By Archit Jain
The Park Geun-hye led administration in South Korea denied financial support, available under government programmes, to At 9 Film, the distributor of the 2012 movie ‘Namyeong-dong 1985’. In 2014, it also banned Hong Seong-dam’s artwork ‘Sewol Owol’ from the Gwangju Biennale, one of the country’s largest art events. The latest imbroglio in the country is an alleged government blacklist of more than 9,000 painters, musicians, and actors.
An Embrace Of Artistry
Their fault? ‘Namyeong-dong 1985’ was a portrayal of the brutal oppression faced by pro-democracy activists. It was set in the time of former President Chun Doo-hwan’s military dictatorship. Seong-dam’s piece satirized Geun-hye’s heavy-handed leadership. And the 9,000-odd artists, including Oldboy director Chan-wook and Man Booker awardee Kang, were dissenting voices. They reproved the state for a 2014 sinking of a ferry and supported opposition candidates during elections.
South Korea’s romance with the arts dates back millennia. Except for recent government attempts to censor the performing arts, it has largely flourished unbridled. Comb-patterned pottery, early Shamanist art, and Korean Confucian art are styles almost endemic to the country. Contemporary Korean musicians are renowned worldwide as symphony directors, operatic sopranos, and mezzos. The nation has also recently made inroads into international cinema. South Korean films gained top honors at the Berlin, Venice, and Cannes Film Festivals.The South Korean citizen, as a consequence, has developed a strong and emotional perception of cultural heritage.
Theater, movies, and photography exhibitions then become not only entertaining escapes from daily turmoil, but something much larger: a source of identity and reassurance for a tumultuous young nation.
A Pitiful Trend
In this context, Geun-hye’s draconian measures to shackle artists—which, by the way, are being probed seriously by an investigative agency—are a slap in the face of creative expression, which people of the nation cherish in such high regard. They also bode poorly for government subsidies in the country, which can be vital for tempering business cycles and for achieving a less unequal income distribution.
Most importantly, they are symptomatic of a trend of silencing divergent opinions that are far from exclusive to South Korea. There are obvious parallels even in our most immediate surroundings: the expurgation, if not outright banning, of Bollywood films that deal with issues of caste, religion or alternate sexuality; the arrest of a Jadavpur University professor for circulating cartoons of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee; the police oppression at Jawaharlal Nehru University.
John Stuart Mill, the 19th-century political economist, famously said, “The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it.
If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”