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Day Two in Korea: From Tragedy to Hope

At Yonsei University, the whole Kim family has come for the lecture. The room is full and I am greeted by a historian, professor Chang-gyun HAN, who studied in Paris years ago. I have been asked to speak in French with an interpreter translating sentence after sentence. Soo-Bok is introducing the session. He had bought the Sartre biography in 1985, when it was first published in Paris, and he stresses the intellectuel engagé in Mark Rothko. He has perfectly understood my own angle: I approach Rothko from the point of view of a social historian –as an immigrant, an artist, a pioneer constantly active an intellectual and an educator. Furthermore, his concept of “art as an experience”, borrowed from his readings of John Dewey, is based on his demand that the public be active in front of his art. Before showing the keynote with pictures, I ask the Korean students to prepare their questions, and especially to contradict and challenge me in the end, because I want to hear their voices, understand their opinions. I will remain almost four hours in the Jang Gi-Won Memorial Hall at Yonsei University for one of the most daunting sessions in my professional life.

During the presentation, the attention of the audience is mesmerizing. Soo-Bok’s interventions create a real link and, suddenly, the questions explode. A sociologist wants to know whether one needs to read the book before going to the Rothko’s show. Another one is asking about the market, the recent auction sales in New York, somebody else about the exhibition at the Hangaram Center. A professor of English literature expresses her interest in the migration issue -she is surprised, she says, to find so many parallels between painters and writers. It seems that the debate is not slowing down. It is evolving progressively towards something else when a woman, to my left, just says bluntly: “You talk about Rothko and Sartre as intellectuals, you talk about critical thinking. I have often tried to express my opinions, but it is difficult to do so here, in Korea, you don’t realize.” This is strong and vibrant and it takes me by surprise. True. I don’t know. What prompted me to go to Professor Kim, who’s sitting in one of the front rows? I give him the microphone and I answer: “You’re right, I don’t know. But Professor Kim whom I met last night and who shares my ideas on education will be able to answer you better than me.”

When Professor Kim starts describing the need for Koreans to express themselves, to stand up and refuse traditional submission, it becomes incredible. Now the debate on Rothko has switched to a debate on Korean education: Is critical thinking possible in Korea? What are the conditions for a Korean to emancipate from hierarchy, from tradition? I intervene and I quote one of my favorite Sartre’s interviews, “Les Bastilles de Raymond Aron”, (Le Nouvel Observateur, 1968) when he asserted: “The only way to learn is to challenge…My best students were not the most disciplined students, but the most challenging ones.” It seems that the description of Rothko’s trajectory in US society has been able to unveil deep tendencies, still at work in Korean culture. How breathtaking, how intense, how far from the mercantile presentation of the show that I saw in the morning! /I have just been told that a video of the lecture will be ready soon and i’ll post it here/A student wants me to give an interview for his online newspaper, he is very critical of the show, he tells me that a lot of bloggers are too. It is hard to stop talking. The debate lasted more than three hours. What a day! From tragedy to hope, just like the tension that Rothko decided to create in the Rothko Chapel, following what he felt in the Torcello church, in Venice. I feel totally energized, but I still have to find out why my book vanished, why my publisher disappeared…

par Annie Cohen-Solal