Is Cho Young-nam a Postmodern artist?

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Is Cho Young-nam a Postmodern artist?

“I’m just a singer, not a person doing orthodox art, but accidentally I’ve aroused controversy.”

That’s what signer Cho Young-nam said to reporters when he arrived at the Prosecutors’ Office on Friday to answer its summons regarding the allegation that he sold paintings which he had another artist paint and then he signed.

Earlier, when the prosecutors started the investigation, Cho defended himself, saying this is “a practice” in today’s art and that the concepts of the paintings are his own. That is a Postmodern idea about art.

But now he says he is “not a person doing orthodox art.” What does he mean by “orthodox art”? There is neither orthodox nor heterodox in Postmodern art. After philosopher Arthur Danto saw Andy Warhol’s “Brillo Boxes” and claimed “the end of art,” referring to the end of Modern art and the emergence of Postmodern or contemporary art, the boundaries between high art and low art, and between even art and non-art, have been blurred.

Before the scandal emerged, Cho repeatedly said he is no less serious about his career as a painter than as a singer and he defies all sorts of boundaries. But he now says he is “not a person doing orthodox art?”

Cho has also repeatedly criticized the gap between the general public and the fine art world, saying, “Today’s art world and the general public exclude each other.” That’s true. He also positioned himself as a bridge between the two. That’s not bad. However, he doesn’t seem to know that most of the Korean general public think about art in a Modern way - not a Postmodern way.

Those whom the public regard as archetypal artists are the Modern painters from the late 19th century through the early 20th century such as Vincent van Gogh and Pablo Picasso. The Modern idea of art is that artists like those two create works from pure inner compulsion and visualize the world that they re-interpret by the unique touch of the brush in their own style. And an artwork created like that is the artist’s other self and has an aura, according to the Modern idea.

But the history of such ideas about art is shorter than we think. In the Middle Ages, artists were regarded as craftsmen, who produced works by the orders of the Church or aristocrats for decoration or political or religious propaganda. They didn’t sign the works that they produced in their workshops and collaborated with several apprentices.

Since the Renaissance, artists tried for centuries to express their egos through their works and to shift from being craftsmen to a kind of visual specialists in the humanities. The status of artists, which the general public recognizes today, emerged in the 19th century.

In the era of Modern art, the forms of art changed; the traditional elements of fine art, beauty and technique, became less important, while the artists’ unique concepts became more important. However, the belief that an artwork must be created by the artist’s authentic touch and have the aura of the artist’s other self has strengthened.

One of the first artists who challenged such an idea was French artist Marcel Duchamp. In 1917, he chose a ready-made urinal, signed it and brought it to an art exhibition under the title “Fountain.”

With the work, Duchamp sought to question what the exact definition of art is. He asked whether artworks should necessarily have the artist’s touch or technique and whether even a found object, if put in an art gallery, can be an artwork. Thus, his work, “Fountain,” is not actually a urinal but a question itself. A concept became art in his work, so it was the earliest example of Conceptual art.

Descendants of Duchamp appeared in the 1960s, including Warhol, who questioned the difference between visual art and the mass-produced objects and images in everyday life by creating works such as “Brillo Boxes” and “Campbell’s Soup Cans,” which re-created the product packaging without any artistic transformation to be exhibited in museums.

For these artists, the unique touch of the artist is no longer meaningful. Instead, the concept became much more significant, which introduced the era of Postmodern art, or contemporary art.

Many Postmodern artists create works through inviting other people to complete the works or visualize their concepts through actions, performances or found objects. The originality of concept is regarded the most important of all. Joseph Beuys, a German artist as well as a colleague of Korean video art pioneer Nam June Paik, said that now everyone is an artist.

In that context, Cho is justifying the outsourcing of his paintings.

The problem is that it is rather difficult to categorize his paintings as Postmodern art. On several TV programs, he was shown creating what appeared to be Modern art, holding a brush.

Several artists and art critics I have met mentioned that painting is different from installation art or media art, as the artist’s body and movements are involved in the paintings. The brush strokes resulting from an artist’s physical movement are the personification of the artist’s thoughts and emotion, so Cho’s outsourcing of painting is problematic, they said.

Although Andy Warhol also created paintings, they are fundamentally different from Cho’s, they said, because Warhol intentionally removed the personality of brush strokes and reproduced the images of Campbell soup cans to pose a question about art and the mass-produced images of everyday life.

One more problem that I would like to point out is that the general public, including the buyers of Cho’s works, have Modern ideas about art, and that they must have thought Cho’s works were created by his touch. Not many people, excluding those in the art field, know the difference between Modern art and Postmodern art.

Should the buyers of Cho’s works, who could be simply his fans rather than elite art collectors, have had in-depth knowledge of Postmodern art?

If Cho wanted to narrow the gap between today’s art and the public, he should have at least given notice to buyers about the exact distinction between Modern and Postmodern art.

This is the most troublesome part for me regarding this incident. He instead used this gap, which he claimed to be critical of, for his own benefit.

BY MOON SO-YOUNG [symoon@joongang.co.kr]
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