Closet Culture: Why Works of Art Are HiddenThe first-page advertisement in August＇s edition of ＇Wolgan Misool＇ (Art Monthly) alerted readers to ＇An exhibition in memory of Yoo Kyung-chae, August 16 to September 15, 2000, Kumho Gallery.＇
Yoo, now deceased, was the winner of the Presidential Award in the first National Art Competition in 1949, and a pioneer of the abstract painting movement in Korea. The exhibition was planned to commemorate this outstanding figure in Korean art, who held only a single solo exhibition during his lifetime. It was going to be a meaningful opportunity to look over the changes in his work, from representational to semi-abstract painting, and then to pure abstract art.
However, the gallery had to cancel the event two weeks before the scheduled opening because it could not collect enough of his paintings from different periods. Its curator Shin Jung-ah bitterly explains, ＂We could find only seven representational and semi-abstract paintings of the 50s and 60s to loan from public art museums. As most art collectors want to keep their collections secret, we were unable to locate any more paintings.＂ Paintings of this period were usually sold to private collectors at a few galleries during the 80s and 90s when the art market was booming. ＂We asked the galleries to inform us of the identities of the possessors, or to borrow the paintings on our behalf. But no one helped us,＂ says Shin.
The identity of purchasers and collectors of artworks is an absolute secret in this business. Customers do not want their purchases or collections known. This is because of a social prejudice against artwork possession. Possessors feel that they may be held to account for their wealth. They are afraid that their employees might complain that while they are denied pay increases, their employer spends money on artwork. They are anxious that the taxman may wish to check that someone who can afford an art collection is paying all the right taxes.
Of course galleries never want to displease their customers. Concealing the identity of their customers is a way of protecting their business secrets. Once the owner of a masterpiece is known, all the galleries will be after him: ＂The price of your painting has gone up a lot these days. If you sell it now, you could buy a couple of promising items and still have some pocket money left over.＂ For arranging the sale of a $200,000 painting, the art galleries are thought to get $20,000 commission. This is the way the small galleries in Insa-dong survive, and sometimes, prosper.
As galleries conceal their customers and the customers conceal their possessions, it is extremely difficult to discover the location of artworks. Given the extreme paucity of public collections, private collectors have a great share in the art market. Even if the collectors are found, it is not guaranteed that they will lend their belongings for exhibition. As a result, it is not easy to see high-standard art exhibitions. A few years ago, an exhibition entitled ＇The Dawn of Korean Modern Art＇ was held, but was critically flawed by the absence of works of Lee In-seong, a great artist in the period of Japanese occupation, because of this problem.
This also raises serious problems for art historians because research cannot be carried out without reference to the actual works. Even the years that some important works by living artists were produced are unknown. A pertinent example is the debate on the date Park Seo-bo began his series of experiments on drawing method. Some say it was 1967, but others point to 1973. This is directly related to the question of who led minimalism in Korean painting. It could be easily resolved if a few of his early paintings could be found, but the question remains disputed because no one has yet come up with such works.
Behind this situation lies a general prejudice that works of art are luxuries for the rich. And Korean society, despite having adopted capitalism, strangely does not award the rich much respect. However, purchasing and collecting art is a valuable way to support the creative activities of artists. We should praise the rich who spend on culture, instead of gambling or frivolous extravagances. The way one chooses to spend should be considered separately from the way one acquires one＇s wealth. Learning to think in this way will enable art production to become more active and will allow all of us more opportunities to enjoy our cultural and artistic heritage.
by Cho Hyun-wook