The Artist in Post-1990s Korean Literature
Up to the 1990s, the artist in Korean literature is most commonly portrayed as a tortured intellectual struggling to address the problems of the time. The history of this portrayal is closely related to the development of modern Korean literature. The modern Korean writer first emerged under Japanese occupation, wherein this singularly specific set of conditions led writing to become directly associated with resistance. Writers were not just creative artists but intellectuals in the tradition of Enlightenment thinkers, concerned with the problems of Korean society under Japanese occupation as well as more philosophical matters. Of course, there are variations in different works, but from the viewpoint of literary history, the artist-as-intellectual is the most commonly repeated depiction of artists up to the 1990s.
The 1990s saw a radical departure from this, however. The democratic revolution of the 1980s ushered in a token democracy, and the ensuing breakneck speed of economic and technological development meant that Korea was already on its way to becoming a post-industrial society. These changes were felt in direct and indirect ways in Korean literature. Portrayals of writers, artists, and musicians with different values than the traditional intellectual began to crop up, and the 2000s saw the rise of “creatives” working in relatively new media such as film, performance art, or the video game industry.
At the forefront of this new portrayal of the artist in post-1990s Korean literature are Shin Kyung-sook, Han Kang, Kim Young-ha, and Im Young-tae. The artist as depicted by these writers breaks away from the Enlightenment mold of the past. Shin Kyung-sook’s protagonist in The Girl Who Wrote Lonliness (1995), an autobiographical work, is a writer. Shin’s protagonist, however, differs considerably from the Enlightenment intellectuals of yore. She moves to Seoul from the countryside to work in a factory, and shows markedly different tendencies than her night school teacher and her second-oldest brother, both tortured intellectuals. Her older brother, a democracy activist, and her night school teacher, who focuses on the social role of literature, fall within the category of the socially conscious intellectual. The narrator, however, ascribes meaning to the act of writing itself. To write is an act of self-expression for her, not a means to something else. In this sense, the protagonist of The Girl Who Wrote Lonliness embodies the rise of a new kind of artist in Korean literature whose self is reconstructed through his or her narrative identity.
Han Kang has published a number of works featuring artist protagonists over her career, from such earlier works as the novel Black Deer (2005) and the short story “Mongolian Mark” (2005) to the more recent Leave Now, the Wind Is Blowing (2010). In Black Deer, the protagonist prefers to paint murals inside of mines rather than participate in the institutionalized art world. The artist is driven to the edge in search of a raw beauty that is absent in institutionalized art. This motif is repeated in “Mongolian Mark.” The protagonist is a photographer who dreams of photographing his sister-in-law in the nude. In scenes that put aesthetic desire over and against everything forbidden in society, Han’s own aesthete personality takes center stage. Likewise, the artist protagonist of Leave Now, the Wind Is Blowing pursues hidden clues with the force of one determined to bring the truth to light. The creatives in Han Kang’...