A dangerous subway experiment

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A dangerous subway experiment

The author is the editor of cultural news at the Korea JoongAng Daily.


Seoul mayor Park Won-soon plans to replace advertisements in the Seoul subway with art. [KIM SANG-SEON]

Alphonse Mucha’s beautiful lithographs displayed in museums today were originally advertisements in the streets of Paris in the late 19th century. His posters for plays, perfume and beer were so popular that collectors secretly stole them at night. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, a painter for the Moulin Rouge, also made many impressive advertisements.

Today, posters and videos inspire many with their visual beauty and clever ideas. But unfortunately, most of the advertisements displayed in subway stations in Seoul are not aesthetically pleasing. Nevertheless, Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon’s plan to eliminate advertisements from subway stations and instead display artworks worries me. Rather than devising measures to enhance the quality of ads in subway stations, why does he want to make “art stations” that are expensive and risky?

To start, Mayor Park mentioned the Ui-Sinseol Light Rail Transit. He said that the 3.5 billion won ($3.1 million) annual ad income was given up for the people.

The one-year-old light rail system was controversial for its possible deficit. Is the lost ad revenue the cost of art stations? It costs money to install artwork, and the artists should also be paid.

We also need to study whether the art stations will actually contribute to the arts and culture. During the Great Depression in the United States, artists were commissioned to create murals for federal buildings such as post offices. Unfortunately, the New Deal murals did not leave a significant mark in art history, because artists avoided making experimental or provocative arts due to the government pressure. They ended up being mostly unremarkable works. Likewise, artwork made for the so-called art stations are likely to be ordinary and unexciting. It takes people’s tolerance for experimental public arts to succeed. But in my experience, subway stations during rush hour are the places where a person’s tolerance is most likely to run out.

The New Deal murals fed artists during the Great Depression and set the foundation for the United States to become the center of the international arts scene. Is the art station project confident enough to do just that without asking artists to contribute their talents? How will they be funded? It may just be better to improve the quality of advertisements in subway stations.

JoongAng Sunday, Sept. 22-23, Page 34
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