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Art genres are employed to stress a definite understanding of seminal historical events, which, in this case, represents the Korean War and its aftermath. Art and war qualify as opposing poles of history and society in which the creative challenges the destructive and the human is compared to the inhuman. Art can be regarded as a valuable vehicle to reflect and construct collective and individual identities, cultural norms, state hegemony and social structure. The paper concentrates on three art genres: painting, sculpture and movie, and examines how the Korean War represents two divergent perceptions. Largely, the art forms convey the theme of freedom based on the creator’s political orientation. The Picasso painting on Korean War confronts America’s super-hero figure during Korean War and exposes the idiocy of war, especially in curtailing freedom. The paper investigates how freedom is articulated and transformed in the diverse art spheres based on the processes of productions, performances, compositions and consumptions. The paper avails an in-depth and scholarly analysis of the theme of freedom during the Korean War, taking into consideration the diverse, and often contrasting, points of view that characterized the war. As a result, it is helpful to consider other components: the ideological drift typifying the Koreas and the question of their unification. The essay investigates how the theme of freedom is maintained, negotiated and pursued, as well as how various art genres depict the helplessness, alienation and triumph during the war.

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‘Freedom’ The Case of Korean War: Two Divergent Perceptions

Introduction

Art represents a powerful instrument of transformation and representation. Art exploits the ready-made narratives refined from history, which silence rather than question the status quo (Brandon, 2007). There are diverse perceptions as to what the Korean conflict represents. In different literature sources, the Korean conflict represents the Korean War (1950-1953). However, the world conflict can also be employed to embody the current situation in which the two states are in a conflict, as opposed to a full-blown war. The physical barriers between North and South Korea, coupled with the occasional outbreaks of naval skirmishes serve as a constant reminder of the emotional scars of the Korean War period. The resultant physical isolation and political diatribe have greatly influenced the psychic state of the Korean people.

The polarized political and ideological conflict and the resultant civilian strife gave a platform for artists to illuminate the war and its atrocities. South Korea and North Korea art forms and genres heavily subscribe to historical and cultural context and setting. The paper will assess how the theme of freedom is illuminated in North and South Korea genres referencing the Korean War. The paper will examine three art forms regarding the Korean War based on the perspective of an outsider (Pablo Picasso). The other art genres selected for analysis include the Taegukgi war movie and North and South Korea War monuments (bronze statutes). The paper postulates that the North and South Korean artworks are dull and lacking artistic value, as an outcome of lack of creative inspiration. The analysis of North and South Koreas illustrates that both the democratic South and the authoritarian North exploit sculptures for propaganda (Kwon & Chung, 2012). The monuments function as a tool for political manipulation and cultural propaganda intended to legitimate the supremacy of the existing ideology. The other evocative art genres explored in the essay encompasses a Picasso painting, Massacre in Korea. Picasso exploits diverse techniques, both chromatic and formal to generate the impression of civilian strife and the lack of freedom as an outcome of the war.

The Korean War: An Overview

The Korean War was preceded by the collapse of the Japanese empire after the end of the Second World War. Korea separated into two countries in 1945 following the surrender of Japan (the occupying force). The US and the Soviet Union agreed to divide Korea, albeit temporarily, along the 2.5 km wide demilitarized zone. The early accounts of the Korean War centered on the events starting with the North Korean invasion of South Korea, which formed part of Soviet Union’s global conquest. The Korean War between the North and South Korea armies started in June 1950 and stopped in July 1953 with the front line serving as the de facto boundary between North and South Korea. During the war over two million Koreans perished, in which majority of the victims were from North (Cumings, 2011).

The outbreak of the hostilities within the Korean peninsula represented the first open conflict in the Cold War era. Although, the allies never intended the partition to be permanent, the two entities eventually evolved into distinct Korean states guided by contrasting ideologies (Stueck, 2010). South Korea is considered a triumph of capitalism and democracy, while North Korea is regarded as a failure, since it supports the outdated and morally low notion of communism (Cumings, 2011). South Korea represents a Republic country with a presidential system of government in which the president is directly elected by a popular vote. The interactions between Koreas have remained at a low level since the end of the brutal war, especially given that both Koreas technically remain at war. Indeed, reconciliation and unification appear improbable now, when six decades have passed.

