Kim Hyeonjoo

The Position of Yeoseong Misul (Women’s Art) in the History of Korean Contemporary Art

I. Introduction

In Korean contemporary art history, Minjung misul (people’s art; hereafter Minjung art, following common usage in English) established itself as the art of the 1980s.1 Despite the bifurcated evaluation that Minjung art is an autogenous art movement of Korea or an art that lacks formal autonomy, the opinion that Minjung art marked the mainstream of 1980s Korean art history has become a firm fact that no one can deny. This achievement is an outcome of the efforts of people in the stream of Minjung art, who have steadily contributed to discourse production in the areas of criticism, publication, exhibition, and collection over the past twenty years. However, during the process in which Minjung art became a representative art of the era, the polyphonic voices within it gradually disappeared and dynamic subjects were excluded. As a result, Minjung art ended up being an art of a group that has a single voice and a clear identity. For that reason, even though it was against modernist-stream art in Korea, Minjung art remains not postmodernist but another face of modernism.

There were many women artists who practiced Minjung art. In particular, female artists redesigned Minjung art in the late 1980s. It is impossible to present a complete landscape of the 1980s art scene without discussing their activities. There were women artists who shared the aim of Minjung art, such as Lee Kiyeon, Sung Hyosook, and Jung Jungyeob. The presence of female artists, however, only became visible in 1985, when Kim In-soon, Kim Jin-sook, and Yun Suknam—the three artists in their 40s who were immersed in their artistic practice through Siwolmoim (October Gathering)—participated in the National Art Association (Minjok misul hyeopuihoe) as its founding members, seeking a social foundation that was supportive of their art practice. They joined the National Art Association National Art Associationbecause they sympathized with the possibility of social transformation through art; however, they realized that there was patriarchy and indifference to women’s issues within the Minjung art community. Thus, in December 1986, they launched the Yeoseong misul bungwa (hereafter Women’s Art Division, following common usage in texts written in English) within the National Art Association. With the three members of the Siwolmoim at its core, the Women’s Art Division began with eleven women in their 20s and 40s. The members of the Women’s Art Division included the members of Teo Dongin (the Teo Collective)—Koo Seonhwe, Kim Minhee, Shin Gayoung, Lee Kyungmi, Jung Jungyeob, and Choi Kyungsook. They were in their 20s and began their art practice with an awareness as women. Senior artists Kim Jongrye and Moon Saem were also members of the Women’s Art Division. The Women’s Art Division was renamed Women’s Art Research Society (Yeoseong misul yeonguhoe; hereinafter Yeomiyeon) in 1988, and it carried out various activities to clarify the group’s identity, which is not just a group of women artists, but a group that explores women’s issues through art. Yeomiyeon carried out various activities, such as mounting exhibitions in galleries and supporting activities in the field, in a balanced manner. For example, it toured the annual exhibition Women and Reality (1987–1994) across regions within the nation and supported the painters collective Dungji [tr. Nest] in 1987 and the cartoonists collective Miyal in 1988, in alliance with the two female groups’ social activism. In addition, Kim Insoon organized the Labor Art Research Association in 1990 by combining Dungji and Eonggeongkwi (Thistle), a preexisting female art collective. All these activities can be included in the work of the women artists who formed Minjung art.

The members of Yeomiyeon distinguished their art activities, which were about solving women’s problems, from Yeoryumisul (women’s wave art) and feminist art and named their practice Yeoseong misul (women’s art).2 In order to explore the social role of art and the root of the oppression of women in more depth, they rejected the aesthetics of formalism and took Minjung art as a basis for their artistic practice for social transformation through art. On the other hand, in order to practice art for women’s liberation, which Minjung art ignored, they developed feminist world views and feminist consciousness by working with progressive women’s activist groups that campaigned for political and social transformation, such as the Korean Women’s Associations United and women’s art and culture groups, namely, Alternative Culture (Ttohanaui munhwa). Therefore, Yeoseong misul as pursued by Yeomiyeon is considered the full-fledged birth of Korean feminist art, along with Siwolmoim’s exhibition From Half to Whole. Considering such activities, Yeoseong misul is both Minjung art and feminist art. In another words, Yeoseong misul belongs to the intersection of Minjung art and feminist art. Therefore, Yeoseong misul is situated in an ambiguous position, neither entirely Minjung art nor feminist art.

In the 1980s, when dichotomous thinking was dominant, the fluid status of Yeoseong misul was taken as a disadvantage rather than an advantage, making its interpretation and evaluation complicated. For both Minjung art and feminist art, Yeoseong misul has become a very uncomfortable movement, which cannot be ignored either. Meanwhile, in the late 1980s, when the activities of Yeoseong misul began, the characteristics of Minjung art as “art as a campaign for social transformation” emerged more strongly than that as a “social transformation through art.” Therefore, Yeomiyeon registered itself as a group member of the Korean Women’s Associations United and actively supported it. Due to this activity, Yeomiyeon is involved in another debate about whether it is an artist group or an activist group, the question that Minjung art always confronts.

Yeoseong misul has been interpreted and evaluated without careful consideration of the contexts of its specific time and status. As a result, on the one hand, in the master-narrative history of Korean art, Yeoseong misul in the 1980s was reduced to Minjung art, and its existence itself was erased. From the beginning of the historicalizing process of Minjung art, Yeoseong misul was hidden under the large umbrella called Minjung art, and, on the other hand, in the history of Korean feminist art, the 1990s “culture-oriented” feminist art that was closely related to Western feminist art was accepted as the “true” feminist art; the meaning of Yeoseong misul in the 1980s was reduced to the art that laid the foundation for 1990s feminist art. To make matters worse, in the history of mainstream art, the 1990s was confirmed to be the era of postmodernist art, and feminist art was incorporated into 1990s postmodern art. As a result, Yeoseong misul became even more marginalized and, finally, lost its place in Korean art history.

