The Granite Tower
Release the Standing Water—Exploring the Cartel Structure of the Korean Art Scene
Kim Ha Young, Kim Ji Won  |,
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승인 2016.09.29  23:25:30
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Although things have changed, art is something that has been quite far away from everyday life since history. Whether it stems from people’s consumption characteristics or their busy lifestyles—art, especially pure art, is considered a high-end culture. This is in fact a right interpretation of the pure art community somehow, as it is run by a selected few from the past. A political cartel structure surely seems to exist within the Korean art community. Mainstreamers and non-mainstreamers are clearly seen, including the new rise of the artainers. Whether there will be a solution to this problem is open to debate.

Standing water easily spoils. Before Bartomeu Mari Ribas, the chairman of the International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art (CIMAM), became the head of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA), there had been a series of events regarding the closed Korean art community. The previous head of the MMCA was accused of collecting artworks and hiring employees by unfair means of school ties. His denunciation has led to a criticism of the cartel structure prevalent within the Korean art community. 

The Cartel Structure Within the Korean Art Community 
A cartel structure, or a closed society, can be a problem in any area or profession. In the case of the art community, the problem can be quite serious. Art has its roots in creativity and openness. A closed art community can disturb the diversity of art and prevent new artists from entering the scene. This will eventually prevent the growth of the field itself and may lead to a loss of talented artists. However, currently a distinctive cartel structure seems to remain steadfast in the Korean art community. 

Artist duo Mioon’s recent work Art Solaris reveals this cartel structure. Art Solaris is a project started with the purpose of taking a broader view of the overall art society that the artist duo have been involved in for 14 years. It is a data network of the Korean art community consisting of nodes and lines. In Art Solaris, each node is an individual. When two individuals in the art community create two or more events, they appear in Art Solaris and are connected with a line. As the events between the two individuals increase in number, the line becomes shorter and thicker—this means that the two people share many aspects together, be it artistic perspective or any other similarities. 
▲ Media artist duo Mioon showing their work Art Solaris. Provided by

This is an important component of the project since it reveals the lack of diversity within the art community. Art Solaris demonstrates that there is a strong central group consisting of about 10 curators and artists. Since Art Solaris interpreted only the public events that included investments of public money, this shows the inner circle of the public consummation of Korean art. 

After the project's introduction, it received criticism from renowned mainstream critics as well as support from anonymous artists. This is because it showed that a cluster of a few artists and curators held most of the public art events, although their connections differed from the obvious school ties issue with the previous MMCA head.  
▲ Mioon’s Art Solaris. Provided by
Diversity Needed in the Art Community 
Mioon said, “What we felt in the art community for a long time was that although the community changed externally and internally, the diversity seemed to be missing.” They explained, “To specify, although there exist numerous exhibitions, the actual artists and their works that encounter the audience are extremely limited, being repetitively consumed. Ironically, the overflowing information from SNS only works to reproduce the limited art mainstream.” 

This lack of diversity can be explained in many ways. It could be the diversity of the art network itself, as Art Solaris shows, but could also be the lack of variety in the art works, the monotonous taste of the Korean art collectors, or even the curators’ limited abilities. Art Solaris concentrated on the human network of the art community, but curators’ limited ideas along with the monotonous art collections are becoming problematic issues as well. 

In fact, the type of art consumed publicly in Korea mostly overlaps. One kind of popular public art exhibitions is the collections of famous dead artists such as Vincent Van Gogh. Often parents and schools would take children to these exhibitions for education purposes, for high-end cultural experiences. Other popular exhibitions are media art exhibitions that often go viral on SNS. These are socalled photogenic exhibitions that provide opportunities to produce great photos. Preferred by younger generations, they are repeatedly consumed over and over in similar forms. Because it is evident that these exhibitions are the ones that would make money, galleries and public art spaces would try to launch these exhibitions. 