Artistic Identity and Aesthetic Theories

Artistic identity theories highlight sets of perspectives regarding certain philosophical questions and assumptions on art and esthetic categories. For instance, feminist perspectives inquire the manner, in which gender influences the formation of ideas on art, artists and artistic value. Feminists concentrate on the cultural influences, especially the way art mirrors and perpetuates the social formation of gender, identity and sexuality. The formalist theory of art, on the other hand, holds that art analysis should spotlight the formal properties of art (including color, shape, visual arts and line) and not necessarily the content. In addition, formalists highlight the centrality of various elements, including representation, narrative and content in the appreciation and understanding of art (Hanson, 2013). The theories of art illuminate discussions on the nature of art, its potential in transforming political act and the utility of art within the society (Lewis & Lewis, 2009). Juche art is expected to be revolutionary, nationalistic and people-oriented and packed with socialist content. As such, Juche art blends visuals with ideology. Principally, the North and South Korean art referencing the Korean War, as a larger system of cultural production, is propelled by politics rather than the ideals of beauty. The following genres exploit the power of the arts in expressing a historical, political and cultural vision of people. The artists utilize unpredictable creativity of the arts so that to flourish freely and exert unique contribution in the society (Hanson, 2013).

Genre 1: Korean War Painting by Pablo Picasso

Massacre in Korea represents a 1951 expressionistic painting by Pablo Picasso measuring 110×210 cm. The artwork explores the connection between expressionism and the experience of war. The painting is perceived as criticism of American intervention in the Korean War. The painting portrays the 1950 Sinchon mass murder allegedly perpetrated by North Korea, American forces and South Koreans (Stitt, 2009). The painting, which features a palette of green, gray and yellow colors, illustrates civilians being murdered by anti-communist forces. In the painting, Picasso appears to suggest that America’s attempt to adopt that role in the Korean War yielded more harm than good. It seems that Picasso wanted to send the message that Americans do not have to involve in all global conflicts, since sometimes staying out of the conflict can equally be as effective as intervention.
Massacre in Korea by Picasso

Source: Picasso’s political identity (Stitt, 2009).

There are three prominent rhetorical elements in the painting, namely: the use of color, the appeal to pathos and the allocation of the figures in the painting. In his picture, Picasso strategically situated the victims within a disordered, defenseless composition that lacks a well-defined shape, while the aggressors are situated in an organized, neat square and are ostensibly safeguarded by their formation (McNeese & Picasso, 2006). The painting features a compositional partition of men and women into geometry-shaped groups, in which the weakly defined shape delineates female and children victims, while the strong square represents the aggressive male soldiers (Stitt, 2009). The fire and the ruins in the background prefigure the massacre and describe the divisions caused by the Korean War, especially the destruction from the war. The geometry of the background is employed to signify belonging, whereby the soldiers are meant to stand out as highly divorced from the scenery.

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Interestingly, none of the soldiers has a penis, which implies the transformation of masculinity into weapons of murder and intimidation. The soldiers have swapped their penises for their guns in their capacity as destroyers of life. Consequently, the soldiers castrated themselves and robbed the world of the next generation of human life. Picasso borrows compositional elements and motifs from other popular paintings, such as Goya’s The Third of May (1808). Picasso effectively contrasts the soft, nude femininity (martyrs) against the machine-like, naked masculinity (brutes). Picasso’s exploitation of nudity highlights the aggression of the men in connection with the passivity of the women (Stitt, 2009). After the end of the Korean War, the painting was withdrawn from publication in South Korea and Japan. The American feared that the painting could entrench the notion of American violence directed at the innocent Koreans. Overall, it can be said that Picasso delivered anti-war message and highlighted the value of freedom in times of crises. The Picasso’s account is insightful and relevant in Korea’s political discourse.

Genre 2: Korean War Sculptures

Largely, the Korean art features a dramatization of history intended to fashion a historical narrative, giving life to an idealized reality for both Koreas. Indeed, the North and South Korean art relating to the Korean conflict preserves the collective memory, despite concentrating on ideology rather than aesthetics. Monuments, as a form of public art, can be employed to educate people on history, as well as commemorating events that the community considers important. Ultimately, monuments are employed to inform a community’s understanding of events, while fostering a certain interpretation of an event. Towards the end of the Korean War, both Koreas entrenched nationalistic mythologies with reference to the war, which inspired the erection of monuments to memorialize events surrounding the war and honoring the war heroes. The monuments in both North and South Korea are intended to commemorate significant historical events, while conveying political ideals (Kingston, 2014). Although, the bulk of the monuments in North and South Korea may be geared towards educating the citizens on past events or figures, the sculptures convey crucial ideological messages, as well.

The North and South Korea war monuments exploit variant means to portray the Korean War. For instance, the war monument in Seoul, South Korea, features a hypothetical historic “reunion of two brothers.” The taller, larger and older figure represents a South Korean soldier, while the shorter, smaller and younger figure represents a North Korean combatant. The statute illustrates a scene in which a family’s oldest son (representing a South Korean soldier) and his younger brother (representing a North Korean soldier) meet on a battlefield. The hug expresses the feelings of freedom, love, forgiveness and reconciliation (Kingston, 2014). The bronze sculpture illuminates the hopes for reunification and sends the message that South Korean is above the subservient North.

The Two Brothers Reunion
Source: Memorializing the Korean War (Kwon & Chung, 2012).