The purpose of this study is to track the structural causes and specific processes through which Yeoseong misul was gradually excluded and forgotten in between Minjung art and feminist art, and to reconsider the position of Yeoseong misul in Korean contemporary art history. As a method of feminist discussion of Yeoseong misul, my work focuses on metacriticism of existing feminist criticism. As for the relationship of Yeoseong misul and Minjung art, I analyze major theories and writings of Minjung art and its reevaluation, as well as related exhibitions. I use this approach because the interest in, evaluation of, and frequency of discussion of Yeoseong misul considerably depend on one’s critical perspective on Minjung art. Through this analysis, I would like to clarify how and why Yeoseong misul is being forgotten in Korean contemporary art history and to take this research as an opportunity to reflect on how the patriarchal perspective is being challenged in Korean art history.

II. Feminist Criticism of Yeoseong Misul

When feminist art was first introduced in Korea through domestic art magazines in late 1988, Yeomiyeon’s activities began to be discussed as a case study of practice-based domestic feminist art, along with the name Yeoseong misul. In 1989, amounted to about sixty pages special issue titled “A Summary of the Art Movement in the ’80s,” in the magazine Gana Art, briefly explains the representation methods of Dungji’s painting Max tech Democratic Labour Union (1988). The special issue also covered Dungji’s geolgae paintings (banner paintings), the exhibition Women and Reality, and exhibitions of Siwolmoim and Teo Dongin in the list of small artist groups that pursued historical reality in the 1980s.3 On the other hand, the special issue of feminist art organized by Gana Art in 1990 treated Yeoseong misul more seriously.4 Yeomiyeon’s activities, which had been known fragmentarily through newspaper articles, specifically emerged in the context of feminism, and the relationship between Yeomiyeon and Minjung art was implied through illustrations in the exhibition catalogs, not in writings.5

In the late 1980s, when discussions on feminist art were just beginning, criticism of Yeoseong misul was presented in sporadic remarks by artists who directly or indirectly participated in the production of the Yeoseong misul artworks and by a few young female critics. In the early 1990s, Kim Honghee and Park Shineui, who returned from studying abroad, where they had encountered postmodernist theories, developed a more systematic critical discourse based on post-structuralist theories. In the mid- to late 1990s, however, Yeoseong misul was pushed away by feminist art, artists of which pursued postmodern cultural tendencies. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, Yeoseong misul was re-examined by new researchers and emerged as a new research task.

Criticism of and research on Yeoseong misul are largely presented by critics who directly participated in Minjung art, such as Oh Hyejoo, Min Hyesook, and Park Shineui, and by theorists who are unrelated to Minjung art, such as Kim Honghee, Oh Jinkyeong, and Yun Nanjie. As their positions are very different, they also differ in their views on and evaluations of Yeoseung misul. Among their discussions, the important issues are as follows: In order to distinguish Yeoseong misul from Yeoryu misul, Oh Hyejoo and Min Hyesook defined Yeoseong misul as art not for the expression of femininity but for the liberation of women who were oppressed in terms of both gender and class.6 A member of Research Society for Art Criticism (Misul bipyung yeonguhoe), which provided theoretical support for Minjung art, Oh argued the legitimacy of the working-class struggles that the Minjung art stream and the progressive women’s activism focused on at the time, by clarifying the Marxist feminist view that considered a private property system as the source of the oppression of women, in her 1989 critique on the exhibition Women and Reality.7 Therefore, she emphasized that, in order to abolish gender discrimination, women must resolve the class contradictions of capitalist society together, and that such work must be carried out within the boundaries of the social transformation movement. She evaluated Yeoseong misul highly for actively utilizing the power of the media in order to promote this social consciousness and urged the movement to gain experience in such activism and to focus on developing new forms to convey their experience.8

Oh has contributed to the production of the Yeoseong misul discourse as one who experienced Yeoseong misul in the field in the 1980s and as a member of the Feminist Artist Network in the 1990s. Published in the exhibition catalog of the first Women’s Art Festival: 99 Patjis on Parade, held in 1999, Oh’s article “Yeoseong Misul and the Reality” documents the activities of forgotten Yeoseong misul artists in detail and was used as an important source in subsequent studies.9 In the article, she points out the limitations of Yeoseong misul as having “simplified women’s issues or reduced them to a class problem” and “relied on theories in an aggressive and authoritative way.”10 This part suggests that her perspective on Yeoseong misul had changed significantly ten years after Yeoseong misul.

In the early 1990s, as did women artists of the Minjung art stream, Park Shineui reiterated that women’s issues are problems for all human beings. Park emphasized escaping the rigid equation of Yeoseong misul through the labor liberation movement and came up with some new suggestions and prospects.11 She suggested, in a brief summary, that Yeoseong misul and its organizations are still valid despite the changed situation in the 1990s and that they should pay attention to various developments of medium, breaking away from realism and from criticism of patriarchal ideology within the art world. Park was able to have a flexible attitude toward Yeoseong misul while being deeply involved in Minjung art, perhaps because she understood feminism in relation to postmodernism based on post-structuralist theories.

