various interdisciplinary research methodologies.

VI. Research Topics

The themes of feminism research in Korean contemporary art history are wide-ranging: they include discovering and analyzing images in the works by female artists and female images in the works by male artists; dismantling masculine art languages from a gender perspective; dismantling male-oriented art history; analyzing women’s art exhibitions; and researching places from a gender perspective. Among them, research on female artists accounts for the largest proportion, and more diverse topics remain as tasks for research in the future. The discovery and study of female artists are based on the perspective of viewing women’s art as a category of yeoseongjuui misul. In general, considering femininity and feminine sensitivity as essential and giving them positive values, these studies have a strong tendency to pay attention to how such factors are expressed in the work of female artists. On the other hand, research exploring problems of women’s multi-layered identity reveals a feminist perspective more clearly. However, not all researchers who are interested in female artists take a feminist perspective. Recently, attempts have been made to interpret female artists anew from a perspective other than feminism, as in Pyun Kyunghee’s “Debbie Han’s Graces: Hybridity and Universality.”46 Yun Suknam, Kimsooja, and Lee Bul are the most frequent subjects of research among female artists, and since the 2000s, siren eun young jung, Chang Jia, Yang Haegue, and Nikki S. Lee are frequently studied, and this tendency is particularly frequently appearing in master’s theses.47 More recently, the ages of the researchers and female artists as the subjects of research have gradually declined, to the 30s and 40s. To these generations of researchers and artists, speaking about body, sexuality, and queerness is natural, and they are familiar with the concept of performativity of fluidly open identity. These studies reveal that it is no longer possible to define women as singular and that the way women relate themselves with feminism is diverse.48

Research on Yeoseong misul and female artists in the 1980s also accounts for a significant proportion. Oh Hyejoo’s paper provides basic data for research on Yeoseong misul by recording in detail the internal situations and the external activities of the field that had only been known to insiders, as she was an insider of the field at the time.49 Other studies on Yeoseong misul include a classification and analysis of images of women reproduced in Yeoseong misul; research on Kim Insoon, who led field activities of both Yeoseong misul and Minjung art; and a re-evaluation of Yeoseong misul.50

Although Dansaekhwa (Korean modernism) and Minjung art differ in many ways, such as the role of art and its communication methods, female scholars found the common ground of both art streams to be that the streams reproduced male-centered structures and art languages, and they attempted to dismantle them from feminist perspectives. In particular, Minjung art became the focus of their studies of a deconstruction of male-centered art language and the analysis of images from a gender perspective. Among these studies, Jung Hun-Yee’s 2004 paper is a remarkable early achievement.51 Jung criticized Shin Hakchul’s history painting Gapdol and Gapsoon as “an expression of the insidious fetishistic sadomasochistic desire of the (male) subject who can see history diachronically,” driven by a violent body fetish and pornographic imagination.52 Jung pointed out how limited men’s imagination is in Korean society and explored the possibility of female imagination to respond to it.53 Kim Young-ok compared and analyzed Koh Seung Wook’s Dongducheon Project as an alternative example that overcomes Shin Hakchul’s history painting, a symbol of male-centered nationalism and sexualized image of the people in Minjung art.54 Yun Nanjie, who carefully analyzed the hybridity of different times and spaces and the art styles that conflict in the works of Minjung art, also revealed that the “pure blood” nationalism (ethnic nationalism) presented in Minjung art is a fiction.55

In the 1980s, feminist exhibitions were treated piecemeal as part of the main activities or as resources for the main discussion around Yeoseong misul. From the exhibition Half to Whole to the present, exhibitions that advocate feminism have been held consistently, and in particular, the #MeToo movement and “feminism reboot” in the art world in 2016 resulted in a reflection on art history and on feminist exhibitions at large-scale art museums.56 No academic research that surveys feminist exhibitions has yet been produced. As a study on exhibitions, Baek Ji-sook’s paper “‘99 yeoseongmisulje patjwideurui haengjineul bokseupada” (Reviewing Women’s Art Festival 99: Patjis on Parade) reexamines the exhibition that advocated feminism from the perspective of the exhibition’s insider. Her paper discusses how the polyphonic voices of women clashed and compromised during the process of exhibition, rather than focusing on the results of the show.57 Among the studies that focused on an exhibition’s subject matter, Yang Eunhee’s and my own papers deal with the ongoing debate on the discovery of feminist exhibitions buried in history and the success and failure of the International Incheon Women Artists’ Biennale.58

