Art education takes on rigid formLee Hye-min, a Korean mixed-media artist, says she was startled when her 7-year-old son came home one day imitating a style of drawing that he learned at a local art institute, which was based on winning samples from a public art competition.
“The teachers at the institute seem to have set up a formula of techniques for kids to follow,” says Ms. Lee, who was unaware of the art education system in Korea because she had only recently returned to Seoul from New York with her family. “It’s not about helping students to develop what they are good at, but forcing them to follow ‘the best way.’”
Ms. Lee, who is making an installation out of scraps of abandoned fabric she found in the streets, says Korea is a hard place for anyone who is serious about making art.
“The atmosphere is way too rigid, whether in schools or the way the social atmosphere in general views creativity,” she says.
Education, in general, has been a central concern among Koreans, but the problems concerning visual art education here are pushing the country’s young, aspiring artists and designers to study abroad to broaden their creative vision.
Gwak Jong-woo, an instructor at Art-In, an art institute near Hong-ik University that helps put together portfolios for students wishing to study art in Europe and North America, simply says there is “no vision” in Korea for people who want an artistic career.
“The social awareness about art is just so low,” he says. “The education is too uniform; the industry has limited functions. There is no system for it. It’s the same in music or most creative genres in Korea.”
Dong Suh Education Center, an institute in Gangnam specializing in sending Korean high school students of fine art and design overseas, says an average of 200 students a year are admitted to art schools abroad through the center.
That number, according to the center’s counselor, Jo Su-jeon, has been sharply rising in the past five years. Representatives from some of the American universities popular among Koreans, such as the School of Visual Art, Parsons and the Rhode Island School of Design, regularly visit Korea for recruitment fairs.
Many artists in Korea say art educators before the post-secondary level merely drill into students certain ideas about art through intensive technical training, instead of cultivating individual creativity.
The system of art education gets even more standardized for students wishing to major in fine art in college. Applicants to major art schools in Korea are chosen by their high school records and practical entrance exams, which are often evaluated based on the students’ technical skills and their ability to handle formal aspects of their work, like color arrangements or composition.
Typically, the universities ask the students to complete a still-life drawing or a poster within certain time limits. To prepare for the exams, students practice drawing at private institutes up to two or three years in advance. Though some universities have included one-on-one interviews and reviews of the students’ portfolios to their admission process, most of the better-known art schools in Korea still go by the traditional system.
Ms. Lee, who also teaches fine art at Kyonggi University, says it’s a major task for college professors “to loosen up” students at art schools.
“Many of them seem very lost when they are asked to explore their own ideas of art in universities,” Ms. Lee says. “They haven’t been trained to. They are so rigid. I ask them to go travel and go look at other people’s art in museums, but they constantly try and struggle to learn how to make art when they get here.”
Mr. Gwak at Art-In has observed Korean students who are trying to put together their portfolios for overseas schools.
“I find that students who have no previous artistic training before do better in opening themselves up more quickly than those who spent a few years at local institutes,” he says. “It’s harder for them to imagine and visualize freely because they have already been trained in certain ideas of art.”
Kim Sang-do, a graphic designer who studied at Yale University after finishing his undergraduate degree at Hong-ik University, sees many problems with the current admission system.
“Students are asked to think and draw the same subject,” he says. “It’s frustrating to think that even the admissions for graduate studies ask the applicants to make a poster or a symbol rather than focusing on the students’ portfolios. It simplifies the evaluation process, but the schools are focused on measuring the technical presentation rather than the student’s individual creative concepts and interests.”
Ms. Lee says the exclusive atmosphere that pervades the mainstream art circles in Korea ― on top of a lack of cultural understanding about creativity ― is pushing more and more talented artists and designers out of the country where they can find the environment they need to thrive.
“Ideas of art seem to function very differently here,” she says.
Park Joo-yeon, an artist who studied at Goldsmith College in London, says the art educators in Europe give both material and emotional support to art students, but the lack of money doesn’t seem to be the reason for the poor art education system in Korea, not when it hosts one of Asia’s major art biennials with a 3.8 billion won ($32 million) budget.
“The general atmosphere about art in Europe allows students to be free from the fear of making mistakes and to think in more liberal terms,” Ms. Park says. “The students in art are trained to have such attitudes at schools from an early age, which reminds us that art is about learning through experiences, not just about ‘studying.’”
Ms. Lee says the “bureaucracy” in Korean universities, which select professors based on academic cliques or other social networks, seriously hinders meaningful change in art schools. The current faculty system, she says, naturally alienates the part-time instructors and visiting artists with non-mainstream, experimental tastes from the institutional inner circles, preventing them from effecting radical changes to the system.
“There is almost a set formula to become a successful artist in Korea,” she says. “You go to a prestigious art school, graduate, spend a few years studying abroad and get a degree. You come back, become an art professor and exhibit once or twice a year to maintain your performance record. In most cases, if you don’t belong to a credible institution, it’s hard to find a gallery that will show your work.”
Mr. Kim, the graphics designer, said that art education begins at home, giving the example of a butcher in Brooklyn who took his children out every weekend to museums. He said that Koreans’ excuse of being too busy making money to expose their children to art is a flimsy one.
“The state of art education in Korea is more than about the public standard level of income,” he says. “What use is it to have 1,000 artists with the talents of Picasso in this country if the general public of 40 million have no interest in their works?”
by Park Soo-mee