Kim Honghee has contributed to the development of Korean feminist art through writing critiques and curating exhibitions since the early 1990s, and, subsequently, her critique has had a great influence. She broadly divided Korean feminist art into two: Yeoseong misul, which was born from Minjung art, in the 1980s, and Yeoseongjuui misul (feminist art), which occurred in the context of postmodernism, in the early 1990s.12 Kim also divided Yeoseongjuui misul into two groups: those artists who developed their own styles practicing first Minjung and then “postmodernism art,” such as Yun Suknam and Jung Jungyeob, and those so-called new generation postmodern artists, who are not associated with Minjung art but solely benefited from postmodernism, such as Lee Bul and IUM; the latter led 1990s feminist art, according to Kim.13 She found that the full-fledged discussion of feminism began in 1992, when postmodernism began to take hold in Korea.14 She understood feminism and postmodernism as complementary cultural movements that reflected the zeitgeist, which was to embrace others (such as women) whom modernism had ignored.15 From this point of view, she accepts that the annual Women and Reality exhibition, organized by Yeomiyeon, was the “first feminist art movement in Korea” that was born naturally with a feminist consciousness.16 However, since the exhibition failed to capture the value of pluralism, it had no choice but to remain anti-modernist, not a full-fledged feminist art.17

Based on the position of supporting “deconstructive feminism,” developed in the West in the 1980s, Kim prefers the 1990s cultural feminism, which combined aesthetic maturity and cultural practice, rather than political activism. This position was also reflected in her evaluation of Yeomiyeon’s activities. Because the Women and Reality exhibition focused on gender classification, not gender discrimination, the latter of which she considered a more universal women’s problem, Kim called Yeomiyeon’s work not feminist art but “feminist Minjung art” or “contentious Yeoseong misul” and degraded its value.18 Considering her status as a feminist curator and critic, such a negative labeling has flattened and fixed the characteristics of Yeoseong misul, making access to and evaluation of various Yeoseong misul difficult for the next generation. In her 2003 article, Kim did not change her previous position significantly: she pointed out that Yeomiyeon failed to establish “feminist aesthetics or methodology to contribute to Yeoseong misul by uncritically imitating socialist realism, which was the official style of Minjung art,” and reiterated that the backbone of feminism was omitted and only the “-ism” is left in vain.19 Nevertheless, in the 1990s, Kim commented that some members of Yeomiyeon, including Yun Suknam, Ryou Junhwa, and the artists group Yipgim, were able to develop their work into feminism, because they boosted the postmodernist values of pluralism and decentralism and pioneered their own formative style beyond socialist realism.20

Meanwhile, Song Misuk, a first-generation Korean art historian and critic, completely denied the existence of feminist art in Korea in 1993. She said, “feminist art in Korea is far from being ready and has been treated as a trend in Western contemporary art history at best.”21 As artist groups that can be associated with feminism, Song mentioned, “there are only Korean WomenLink and Pyohyun Group (expression group), which was derived from the Minjung art circle.” Song did not assign much interest or significance to Yeoseong misul, as she was confused between Yeomiyeon and Korean WomenLink, a women’s rights activist organization that was formed in the same year.22

Art historian Oh Jinkyeong linked Yeoseong misul to the context of Minjung art and feminism and tried to find how it differed from the works of male Minjung artists, through a detailed analysis of female images produced by Yeomiyeon.23 Calling Yeoseong misul Yeoseongjuui art (feminist art), art historian Yun Nanjie also positively evaluated Yeoseong misul for providing a possibility to represent female subjectivity concretely. However, Yun perceives that Minjung art became the root of Yeoseong misul because the latter was born as part of the former. Therefore, feminist artists shared the senses of “socialism and nationalism” that Minjung artists pursued, and considering that these two ideologies are patriarchal discourses, the work of these feminist artists cannot help but fall into the irony of reproducing “another version of the male discourse.”24 As Yun argued, Yeoseong misul may have resulted in reproducing some of the patriarchal discourse, by being in solidarity with Minjung art; however, the purpose of formation and the main activity of Yeomiyeon were clearly to create a crack in the patriarchal discourse. Such a logical leap requires a more specific argument, because there is a risk of overlooking the specificity of Yeoseong misul and absorbing it again within the large boundaries of Minjung art.

In the 2000s, several young feminist researchers drew attention by sharply criticizing the existing criticism of Yeoseong misul mentioned above.25 They carefully organized and analyzed Yeoseong misul’s various activities and works, and they provided a new perspective from which to examine the complex relationship between Minjung art and Yeoseong misul. Among these studies, there is an interesting argument on the reasons for Yeoseong misul’s longtime failure to be incorporated into art history. Jung Pil Joo analyzed the reasons from three aspects, as follows: First, Yeoseong misul was not accepted as a feminist art history because it failed to develop feminist aesthetics by following Minjung art’s form, that is, realism, and this evaluation is based on Western feminist art theory. Second, Yeoseong misul was not recognized as Minjung art because the former accused the latter’s patriarchy and oppression of women. Third, Yeoseong misul was shunned by the mainstream art world not only because of its association with Minjung art, but also because of the mainstream Korean art communities’ resistance to artistic participation in social reality. In addition, Jung considered that political activism to transform women’s social reality disappeared from the art world of the 1990s; this change caused the disconnect between Yeoseong misul in the 1980s and feminist art in the 1990s, and the artists of the 1980s Yeoseong misul also disassociated themselves from the feminist artists of the 1990s, which led to the isolation of Yeoseong misul.26 These younger-generation art historians criticized the earlier generations’ serious errors in attempting to define Yeoseong misul based on the theory and practice of Western feminist art in the 1970s, without careful consideration of the regional and historical specificity of Korea’s Yeoseong misul in the 1980s. And while it is true that Yeoseong misul is related to Minjung art, Yeoseong misul is fundamentally feminism that practiced activism against male-centered culture via art (as Son Heekyung argues)27 and is a Korean feminist art that could not be reduced to either “female Minjung art” or Minjung art (as Jung Pil Joo argues).28