There are only a few meaningful studies on the concept of a site. From a gender perspective, a site is a fluid concept, not a fixed one, and it has a specific history of alienation by the male-centered social structure and state power. Feminist studies on a site focus on the practice of female artists who intervene in a certain site. From this point of view, Kim Young-ok tracked how Kim Dongryung and siren eun young jung, who participated in the art project in Dongducheon, a US military camp village in Korea, were solving the dilemma of aesthetics and ethics to find ways to represent the lives of women living in the village, and Kim Young-ok evaluated their work as important examples of feminist activist art practice.59 A recently arising discussion centers on summoning feminist activist practice in the art world and art history. As an art historian who lives in the era of the #MeToo movement, Park Sohyun emphasized that, in order to respond to the practice of feminism at the social level, one must summon the activism that has disappeared in art history and, as a starting point to this activism, actively reflect on art history as a field of study and on the way art history exists as an academic discipline.60

VII. Conclusion

Feminist research in art history was not launched as feminist art history, as a specific category. It began with an intention to criticize the structural problems and premises of art history and to construct it differently, by bringing Western intellectuals’ overall reflections on modern culture to the academic discipline of art history. This is why Western women scholars who pioneered research in this field used the expressions “feminist critique of art history” and “feminist intervention in art history,” instead of “feminist art history,” regardless of their position or methodology. Applying feminism, which originated in the West, to Korean art history, which has a different history of time and space, must be a difficult task in order to create a new art history. The research outcomes analyzed in this paper are engraved with the deep concerns and questions of researchers who have re-read and re-written art history from perspectives that had never been imagined before. Since this paper deals with such a vast amount of data, it may not have properly grasped the authors’ intentions hidden between the lines.

As discussed in this paper, the study of feminism in Western art history has become an important prelude to and reference for feminist researchers in Korean contemporary art history. Sometimes these researchers were overly dependent on Western feminist theories. Sometimes they missed the points of these theories and were satisfied with the expansion of the research subjects. In most cases, however, they worked tirelessly to produce a variety of topics and issues that could be embraced from the perspective of feminism. Some of those studies are so important that they serve as indicators for follow-up research and enable advancement in the study of Korean art history, but some are too flat to constitute a meaningful step forward. However, the current history of feminist research on Korean art history rests on the accumulated successes and failures of all these studies.

Thanks to the #MeToo Movement and the Feminism Reboot phenomenon that has been spreading in our society for several years, young feminist researchers are freely crossing the boundaries of art history, field criticism, and creation, reviewing Korean feminist art studies from multiple positions and with different sensibilities than previous generations. Contemporary art history is getting closer to the art scene, and feminist researchers in contemporary art history will also be required to be more open to the art scene and activism in order to change reality. Therefore, as a future task of feminist research on Korean contemporary art history, I propose the expansion of the pool of researchers, an improvement in the quality of research, and a search for sophisticated and practical strategies and activism to provide alternatives to existing art history.

Hosted by the Korea Arts Management Service, the workshop “Dasi, baro, hamkke, Hangungmisul: Hanguk peminijeum misurui hwakjangseonggwa yeokal” (tr. Again, Well, Together, Korean Art: The Expansion and Roles of Korean Feminist Art), held in June 2019 in a heated atmosphere, and attended by an audience whose size far exceeded expectations, ended successfully. The event became a venue for communication and connection between the new and the old generations of feminist theorists and artists, and it confirmed that it was the time for a new solidarity, despite the differences among the participants. To make the embers that started here grow into a big fire, theorists need to conduct research more intensively and work in solidarity with the art scene.

Translated by Vicki Sung-yeon Kwon