Thus the space that is allowed for most young artists is extremely limited within Korea. Not only are the public less experienced about the type of art that they perform, but in the first place there are limited opportunities for them to even publicize their work. This is one of the reasons why the closed community could be maintained, and also the consequence of the closed community itself. Without the help of the main curators or galleries that hold the line for public exhibitions, becoming famous, or to at least make a living through art is almost impossible. 
▲ Photo of people visiting Van Gogh exhibition. Provided by
Gustav D. Yim, the representative of salon Artertain, acknowledged the systemic issues within the Korean art community and is working for an alternative. According to Yim, commercial galleries were introduced in Korea only 30 years ago. He said, “The commercial galleries were created without humanitarian backgrounds. They are not even based on collecting culture. It is a market that capitalists built for their financial benefits.” The gallery owners managed keen relationships with the giant capitalists and kept the community open to only a few selected members. The current gallery culture is a result of the slow and steady stemming out from the original, closed community.
Gallery Culture and the Artists' Price
In this hierarchical gallery culture, artists are the outsiders, classified by the price of their artworks, rather than as creators and humans. Yim said, “If the artist has no life, there is no artwork. One should not be mistaken that artists will always be there.” Artists exist on the fringes of this enclosed community with the hope of one day entering the inner circle. However, due to financial issues, most of them give up within six to seven years. Even those who have success leave the scene because the galleries ask for factory-like production from the selected artists. If they are incapable of this constant creation, they are labeled useless and replaced with other artists.
▲ Gustav D. Yim, representative of salon Artertain. Photographed by Maeng Jun Ho.
Currently, Korean galleries don't pay artists well, harming the overall art community ecosystem. Oftentimes Korean galleries require a five to five price ratio between the artist and the gallery. This is the “artist price” that Yim referred to. Since the galleries lack a fixed price system and frequently offer discounts, the final price that artists receive can be quite low. However, as it is the gallery that holds the sword, artists cannot stand against the unfair price nor stop providing their work to the gallery. As a temporary solution, Korean artists price their work higher from the start.
This prevents many young collectors from buying art and leaves the market to the wealthy. Galleries in other countries offer much better artist prices than those in Korea. This protects the life of the artists and prevents the art market from becoming overheated. Although the vicious cycle between the producers and the artists is not completely resolved abroad, artists certainly possess a better environment due to better art prices. The alternative price ratio that Yim recommended was seven to three; seven to the artist and three to the gallery.
New Blood Holds the Key
Other than the artist price, solutions lie with the fringe artists themselves. As a representative of not only salon Artertain but also the Yeon-hee Artist Union, Yim explained that when artists hold hands with local communities, things can change. The idea of an artists' union came from a governmental residency program for artists. Although the residency programs were created with the purpose of helping artists concentrate on their work without financial issues, they are now currently being misused as showrooms or career records for already famous artists.
Thus, those on the fringe are barely hanging on. What Yim suggested was a sustainable development model for local regions and less well known artists. This would revive a whole region as a life sphere of artists by launching galleries, artist workplaces, artist residencies, and other cultural infrastructure. This would obviously not be easy; however, Yim said he believed it could be worth a try.
▲ Photo of G-Dragon and his exhibition Peace Minus One. Provided by
Although the cartel structure exists, there is still room for change. Just like the resurgence of the lifestyle design areas and artwork markets that cater to the less affluent, change is on the way. Artists who have started in such places are entering the main art scene.
Mioon said they believed that their work on Art Solaris could be a tool for those who wish for changes. The pattern of closed-ness that needs enhancement is evident in their work. But real change will require communication that can inject diversity into the monotonous Korean art scene. For this to happen, the mainstreamers also need to acknowledge the abusive effects that their cartel structures bring, and try to increase communication. When communication occurs, there will be more possibilities that diversity can take place in the monotonous Korean art scene.
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The innermost art world seems to be complex and secretive. The predators who monopolize the art world seem unwilling to give up their privileges. Still, as long as struggling artists and voices within the artistic community call for change, there is hope for a revolution. Adding on to the complexity, the emergence of artainers is sparking up a new discourse in the art world. Are they a stepping stone to a more diverse and open artistic industry, or are they just another type of predators monopolizing the art world?
Who Are Artainers?
Artainers are entertainers who create art on the side. The term entertainer in Korea encompasses a variety of occupations ranging from comedians and singers to actors and actresses. Basically anyone who appears in the mass media to provide a form of entertainment can be called as an entertainer. Entertainers, of course, are artists, since their work in movies or television are artistic expressions of diverse human emotions. However, art here is interpreted as fine art.
In retrospect, there were other coined words like annatainer (announcer + entertainer) and sportstainer (sports + entertainer) in the Korean media. They were made to describe the trend of people from different backgrounds like announcers or sports stars jumping into the entertainment industry. Now, the trend has landed on artainers, who are entertainers reaching into the art world.
Actor Ha Jung Woo is one of the most prominent artainers in Korea. He did not receive any technical art education and started drawing in 2004 after he was influenced by the works of Jackson Pollock and Jean-Michel Basquiat. His first exhibition was held in 2010 and his paintings at his 2013 New York exhibition all immediately sold. In March, his painting “Keep Silence” was auctioned for 14 million won. His art career is no less successful than his career as an actor.
▲ Photo of Ha Jung Woo. Provided by
Another famous artainer is Sol Bi, a Korean singer regaining her fame as an artist. She encountered art as a form of psychological treatment at first. As she developed a serious interest in it, she has already participated in a number of art exhibitions and was selected as the participating artist and honorary ambassador for the 7th Seoul Modern Art Show in March. In her first individual exhibition Trace, she displayed her inner struggle of finding her true self between Sol Bi and Kwon Ji An, which is her real name. She also puts out music tracks together with the art.