III. The exclusion of Yeoseong misul from Minjung art

1. Theory

While collecting Minjung art materials to understand what Yeoseong misul meant for Minjung art, first of all, I was surprised by the vast amount of data that could not be compared with feminism. This is because of the many critics who led abundant discussions over generations. Kim Yun-su and Won Dongseok led the discussion in the 1970s. In the 1980s, many critics continued the discussion, and they include, but are not limited to such male critics as Sung Wankyung, Choi Min, You Hongjune, Youn Bummo, Choi Youl, Ra Wonsik, Lee Taeho, Lee Youngchul, Lee Youngwook, Shim Kwanghyun, and Eom Hyeok and such female critics as Min Hyesook, Park Shineui, and Kang Sungwon. In 1988, young theorists formed Mibiyeon and supported more organized and systematic theories of Minjung art; critique flourished as a natural result. In the late 1980s, critics and theorists who systematically studied art theory in Korea began to emerge, and many of them participated in the production of Minjung art discourse. Their organizational support is not comparable to that of female artists, who had to pioneer an unfamiliar area of Yeoseong misul through self-learning, without consistent help of theorists.

Minjung art, however, was also scattered as individual practice, or in the form of local art, as the core of its movement had disappeared against the backdrops of the collapse of socialist regimes in the 1990s, the achievement of domestic democratization, and the arrival of the irresistible wave of postmodernism. With the rise of the so-called post-Minjung discourse in the 2000s, Minjung art of the 1980s has been re-examined and re-evaluated as the root of the post-Minjung generation. Yeoseong misul, however, has been reduced to and forgotten as one of many activities around Minjung art that made it richer and more universal. Art history’s recognition of artistic practice is through continuous interest, research, and evaluation through various channels, such as criticism, writing, and the exhibiting and collecting of works by public art museums. Yeoseong misul is being excluded from all of these areas. Here, I will analyze the theoretical basis and specific practice and process of this exclusion.

The core issue of Minjung art functions as a logical basis for excluding Yeoseong misul.29 As has been pointed out, Minjung art finally confirmed its position as an art movement in Korean art history, with full support of theorists.30 The role of theorists in the formation and development of Minjung art is very important. The main issues of Minjung art theory are largely concentrated in two areas: The first is the discussion of attitude and form, and the second is the subject of art. These two interlock like the front and rear wheels of a cart. Kim Yoon-Soo laid the theoretical basis for the first, and Won Dongseok Won Dongseok did so for the second. And their discussions lead to discussions of realism, ethnicity, and Minjung art in the 1980s.

Let us first take a look at the discussion of realism. Kim criticized the national exhibition and art of the 1960s, which favored abstract art and experimental art, as being far from our reality; therefore, he called for awareness of the social reality and a theory of realism in art.31 His realism became the cornerstone of various debates over “realism” after the launch of the group Reality and Speech, in 1979. Despite different opinions among theorists, realism in Minjung art is divided into “Critical Realism,” in the first half of the 1980s, and “Minjung (people’s) Realism,” in the second half (or divided into “ Factional Realism” and “Progressive Realism”).32 If Critical Realism refers to the practice of artists and intellectuals speaking critically about social reality through visual representation of the reality of ordinary citizens, such as the practices of Reality and Speech and Gwangjahyup, Minjung Realism, in contrast, developed based on the spirit of the artist groups Dureong and Imsulnyeon (The Year Imsul), both of which were formed in 1982 by paying attention to the partisanship of a particular class.

The Minjung art theorists shared the view that realism is more a matter of the attitudes and methods of facing social reality than a matter of style, but they emphasized the development of various expressions of forms and media as ways to reproduce reality.33 However, in the late 1980s, amid the rapidly changing domestic and foreign political situations that saw a fever for democratization and intense labor activism, the demand for field art increased. This period saw the expansion of various forms of art practiced outside a traditional gallery space—such as murals, banner paintings, cartoons, leaflets, flags, and funerary portraits. In particular, as the demand for geolgae paintings exploded, geolgae paintings became the most important visual medium of Minjung art in the late 1980s. At that time, geolgae paintings were produced to be hung at the site of democratic protests or cultural events by laborers on the orders of various social activist groups, so geolgae paintings are characterized by their large dimensions, dynamic composition, selected images, and vivid colors.34 Minjung Realism is considered to be the same as socialist realism, despite various theorists’ claims that Minjung Realism is not a style, because geolgae paintings served as propaganda and incitement for social transformation and the form of Minjung Realism is similar to that of socialist realism—the official style of art of socialist nations. Since the style of geolgae painting is socialist realism and geolgae painting was invented by Minjung art, the perception that socialist realism is the official style of Minjung art has become widespread. As a result, from this point of view, Minjung art did not contribute to the stylistic development of Korean art, because it followed the outdated style of socialist realism and, thus, effectively set itself apart from the history of mainstream art.

The second is the concept of minjok (the national people) and minjung (the people, or the public). Won Dongseok , who is known to have coined the term Minjung art, defined the concept of the subjectivity of Minjung art as “the art for the people, by the people, and of the people.”35 He suggested that “The substance of minjok is the minjung, and the subject of culture is also the minjung. The expression of the lively culture of minjok can only be made through creative activities by the subject, who becomes a minjung themselves.”36 In other words, as a realistic methodology to overcome the division between the subjects of art production and those of appreciation, Won suggested that “when an artist finds the common power of minjung, with the awareness of minjung and along with minjung, the artist becomes one of the minjung.”37 He emphasized artists’ activism through art, and this attitude leads to Critical Realism.

