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positions: east asia cultures critique 14.2 (2006) 495-525

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Japanese-Korean Exchange within the Proletarian Visual Arts Movement

Translated by Brian Bergstrom

The proletarian arts movement grew active as the contradictions inherent in the capitalist society then forming began to rise to the surface, emerging in its truest form in both Japan and Korea starting in the 1920s. The movement, which at first centered primarily on the literary arts, grew to encompass a variety of disciplines, including theater, cinema, and the visual arts. While the development of the proletarian arts movements in Japan and Korea proceeded according to the specificities of each country's situation, a new tendency toward international alliance emerged starting around 1930, taking as its foundation the statement "the proletarian class is not a class separated into nations, but rather an international class," which led to efforts toward joint struggle in both countries. Within the context of the proletarian movement, Japanese and Korean people could separate themselves from the relation of colonizer to colonized and unite in their shared [End Page 495] objective to "smash the bourgeois class and Japanese imperialism." However, this attempt at alliance cannot be said to have been a success. The reason lies in the fact that even as cooperation was proclaimed, there were subtle differences between the two movements' aims, which can be traced quite simply to the Japanese failure to fundamentally comprehend the viewpoint of Koreans living under colonial rule.

Previous research focusing on the proletarian arts movement in Korea has neglected to acknowledge such Japanese-Korean cooperation, emphasizing instead the elements of ethnic nationalism or anti-Japanese struggle in the movement. With the exception of projects associated with a few museums such as the Kurashiki Municipal Museum of Fine Art and the Otaru Museum of Fine Art, almost no research into proletarian art has been done in Japan. For a long time, the dominant view held that proletarian art had such "low artistic value that there was no value in discussing it." Conversely, in Korea proletarian art is treated as a vitally important part of modern art history. One can point to a number of studies done there, including Pak Yeongtaek's A Study of the Proletarian Arts Movement before and after the 1930s and the Post-Liberation Leftist Art Movement1 and Choi Yeol's The History of Modern Arts Movements in Korea.2 Pak's work is a frank consideration of the limitations and social meaning of the proletarian arts movement in Korea, and its frequent citations in subsequent studies of Korean art attests to the prominence accorded to proletarian art in Korea. Choi's book places the proletarian arts movement within the larger current of ethnic nationalist arts movements in Korea, creating connections between that and the People's Art (minjung misul) movement that flowered in the 1980s, a move that stresses the connection between the pro-democracy movement and the latter arts movement in order to highlight the ways in which "art" itself could be seen as a social movement. Choi performed no small feat of research in his project, assiduously combing Korean newspapers and magazines and assembling an extensive contribution to the archive available to study Korean modern art movements. As someone who was active himself in the pro-democracy movement, his commitment to treating the proletarian arts movement as a social movement was that much higher. Pak, whom I mentioned previously, was also of the generation that experienced these pro-democracy struggles, and it may not be too much to say that the great [End Page 496] interest in proletarian arts in Korea can be traced to this generation made up of people who took part in the pro-democracy movements that intensified so sharply in the 1980s.

There are, however, two problematic aspects one can see in the research done by Pak and Choi. One is the lack of examination of actual proletarian art pieces, and the other is a general indifference to exploring the exchanges that occurred with the Japanese movement. Due to damage...


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