▲ Photo of Sol Bi. Provided by
There are many examples of artainers. There is former singer Cho Young Nam, who was in the middle of a controversy about using painting assistants earlier this year. Famous K-Pop idol G-Dragon’s collaboration exhibition Peace Minus One held in Seoul Museum of Art (SeMA) raised eyebrows in the art scene last year. Then there are Lee Hae Yeong, Shim Eun Ha and Ku Hae Seon, actresses producing artworks.
Artainers: What's the Score?
Looking at the international art world, there are a number of artists that fit the definition of artainers. What is intriguing is that the response the artainers receive is not quite the same. James Franco, a Hollywood actor and filmmaker, has held numerous exhibitions of his works in galleries such as The Clocktower Gallery in New York. Jay-Z planned a six hour rap marathon in New York Pace Gallery and invited performance artist Marina Abramovic and art critic Jerry Saltz to the show. This performance was later made into a music video for his song “Picasso Baby.” Victoria and Albert Museum in England held a retrospective exhibition of the singer David Bowie.
The art scene overseas is not at all discouraged by this phenomenon of artainers. They tend to understand this trend as individuals, not as a collective whole. According to their viewpoints, artainers are individuals that are full of artistic inspiration and talent that exhibit their art in different mediums. There are mixed responses, but in general, artainers are not causing too much concern. Artainers are treated equally as artists and are evaluated by their art, and their art only. However in Korea, there are certain voices of disapproval that always tag along when mentioning artainers.
The Black and White of Artainers
At the core of the controversy about Korean artainers is the issue of artistic value. In the case of actor Ha Jung Woo, critics acclaimed his works after several of his exhibitions. Famous modern Korean artist Kim Heung Soo praised Ha as an artist who has talent and great expressive technique, even compared to artists who had received professional education in art. On the other hand, art critic Hong Kyoung Han wrote that Ha's perspective was stale and that his expressive technique was typical. He also said wrote that this view was quite common in the art scene and that Ha should listen to this criticism to further improve his work.
▲ Photo of Jean Gallery. Photographed by Kim Ji Won.
Any artist, even the most talented, receive both good and bad reviews. The issue of artistic value in artworks is always present in the art world. Art, especially nowadays, does not have an exact definition; rather it is a social understanding. Museums, galleries, art historians, critics, and the public as a whole all play a part in defining what is and is not art. Thus the artistic value of an artwork is a difficult matter to decide on. The question regarding the artainers’ works is whether they can stand on their own, without the fame and celebrity of their creators to support them.
The criticism has all the right to be voiced out. Artainers’ pre-established fame certainly plays an undeniable role in their evaluation as artists. It can be that they are additional predators that emerged out of the blue. With the media and the public on their side, they may be the strengthening factor of the art world’s cartel structure as mentioned above. Moreover, their celebrity provides them opportunities that less well known artists, no matter their talent or artistic background, have an extremely hard time getting. However, there is always another side of the story.
Maybe they are part of the art cartels, but artainers can also be viewed as promoting diversity in the art scene. They are not the typical elite artists who received professional art education in prestigious schools and studied abroad in Europe. They were once just as unestablished in the art world as any other person. By them becoming notable figures in the exclusive world of art, they could act as stimulants that change the ecosystem.
▲ Photo of Lee Hae Yeong’s The Birth of Bubulee. Photographed by Kim Ji Won.
Not only can artainers serve as fresh impetus to the artistic community, they can also stimulate people outside the art scene. Art, especially modern art, is notorious for intimidating viewers. Some avant-garde or futuristic artworks distance people from enjoying and appreciating art without pressure. With background information and good taste, it would be easier to understand the works; however, art is something that first makes people feel something, whether it is disgust, anger, or awe—and therein lies its beauty.
▲ Photo of Lee Hae Yeong’s exhibition. Photographed by Kim Ji Won.
Artainers could be the answer to making art more accessible. The celebrity obsessed culture makes it possible that when celebrities perform even the most mundane and trivial tasks, they are the focus of the public's attention. Thus if celebrities announce their interest in art, it could have more of an impact on the Korean public when it comes to raising art awareness than possibly a Jackson Pollock exhibition would. The pros and cons of artainers are evident.
Starting from this September 2 to September 30, artainer Lee Hae Yeong’s individual exhibition Muse of the Wind was held in Jean Gallery, Seoul. It displayed 38 paintings, two sculptures and one installation work. During her interview with Hangook Ilbo on September 12, she remarked, “I am not interested in what the art world thinks of myself as an artist. Other people’s opinions about my works are not important to me, and I do not want to know it. Creating my own art is making me so happy and this is more important to me.”
It is a little too early to jump to conclusions when talking about artainers. The obvious fact is that emergence of artainers is an interesting phenomenon in the art world and they are very active in making and publicizing their works. The time has come for us to recognize their influence in the art scene. Moreover, ways for artainers to peacefully coexist with other artists should be devised and constructive critique of artainers’ works should also be more frequent.
The Future of Art
Whereas diversity and freedom should be the core values of art, the Korean art world is full of polarization, cartel, and pseudo-reputation. Internationally, a famous modern artist’s painting may get sold for an astronomical figure by Sotheby’s, yet there are also millions of artists barely making a living. Is it really because the artistic value of the former is significantly greater than the latter? Do artainers’ works really live up to their hype? Everyone must answer for themselves.
The quotation “What comes from the heart, goes to the heart,” from Samuel Taylor Coleridge, an 18th century English poet, may be too romantic for 21st century artists. It may be even cruel to say that if you put your whole heart and best effort into something, you will succeed. So what is left for us to do? Become more aware and speak up. We should appreciate and support the innovative artists of our time. Let the van Goghs and Picassos of our generation rise.
▲ Photo of Banksy’s street art. Provided by
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