In the discourses of minjok and minjung, the concept of the subject moves from the issue of artists representing minjung, in the first half of the 1980s, to the stage of subjectifying the working class, in the second half. In the stream of Minjung artists, however, the subject of the production and practice of the metanarrative of minjok or minjung is premised on men, conceptually and realistically. Whether the movement is for the transformation of art (in the first half) or for social transformation (in the second half), women exist as assistants, mothers, or producers of the minjung. This patriarchal ideology is reflected in numerous works of art and geolgae paintings created by popular male artists.38

The Three Min Revolution—the revolutions of minju (democracy), minjok and minjung in the 1980s—targeted imperialism and capitalism, which are represented by the United States and South Korea’s military dictatorship, as the enemies. This main idea was naturally accepted by the Minjung art stream, and artists needed to form a strong and single identity to counter the main enemy.39 In order to carry out the revolution, identification of the enemy and comrades must be clear. Polyvalent voices were silenced, as they might break the internal solidarity. Small problems were reduced or suppressed for the sake of a greater purpose. In the Minjung art stream, “women’s problems” was one of the petty problems to be suppressed as a threat. Yeoseong misul focused on identifying the source of women’s oppression that had been deeply rooted in Korean society and expressed the reality that women faced directly and indirectly through art. Under the influence of the theories developed in the women’s social movement in the late 1980s and from the perspective of Marxist feminism, Yeomiyeon identified the private property system as the cause of women’s oppression that is based on gender and class. From this point of view, working-class women are trapped in a double oppression, and it seems that their liberation is impossible without the liberation of the entire working class. Therefore, cooperation with working-class men was considered more important than solidarity among women. Based on this theory, it seems that Yeoseong misul took the position of actively supporting or representing working-class women and expected cooperation and support from the Minjung art stream.

However, Kim Insoon, Kim Jinsook, and Yun Suknam, who contributed to the establishment of the Women’s Art Division within the National Art Association, uniformly testified that men in the Minjung art stream were not interested in women’s issues at all. In particular, Kim Insoon, who actively participated in the Minjung art movement as a representative of the Labour Art Association and the National Art Association, testified that this awareness was an important opportunity to form the Women’s Art Division within the National Art Association. Men were never friendly about the Women and Reality exhibition, according to her. In a recent interview, Kim said that men’s consciousness remains unchanged between then and now, and that male artists now believe that gender equality has been achieved; Kim was concerned about the risk of female artists who were active in the history of Minjung art disappearing, which she considered to be a bigger problem.40

Considering this situation, it is encouraging that Ra Wonsik, a critic and member of Dureong, produced an article summarizing Yeomiyeon’s activities. He describes his first encounter with Yeoseong misul with a confession: “I was invited to the party, but I hesitated because of the anxiety that I might become a pepper in the cabbage field.41 Then I went to the party with the feeling that a butterfly shouldn’t be afraid of the flower field.”42 The event he was invited to was a Women’s Culture Festival held by the Yeoseong pyeonguhoe (the association of women’s equality and friendship) in 1986, under the theme of working women. He was uncomfortable because he did not take this event as a cultural event for general social transformation but considered it as a special event only for “women.” Therefore, his article ended with the following gentle admonition:
If women’s liberation is not something that can take place overnight but something that needs to be steadily worked out, female artists should make lively strides here and there, making blood alliance with the female public’s lives and presenting their dreams, love, and desires. Even if the sexual contradiction, class contradiction, and ethnic contradiction are complexly intertwined, the fruits of small practices can be more valuable than long sermons(?) to the public.…”43

In a comparison with the above article with the one he wrote in 1985 about the creation of minjok and Minjung art, the difference in his thoughts on Yeoseong misul and minjok art is clearly revealed.
It is desirable that the contents of minjok art, such as themes, key topics, and materials, are found in the lives of me, you, and all of us based on the reality of the minjok. [...] Works that embody the Minjung aesthetic and sentiments—i.e., dreams and love, loyalty and recognition, anger and return, resistance and scream, regeneration and resurrection of the minjung, and even their views of life and the world—can be shaped through the artist’s own perspective and sentiment through integration with the minjung.44

Ra Wonsik asked female artists to pay attention to small changes and practices in their lives, while requiring them to encompass all human problems, from abstract and grand values to complex emotions, as a way to create minjok art and Minjung art. He differentiates between minjok art and Minjung art, which are public and universal, and Yeoseong misul, which is private and specific. This distinction is based on patriarchal thinking that divides the roles of male and female. In this view, minjok and Minjung art logically encompass all humans or become the domain of men, and Yeoseong misul is only meaningful as part of it.

In other words, Yeoseong misul is effectively separated into a special area within the framework of minjok and Minjung art, which seek universal and greater values; therefore, the existence of Yeoseong misul is recognized but is considered to be insignificant, unexpected, or non-contributive from the beginning. This attitude toward Yeoseong misul is not Ra’s personal view but one generally shared among the male figures in the Minjung art stream. This indifferent attitude and tendency to reduce Yeoseong misul unconsciously or consciously often appear in writings or exhibitions related to Minjung art put together after this period.

