Artists with the blazing spirit

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Artists with the blazing spirit


When I was a junior in high school in 1975, I ran away from home and stayed with Lee Oi-soo, then a newly emerging writer. There, I experienced cold, sleepless nights for a few months. That winter, Lee Oi-soo’s small room was frequented by aspiring writers in the Chucheon area. They would always bring a set of requirements when they visit: two pieces of soft coal, a block of tofu or a bunch of radish leaves, and a bottle of soju. The gatherings may have been simple, but we were arrogant. Even the most famous writers in Korea were severely criticized once we started drinking.

Because Korea did not have a health insurance system back then, artists had little welfare benefits. The struggles of the artist continued for decades. In January 2011, writer Choi Go-eun died of chronic disease in her room in Seoksu-dong, Anyang, and the public became aware of the hardships writers suffer. As a result, the National Assembly passed the Artists Welfare Act, also called the Choi Go-eun Act. It was the first welfare law for a specific profession, not for socially underprivileged groups.

Here, a more fundamental question about art arises. What constitutes artistic activities? What is the boundary of the artistic activities that can be considered a profession? The Artists’ Welfare Act defines an artist as a person who can prove creative, performing and technical assistance activities.

The recognition of artistic activities as a profession emerged in September, as the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology announced a list of poorly rated universities. Schools with an emphasis on the arts, such as Chugye University for the Arts and Sangmyung University, strongly resisted the selection when they were included. Among their graduates, only those who joined group health insurance are categorized as “employed,” so the irregular workers, freelancers and the self-employed were counted as “unemployed.” Consequently, their alma maters were rated poorly by the government. The Education Ministry is redefining the employment as artists. For now, the artists who make more than 300,000 won ($258) a month or have a business license will be considered “employed.”

At least the artists today are happy to be at the center of debates. Now that the artists have gotten the minimum social safety net, they need to remember one thing. The artists should always have the blazing creative spirit that cannot be cooled down by even the coldest winter.

*The writer is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Noh Jae-hyun
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