The Victory Monument
Source: Memorializing the Korean War (Kwon & Chung, 2012)

The second bronze sculpture titled “Monument to Victorious War” in Pyongyang, North Korea, celebrates Korean War’s exploits in “defending independence and freedom of the country.” The symbols or archetypes employed in the bronze sculpture convey messages regarding what traits or virtues citizens should possess (Kingston, 2014). Moreover, the sculpture expresses who the heroes of the war were, and North Korea’s official accounts of the war implying that the Korean War was considered as a reason of imperialist aggression.

Genre 3: Movie Taegukgi

The Korean War has been illuminated in several documentary and feature films within the US, China and North and South Korea. Some of the films validate their nation’s involvements within the conflict with their own account of nationalism and individual heroism. Other films trivialize the real content of the war in quest of commercial and political success for them. The great amount of films tends to treat the war as an unavoidable and impersonal clash of ideologies within the context of the Cold War, instead of a lived experience of individual participants (Kim, 2005). The Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War represents a 2004 South Korean war film that narrates the story of two brothers Jin-Seok (Won Bin) and Jin-Tae (Jang Dong-gun) experiencing the catastrophe of the Korean War, and their fortitude to find each other despite the numerous trials. The brothers were forcibly conscripted into the South Korean army at the onset of the Korean War (Kehr, 2004). The film exposes the double tension that runs through the Korean War: the psychological rivalry between the brothers (whose rift in some ways embodies those of actual Korean families torn apart by the war) and the physical battle between North and South Korea.

The film follows the varying battle fronts during the first years of war and illustrates the daily horrors of battle as the brothers struggle to survive in the middle of the dehumanizing insanity and brutality of the war. Jin-Tae finds out that the only means to send Jin-Seok home is to win a medal of honor and request for the release of his brother from duty (Kehr, 2004). Both sides (North and South Korea soldiers) commit atrocities until the brothers are incapable of stopping the murder of Jin-Tae’s fiancé by the South Korea’s soldiers. At some point in the war, its brutality makes Jin-Tae think to fight for the North troops, but the decision to switch sides does not last long as he realizes that his family may suffer from it.

Overtime, Jin-Tae becomes a war hero and gains notoriety for mercilessly executing the enemy combatants. Jin-Tae’s war exploits are recognized by his superiors, and Jin-Tae is awarded a medal of honor. However, Jin-Tae’s superiors fail to rescue Jin-Seok, who, in turn, becomes increasingly frustrated with the barbarism of the war. Based on the movie, it is apparent that family matters most to the brothers and that the country and ideology mean nothing to both of them. The film can be considered as a realistic rendition of a civil war within which the borders between good and evil gradually disappear. The final sacrifice made by the brothers reestablishes the balance; however, reconciliation and peace still remain only a dream. Some of the themes dominating the film include strong sense of family, the limiting of freedoms in times of crises or war and the desire for unification amongst Koreans (Kehr, 2004).

The film overly relies on coincidences and is highly melodramatic to the extent that the performance of the characters sometimes appears overwrought and too emotional. Nonetheless, the movie Taegukgi raises several broad questions on how contradictory was the rationale of the war that destroyed family relationships, the society and the nation. The movie exposes the arbitrariness of the “enemy” concept based on the experience of the war. Since the movie treats the war with political ambivalence and rejects simple moralization, Taegukgi stimulates debates and discussion relating to the context of the event and its process and consequences. Indeed, Taegukgi avails a fresh look at the war based on the Korean perspective and rewards the audience with relatable themes and emotional excitement.

Conclusion

Art can be conceived as a tool of power or a catalyst for human needs influencing how people feel, see and understand daily life. Indeed, art transform the images into reality. The interpretation of art is mainly fluid and conditioned by the perspective and context. Largely, historical texts tend to stress the ideological, social and economic differences between the two Koreas, principally in terms of identity. The North and South Korean art regarding the Korean War can be conceived as a central element in the totalizing cultural production and demonstrating that “freedom is never free.” Current essay revisited the Korean War with the goal of exposing and replacing the myths with the present realities of a no longer-forgotten conflict. The public art, particularly in the totalitarian North Korea, plays the role of a propaganda tool.

The outlined art genres expose the reality of Korean War and illuminate the political, social and economic situations within North and South Korea. The movie, Taegukgi, illustrates the frustrating and horrible reality of the Korean War that manipulated the values and norms of ordinary people and ultimately defeated the initial goal of reuniting families and the nation. In the course of the fight, the bond and freedom of the brothers is tested, refined and memorialized in a country that is deeply divided by political ideology. The brothers, against all trials, manage to surmount the mistrust and misunderstanding between themselves, since the brothers’ allegiance remains rooted in the family. It leaves hope that the reunification of the two Koreas may one day become a reality.

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