“Freedom in art, freedom in society—this is the double goal towards which all consistent and logical minds must strive,” said Victor Hugo, a renowned French romantic poet. One of the words that are most commonly associated with art is beauty. As Hugo stated, art is most beautiful when complete freedom is guaranteed, and freedom of art is an ideal that humans should pursue. However, what happened recently in Korea is retrogressing from such pursuance of freedom. What does this incident imply and how should society perceive it?
It was recently revealed that the government blacklisted 9473 artists, allegedly due to their opposition against the government. This extensive blacklist was disclosed by Do Jong Hwan, a politician from The Minjoo Party of Korea and a former poet. According to Do, artists who were included in the list were eliminated from government support and received disadvantages in their career. Even though the government has not provided much clarification, the existence of such a list and discriminations that follow seem to be true according to several testimonies.
The problem is that such a level of government intervention seems to be far beyond excessive. The government has not censored particular artistic products considered to be against the social order, but has completely disregarded artists and their respective artworks. This is an attempt to suppress freedom of expression by completely isolating artists’ perspective from the entire discourse. It is astonishing how such interference that was prevalent a few decades ago under authoritarian governments can still exist in the Korean society.
The influx of government authority into art possesses a serious potential danger that can distort the fundamental purpose of art. Throughout history, humanity has witnessed how totalitarian regimes, such as Nazi Germany, utilized art to promote their existence. The reason this is so dangerous is that art deals with the fundamental human emotion and instinct. In other words, if art starts to promote political values, it will function as the most effective method to manipulate consciousness. Facing the current incident, the Korean society must also maintain its awareness on such possibility and closely monitor the government to prevent any recurrence.
More fundamentally, art should be separated from politics, for art functions as the most important pillar of society. Freedom in art allows the display of diverse viewpoints, enabling the formation of constructive discourse and critical analysis on society. In fact, art under oppressive governments functioned as the most effective engine of reformation through indirect implications. For instance, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a Russian novelist, is considered a major contributor to the collapse of the Soviet Union through his satires that criticized the government. This clearly demonstrates that the invasion of politics into art will result in a dead society.
Even though this incident is hopeless, measures imposed by the government imply that art in the society has been heading in the right direction. In the 1980s, art in Korea was the puppet of the government; the government utilized culture to turn public attention from political affairs. However, the fact that the government felt necessity to regulate art means that art does matter—it does play the role of watchdog and expresses thoughts on politics actively enough to be recognized by the government. Since such critical viewpoints would have been enabled through freedom of expression, the blacklist indicates that art in Korea has been doing its best to maintain a conscious society.
Nonetheless, there is still a long way to go. Even though art is heading in the right direction, if the government again regulates freedom in art, everything will be useless. The most fundamental, or somewhat hackneyed, solution to eliminate politics from intruding on art will be to maintain awareness on the importance of freedom in art. If people start to underestimate the value of the sharp blade of art, once a powerful weapon that the public possessed, it will eventually be aimed toward the public.