2. Writings

Choi Youl’s book Hanguk hyeondaemilsul undongsa (History of the Korean Contemporary Art Movement) is a representative book that summarizes Minjung art activities in the 1980s and is used as an important reference for researching Minjung art. The book covers Yeoseong misul in only one-quarter of its 396 pages, excluding the appendix. It covers the female painter collective Eonggeongkwi and Dungji, and here only a short description of Dungji is directly related to Yeoseong misul.45 In the description, Choi points out that Dungji has a clear direction but lacks theoretical sophistication, then suggests that, in order to elevate its independent status, Yeoseong misul needs “more strict principles and discipline” and, furthermore, “establishment of its own strategies and tactics.”46 Dungji is a geolgae painter collective organized by Kim Insoon and several members of Yeomiyeon. They formed the collective in order to avoid the military regime’s surveillance and oppression of individual artists and to effectively support activities in the field of activism. Their artworks created collaboratively were also exhibited at its annual exhibition as an important part of Yeoseong misul activities. Choi, however, mentions none of the basic information on Dungji, the activities of Yeomiyeon as part of the Yeoseong misul movement, or its annual exhibition. I agree that the Yeoseong misul movement should have established its own strategies and tactics, different from Minjung art, as Choi proposed. Female artists formed study groups and struggled to solve such problems on their own, without the help of theorists.47 If Yeoseong misul artists had established their own strategies and tactics that were clearly different from Minjung art, however, it is doubtful whether Yeoseong misul would have been accepted as Minjung art.

The reduction of Yeoseong misul is beyond serious, indeed ridiculous, in 15 Years of Minjung Art 1980–1994, the catalog of the first exhibition of Minjung art at a public art museum. Among the papers written by nine male authors, there are only three lines that refer to Yeoseong misul: “Yeoseong misul is becoming vibrant as the exhibition Yeoseong and Reality was held, and the artists Kwak Eunsook, Seo Sookjin, and Jeon Sung-sook joined to ‘walk the path together.’”48 You Hongjune added this comment as an appendix to his summary of the fifteen years of Minjung art. Members of Yeomiyeon refused to jump on the mainstream art scene and tried to secure the foundation for their creative activities through solidarity with Minjung art. In order to overcome the patriarchal consciousness, gender discrimination, and indifference to women’s issues in Minjung art, they repeatedly emphasized that women’s issues are not only the issues of women, but also of the entirety of humankind. They did not receive much response, however. It is hard to grasp the exact number of female artists who participated in the Minjung art movement, but there seemed to be many others besides the members of Yeomiyeon. In order for them to survive and be recognized in the Minjung art stream, they must have been forced to experience the confusion of identity and suffered from invisible pressure to choose an option among the binary options: either to erase their sexuality as women and actively participate in political and creative activities like men do, or to recognize the specialness of sexuality and continue their activities in separate spaces embracing indifference.

Making a strong voice for women’s liberation, Kim Insoon has constantly struggled to connect her artistic practice to the reality that female workers experienced by visiting the scenes of discrimination against female workers. Claiming that women’s liberation could not be achieved without the liberation of the working class, Kim formed Nomiwi (a contraction of Nodong misul wiwonhoe; hereafter, Labor Art Association), in 1990, leading the members of Dungji and combining Eonggeongkwi, and became the representative of the Nomiwi.49 Why did she not give up on the Labour Art Association even though her activities raised the question whether Yeoseong misul was over. I would like to understand her changed positions and roles as a change in her strategy, not as a giving up on Yeoseong misul. I think her choice was a strategy to reduce the limitations of Yeoseong misul within Minjung art and to draw women’s issues from an isolated space into a more open space, to receive a wide range of interest.50 Among the many paintings produced by the Labour Art Association, the series Sumida, a representative work of the Labour Art Association, depicts the struggles of the women’s labor union of the electric company located in Masan. In addition, in collaboration with Yeomiyeon and the Korean Women Workers Association, the Labour Art Association produced ninety-eight slide films on women’s history to promote women’s liberation and continued to participate in the Women and Reality exhibitions until 1994, when the exhibition was dismantled. Such activities are evidence of the increased interest in women’s issues.

In the 2000s, a younger generation of theorists published studies that newly evaluate Minjung art, from different perspectives and methodologies than the older generation, who experienced the Minjung art movement.51 While their research topics, perspectives, and methodologies have diversified, the subject of their research tends to focus on a specific group or a small number of artists. Most of the recent studies are focused on artists of Reality and Speech, or Gwangjahyup, who were active in the first half of the 1980s. They include Oh Yoon, Lim Oksang, and Hong Sungdam, who became star artists featured in several exhibitions, and Lee Jonggu and Hwang Jaihyoung, the members of the artist collective Imsulnyeon. Oh Yoon, in particular, who pioneered Minjung art as a member of Reality Group (Hyeonnsil dongin) and died at a young age, was spotlighted in the exhibition Minjung Art 15 Years 1980–1994 and became mythicized as a legendary artist of Minjung art. I believe that the myth-creation around a modern artist influenced subsequent studies.

A certain group of artists who were active in the first half of the 1980s tends to receive the most attention, and this is because of the differences in aspirations and use of medium between the Minjung artists who were active in the early 1980s vs. those who were active in the later 1980s. As mentioned above, the early 1980s was led by Critical Realism, in which intellectuals and artists voiced sharp criticism about the contradictory social reality of capitalism while maintaining an objective distance from it. They prioritized individual artists’ works over collective efforts. In contrast, the second half of the 1980s was classified as Popular Realism, in which artists focused on supporting activities in the field, such as getting into the lives of the minjung and revealing their reality in art or inviting the working class into the artmaking. Therefore, such mediums as geolgae paintings, murals, cartoons, and funerary portraits were developed and used, as they were appropriate media for such activities in the field.

