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Korea, again : How a Rothko Conference Triggers a very Special Intercultural Moment

Day by day, I am revisiting my trip to Korea. It was supposed to launch the translation of my Rothko book into Korean, but it became indeed much more than that -much more than a usual book tour. And this first trip of mine to Asia -beyond a series of unpleasant surprises and the language bareer- became truly the unexpected encounter with kindred spirits and with a very sophisticated culture that I could then hardly decipher. I knew that many strong interactions had taken place during the Q&A after the conference at Yonsei University. But it is only thanks to its video, to its transcription from the French (by my assistant Gabriel Delattre in Paris), to the translation from French into English (by my son Archie in Kigali) and to the transcription and translation from Korean into English (finalized by my friend Terri Kim in London), that I was able to understand the scope of those very special moments of intercultural exchange. Through the debate with the students, many interesting questions were raised, and I will come back to them in future blogspots. Nevertheless, by discussing Mark Rothko as an educator inspired by the ideas of John Dewey, I had no idea that it would lead to such a rich interaction. I was presenting a model of western progressive education to a Korean audience, stressing the importance of critical thinking, but after almost two hours of conversation with the audience, the question of critical thinking within Korean culture popped up. Of course, having been in Korea less than 24 hours, I had no way to answer properly. But having met Professor Kim the night before, and having immediately bonded with him on John Dewey, I then had the conviction that he would be the perfect person to answer this question. That’s why I handled him the mic. Professor Kim’s answer mesmerized us all that day, and it remains a monument in interdisciplinary and intercultural communication which needs no further comment. Thank you so much, Professor Kim ! But this moment was only made possible thanks a whole range of people who acted as intermediaries to whom I am very grateful and which included, among others to the Professor who invited me at Yonsei, Soo-Bok Cheong, Laetitia Favro (chargée de mission Institut Français in Seoul) and the interpretor (Korean-French).

Yoo Ju-Hyun : Hello I am a graduate student in the Department of Sociology at Yonsei University. My name is Yoo Ju-Hyun. Earlier during your lecture, you mentioned John Dewey and Rothko who was not only an artist but also an educator, having independent, resistant spirits. You emphacized the importance of making your own way. 
As a Korean, I thought this could conflict with typical Korean social culture, although I am aware that we also have a culture of resistance which has contributed to the development of democracy and civil society in Korea. 
Nevertheless, my experience of Korean education is that there is a way suggested by my teacher, and there is a way I want to find out, which puts me in dilemma as I fear to resist what has been suggested to me by my teacher, parents and social expectations in general. Such attitudes, I think, may be attributed to the Korean cultural environment that reveres authority and hierarchy. I would like to know your opinion on this kind of conflict. I should be grateful if you could offer your perspective and advice as a stranger to Korean society.

Annie Cohen-Solal : Well, I would rather have Professor Kim answer this question…

Professor In Whoe Kim : I am In Whoe Kim, a Professor of History and Philosophy of Education, retired from Yonsei University. I am one of the few experts in Korean shamanism in Korea. I only met Professor Annie Cohen-Solal with Dr. Soo-Bok Chung yesterday for the first time, but I felt that we had instant rapport as if we had known each other before, like good old friends. I think this is because we (Annie, Soo-Bok and I) share commonalities of independent, resistant spirits. Annie introduced Rothko briliantly saying that each person is responsible for one’s own life with an ownership mindset. You are an artist in your own life. We often think university professorship is a stellar position for intellectuals but outstanding intellectuals can be free-floating and can do well as a freelancer – like Soo-Bok’s case. It is an important question: how to live an independent life with unique and creative free spirits within the established system? If you (the young generation) do not resist the establishment but passively follow to become a servant, this generation is already dead and there is no hope for innovation. Serfdom, or servitude is the purpose of colonial education which is to tame and train the colonial subject to accept the given system without independent critical spirits.

Unfortunately, the purpose of the Korean education system has been always like that since the Chosun Dynasty Confucian State for over 500 years. Even after the invention of the Korean alphabet, Hangul, by King Sejong in the early 15th century, the governing elite continued to use the Chinese characters until the late 19th century. As you know Yonsei University has a long tradition of Korean historical studies and especially famous for the studies of Shilhak – the Confucian School that advocated empiricism and pragmatism to lead a new social reform movement then in late Chosun Dynasty to counter uncritical following of Neo-Confucian principles. However, even those scholars of the Shilhak School used only the Chinese characters to disseminate their pragmatic ideas to reform the stagnant Confucian system. Ironically, the spread of the Korean alphabet, Hangul, started with the Western Christian missionaries who wanted to disseminate the Bible and teach it to the Korean people. The introduction of Christianity and dissemination of the Korean Bible by American missionaries also led to the Korean Enlightenment movement, modernisation, and national independence movement during the Japanese colonial period. It was not initiated by the Korean Confucian scholars then.

At the Rothko exhibition, what impressed me most was that the last period of Rothko’s paintings uses only colours without brush strokes dividing lines, which surpasses the existing styles and meanings of painting. You (the audience) are the generation to lead the future of our society and I believe you can be the main actor to surpass the status quo and bring out positive changes to society. Given the peculiar Korean history, I believe Korean people have inherited a strong DNA.

I am so pleased that we invited Annie Cohen-Solal to give such a special lecture on Rothko at Yonsei University. Yonsei has a long tradition of critical intellectual movements as the leader of the Korean Enlightenment since the late 19th century. Given that, Yonsei doesn’t need to advertise its status as ’the oldest’ and ’the best’ university in major newspapers. (The audience chuckle here.) You know, barking dogs cannot bite. The most powerful and formidable beast stays quiet but everyone instantly recognises it – like a tiger. And that is why I gave Annie a card holder with a traditional Korean tiger picture to acknowledge her independent spirits as well as to introduce a Korean tiger as a symbol of the sacred and formidable. Although I am very proud of Yonsei, it has a major weakness: that is it has no faculty of Fine Art, Archeology, nor Folklore Studies. The Department of Anthropology has started only recently, in this new age of arts and culture war. Nevertheless, and given the deficiency at Yonsei, many people came to this special lecture on Rothko by Annie and have actively engaged with intelligent questions and critical appreciations of Art. I am so pleased and have found a huge potential and hope in here.

par Annie Cohen-Solal