Geolgae paintings, in particular, emerged as a major medium as demand for them increased after the June 1987 uprising. Such media were not originally designed for permanent preservation, and most of them were produced in a short time, on request, on-site. Therefore, these media required contents suitable for the purpose of the event and repeatedly used a specific format that could draw public attention. In addition, most of the geolgae paintings were lost or went missing as they were loaned to various events, and some works were permanently destroyed by the state authority, so only a few original works remain. Research on the media of Minjung art, not individual artists, tends to focus on geolgae paintings and prints. This research mainly examines Dureong—who developed the form of geolgae painting—or its relationship with tradition, and the activities of the painter collective Dungji or Miyal are rarely mentioned.52 In the history of Minjung art, Minjok Haebang Undongsa (The History of the Liberation of the minjok) was considered as the climax of the development of geolgae paintings, and other geolgae paintings were discussed in relation to Minjok Haebang Undongsa.53
Previous research tended to focus on the works of certain individual artists, and this research was based on the assessment that the collective achievements of Minjung art in the late 1980s did not contribute to art history, due to excessive political activism and a failure to develop new aesthetics. Here, we cannot help but ask whether we have not yet overcome the long custom of art history that considers art as an object and that tries to capture the illusion of time and space embedded in the object.54 Minjung art was influential because it was made through the numerous artists’ practice that existed and through the works of artistic creation that still exist today

; therefore, it was a threat to the preexisting art ecology. Unless such practice and process are integrated as part of art, an important part of Minjung art will be forgotten over time, and, eventually, only a “taxidermied” form of art will remain.55 It is very fatal for Yeoseong misul that the history of Minjung art is described mainly by several representative male artists and art objects. Yeoseong misul started in the late 1980s, when the Minjung art movement shifted its focus to collective activities to support the field and group activities rather than individual artists’ creations. Therefore, Yeoseong misul was never free from such a changed situation. Many works of Yeoseung misul—including the works by individual artists in the Women and Reality exhibition; geolgae paintings, the whereabouts of most of which are now unknown; cartoons by the cartoonist collective Miyal; slide films to provide women’s history; and illustrations in the booklet Great Mother—do not fit within the scope of traditional artistic objects. This is because female artists were never allowed to be in a central position in Minjung art in the field of theory and practice. Works that do not fit in the format of gallery exhibitions have disappeared. Thus they could only play a supporting role at the center of Minjung art at that time and could never be given a chance to be the subject of history.

3. Exhibition

Yeoseong misul is also marginalized in most exhibitions related to Minjung art, as these exhibitions feature only a few artists. The exhibition Minjung Misul 15 Years 1980–1994, held at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea, in 1994, was the first exhibition that displayed Minjung art—which had suffered various hardships, such as confiscation and destruction of artworks and arrest of artists—at the national art museum, and it was seen as a sign of change in the exhibition administration of the civilian regime. Thanks to the media’s intensive reporting that well promoted Minjung art to the public audience, tens of thousands of audience members visited the exhibition, and, at this time, Oh Yoon, Shin Hak-cheol, and Lim Ok-sang emerged as Minjung stars. The exhibition, however, received numerous critiques in the art world for having announced the end of Minjung art; thus the exhibition was called “the grave of Minjung art.” Won Dongseok Won Dongseok harshly criticized the exhibition, arguing that it revealed a lack of exhibition planning, without a reflection on the spirits and aesthetics of Minjung art, and that it was no different from institutional art, because it strived to create Minjung stars and fixed the perception of Minjung art as political art.56 Using the expression used in the art world, Sung Wan-kyung emphasized that the exhibition was an “event” and that it is time to, as a historical task, interpret and evaluate Minjung art.57 Yoon Jin-seop, on the other hand, commented that the exhibition meant the symbolic death of the political avant-garde through the literary movement, and that Minjung art turned itself into a “historic avant-garde” because it entered the path of institutionalization.58

The report by Choi Tae-man, the curator of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea, documented not only the intention and process of the exhibition, but also the friction not only among the people involved, but also in the selection of works. The report gives us a glimpse into the uneasy process of curating the exhibition. According to the report, Yeoseong misul was originally excluded from the exhibition planning and was added during the adjustment process, along with such areas as labor, education, and cartoons. This process seems to be a natural result when looking at the composition of staff involved in the exhibition.59 Most of the advisory, administrative, and curatorial committee members appointed for the exhibition were artists and critics of the Minjung art stream, and the only woman among them was Park Rhai Kyoung (publicity committee), who was the head curator of the museum at the time. The exhibition categorized the period of fifteen years from 1980 to 1994 into three parts: the formation, proliferation, and achievements of Minjung art. Yeoseong misul was included in the second stage, titled “Organization of the Nation-Wide Artist Organizations and the Proliferation of the Art Movement (1985–1989).”

It may be reasonable to include Yeoseong misul in the second part of the period, 1985 to 1989; however, it is a significant categorization error to combine “women” with geolgae paintings, murals, art education, daily art, engraving, photography, and cartoons. With a selection of the members of Yeomiyeon including Kim Yong-rim, Kim In-soon, Kim Jong-rye, Seo Sukjin, Yun Suknam, Jeon Sung-Suk, Jung Jung Yeob, and Jo Gyeong-suk, Yeoseung misul was exhibited as equivalent to certain mediums or sub-genres. As a result, Yeoseong misul was placed in an ambiguous position where each artist and their work were fragmented and scattered around, without having a clear voice, not as a feminist art that raised the issue of the male-centrism that Minjung art ignored. From the first moment when Minjung art was officially incorporated into art history, Yeoseong misul was presented as one of several activities that could not be ignored but that did not contribute much to Minjung art. A more serious problem is that this exhibition became a crucial factor in making Minjung art the art of Korea in the 1980s, and it has been a model for many subsequent exhibitions related to Minjung art, affecting the composition of exhibitions and selection of artists.

In the same year, Minjung art was introduced as a major trend in Korean art at Across the Pacific: Contemporary Korean and Korean American Art, the exhibition co-curated by Jane Farver of Queens Museum of Art in New York and Lee Youngchul of Korea that was held in New York and Seoul. Among the twelve Korean artists, five were male Minjung artists, and Yun Suknam and Yeesookyung were invited as women artists.60 The exhibition selected male artists whose work revealed their strong political inclinations and, in contrast, female artists whose work pursued culturally filtered feminist art that did not reveal a strong political color. This exhibition served as a rudder when Minjung art was displayed in public art museums, in three ways: Minjung art and its political color are represented by men; Minjung art exhibitions display individual artists’ works of art; and the aesthetic characteristics are important.61

Meanwhile, the National Art Association published a book called Minjok Misul ’94, in 1994. The purpose of the publication was to keep a record of the “overall picture of the National Art Association,” including the members who were not selected for the exhibition Minjung Misul 15 Years, 1980–1994.62 This publication is a valuable resource to see images of work by members of the Association who are no longer active in the art scene. The book contains short explanations and photographs of minjok art, the labor movement, the women’s movement, and the mural movement. It provides a list of twenty-two members of Yeomiyeon, including the critic Min Hye-sook; its founding mission; and a brief description of its activities. The problem is that the name Yeoseong misul, used by the artists of Yeomiyeon, disappeared and the women’s movement replaced Yeoseong misul and blurred its identity. The exhibition in which Minjung art was introduced abroad on a large scale was Art Toward the Society; Realism in Korean Art 1945–2005.63 Co-organized by the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea, and eight Japanese galleries, and touring five Japanese galleries in 2007–2008, this exhibition was similarly curated to the 1994 exhibition, with the addition of young artists who inherited the awareness of Critical Realism of Minjung art. Although Kim In-soon’s work and the Labour Art Association’s series of geolgae paintings Sumida were included, it is still hard to say that the exhibition was different in composition from the previous exhibitions, as most of the works displayed were by members of Reality and Utterance or by male Minjung artists who were active in the first half of the 1980s.

IV. Conclusion

When Yeoseong misul first became known to the public through newspapers and art magazines in the late 1980s, it was explained in the context of feminism. As discussed in this paper, critique and theoretical research on Yeoseong misul were conducted entirely by women, whether they were feminist or not. They consistently evaluated that Yeoseong misul shared a foundation with Minjung art and has carried out art activities in a very close relationship with Minjung art. The prevailing view is that Yeoseong misul was in a partnership with Minjung art, which is why it has lost the opportunity to develop more independently. It is expected that, if Yeoseong misul had developed its own way, without maintaining solidarity with Minjung art, Korean feminist art could have developed in a more desirable direction from an early period. Unfortunately, because it is related to Minjung art, Yeoseong art remains a half-feminist art and is still considered to be disconnected from rather than connected to feminist art in the 1990s.

Yeoseong misul is understood in different ways within the Minjung art stream, however. The Minjung art stream tends to take a dual attitude toward Yeoseong misul: as a group and as individual members of it. Individual female artists are indispensable to elevate Minjung art into a universal Minjung movement led by both men and women. However, when Yeoseong misul appears as a group that raises women’s issues, it is subject to oppression because it divides Minjung art. In other words, women who practice Yeoseong misul in the Minjung art stream can be recognized as individual artists and become close comrades, but as a group, they become a threat. Therefore, from the perspective of Minjung art, Yeoseong misul should not share half of Minjung art, but should be non-Minjung art. In becoming so, Minjung art can become a universal and deficient art movement. For the same reason, Yeoseong misul is being forgotten even within Minjung art. Although the existence of Yeoseong misul is reduced to the level in which exhibitions related to Minjung art insert only one or two female artists into the show, Yeoseong misul is certainly never something that Minjung art can silence or erase. That is the achievement of Yeomiyeon’s female artists, who constantly have raised their voices in cooperation with Minjung art.

A more serious problem is that, as the proportion of Yeoseong misul in Minjung art decreases, the effect is evident in the mainstream art-historical publications that discuss the historiography of Korean modern art. Yeoseong misul is not mentioned at all in the section on Minjung art. It is described in the section on feminist art, which is either treated as part of postmodernism or not mentioned at all. In order to correct the phenomenon that Yeoseong misul is being forgotten in the history of Korean modern art, continuous production of discourse is absolutely necessary. It is meaningless to repeat the existing perspective. For new studies of Yeoseong misul, we need the perspectives of both feminism and Minjung art, as well as discussions on the problem of feminism being absorbed into postmodernism.

Last, the fact that research on Yeoseong misul has centered on Yeomiyeon’s collective activities should also be reconsidered. This is because Yeoseong misul did not exist at first as a movement but was embodied through the thoughts, activities, and works of individual artists who formed Yeomiyeon. Although they are few in number, there are previous studies on the analysis of works on Yeoseong misul. I would like to note that, due to space limitations and in order to focus on the serious problem that Yeoseong misul was not properly evaluated and was forgotten, this paper could not include more specific activities of female artists. It is also very important that Yeoseong misul found and developed the agenda of art in close connection with the women’s movement in the 1980s, which was not covered in detail in this article. I conclude this article by leaving these problems for future research projects on Yeoseong misul.

Translated by Vicki Sung-yeon Kwon