[KS] Transgression & secular values in Korea?

Lauren Deutsch lwdeutsch at earthlink.net
Sat Apr 21 21:39:02 EDT 2012

Phillipe Hausmann¹s image of Marilyn Monroe ³disguised² as Mao is curr ntly
hanging at the Getty Center in Los Angeles and may be screened  here:
Lauren W. Deutsch
835 S. Lucerne Blvd., #103
Los Angeles CA 90005
Tel 323 930-2587  Cell 323 775-7454
E lwdeutsch at earthlink.net

From: Frank Hoffmann <hoffmann at koreaweb.ws>
Reply-To: Korean Studies Discussion List <koreanstudies at koreaweb.ws>
Date: Sat, 21 Apr 2012 03:12:37 -0700
To: Korean Studies Discussion List <koreanstudies at koreaweb.ws>
Subject: [KS] Transgression & secular values in Korea?

Dear Professors Juhn Ahn and Nojin Kwak:

Since this is not directly about the conference
itself (your 'call for papers' quoted below) I
changed the subject line.

I am fascinated (but also partially confused) by
the terms you use. All this is also very
important for contemporary art. So I wonder if
you, or others on the list, could possibly
explain and discuss more about these terms and
how you define them?

Let me start with this to explain why this is so
fascinating, but also why some of your
terminology is (until now) confusing: Wu Hung,
now at U of Chicago and one of the important
scholars in the area of theorizing contemporary
East Asian art, writes the following under the
sub-header "Subverting Painting":
A chief strategy employed by many Chinese artists
to make their works explicitly "contemporary" is
to subvert established artistic genres and
mediums. Originating in Western avant-garde art,
this strategy of transgression is now prevalent
on a global scale (...).  "Experimental artists"
(...) from China (...) actively contribute to
this burgeoning international art. At the same
time, these artists attain their local identity
and respond to China's reality in their works--it
is in this sense that they can still be
considered "Chinese artists."  [Wu Hung, 2008]

You all have seen those contemporary Chinese art
works, in/from the 1990 and early 2000s mostly,
may it be a Mao Zedong in depicted like Marilyn
Monroe looking like a work of American Pop Art,
or Song Dong's traditional classroom installation
showing pupils seemingly reading traditional
scriptures and books that, however, consist of
blank pages. You are also aware of, that what Wu
Hung calls "strategy of transgression," has also
inspired many critical voices stating that this
very strategy has become a market gimmick for
Chinese artist, helping them to sell their works
overseas, exactly because this "attain[ed] (...)
local identity" is exactly what the West is
expecting: large-scale Pop Art alike artwork with
often easy to understand, clear political or
social political messages, works that fit
perfectly into every U.S. corporate office
lobby--art that has a highly entertaining value,
is playful yet critical, local and global at the
same time, thus perfectly post-modern in its

This same strategy is also widely be found in
music videos. See for example the music videos
from the successful Russian band 'Leningrad.' The
same "strategy of transgression" can bee found
here, also a perfect example of a post-modern
group, a post-modern Gesamtkunstwerk using all
the same strategies of quoting past culture and
politics (here, as in China, often socialist
phrases or typical situations, jokes, or genres
[e.g. reworking Vladimir Vysotsky song texts or
specific formats of performances, etc.]), binding
them into a transgressive strategy that thereby
attains local identity while being highly
entertaining and (often) having international
Two recent examples:

Now, what I do not yet understand from your
conference (call for papers) announcement is how
you are using--in connection with "transgression"
and "contemporary Korea"-- all these terms:
"secular, "secularization," "demystification,"
and the phrase "transgression as a secular
value." I do understand that "transgression"
seems originally, etymologically speaking, a word
related to theology. But it seems hardly being
used this way today when talking about
contemporary society. I therefore also have
problems understanding what you refer to with
"secular" and "secularization" when talking about
contemporary Korea--or "demystification." To me
these terms all make some sense when talking
about e.g. the 14th or 15th centuries in Europe
(or East Asia?), but I am at a loss in this case.
Please do not necessarily understand this as
criticism, I might just not understand how you
use these terms and would like to hear more.

And a last note: my above examples from art and
video art as regards to the use of transgression
were not coincidentally from China and Russia,
and not from Korea. As most of us here on the
list I know much better about Korean culture than
Chinese or Russian, but I see relatively little
of applied "strategies of transgression" in
Korean culture, **if** compared to what's going
on internationally. A simple indicator: graffiti.
Graffiti, supposed to be sub-culture, has made
its way's to the modern art museums since a few
years. Some time ago I stumbled over a small book
on graffiti in East Asia, and the author who had
interviewed some of the Korean graffiti sprayers
pointed out that Korea was the only country he
had visited where graffiti art was not
provocative but rather decorative and trying to
please the passers by, and that was also what an
interviewed graffiti sprayer told him they wanted
to do. To me it would then possibly be a reverse
question--why are there so few Korean artists,
musicians, writers using strategies of
transgression in a society that has seen so such
huge social political and economic changes in
such a short period of time?

This is a big topic, and a very interesting one! Thanks.


>Perspectives on Contemporary Korea Conference Series 2
>Call for Papers
>Transgression as a Secular Value: Korea in Transition?
>University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Oct. 26, 2012
>Sponsored by the Nam Center for Korean Studies, University of Michigan
>Crossing over limits, infringing the law, and
>ignoring convention are often cited as examples
>of transgression. In traditional Korea where
>religion played a vital role in demarcating
>social and personal boundaries transgressive
>acts (e.g. engaging in illicit sexual behavior,
>challenging gender norms, defying social
>hierarchies, defacing icons and symbols, using
>excessive violence etc.) often served as a
>critical means for testing these boundaries of
>social acceptability, identity, power, and
>truth. But what happens to these transgressive
>acts after the ³demystification² and
>³secularization² of society? Do they become
>obsolete? If they still test boundaries, then
>whose boundaries do these transgressive acts
>Taking cue from the proliferation of successful
>Korean films that take transgression as their
>central theme, the international conference,
>³Transgression as a secular value: Korea in
>transition?,² hopes to bring together scholars
>from both the social sciences and humanities to
>address these and other similar questions about
>the significance of transgression in modern and
>pre-modern Korea. The chief objective of this
>conference is to investigate the possibility of
>reading the surging interest in transgression,
>which has arguably attained an air of sacredness
>in mainstream culture, as an instance of a
>search for a ³secular² value. The conference
>will therefore encourage its participants to
>ask, when and how did transgression become so
>desirable and consumer friendly (and not just
>possible) in Korea? And, should we associate
>this attitude towards transgression with ³the
>The conference will explore the notion of
>transgression as a ³secular² value from a
>comparative perspective‹both temporal and
>spatial‹to underscore and contribute to the
>growing debate on the heterogeneous nature of
>secularity as a way of life. The organizers of
>the conference therefore welcome papers that
>critically examine transgression in either
>modern or pre-modern Korea and also papers that
>discuss transgression in a broader Asian or
>global context.
>Please submit an abstract of no more than 300
>words to conference organizers at
>transgression at umich.edu by June 4, 2012. Please
>include name, institutional affiliation, and
>contact information.
>Selected participants will be asked to submit
>completed papers by September 28, 2012.
>The Nam Center for Korean Studies will award
>travel grants to accepted participants to defray
>costs of attendance. Lodging and onsite meals
>will be provided by the conference. Conference
>organizers plan to have selected papers
>published in an edited volume.
>Organizers: Juhn Ahn (Department of Asian
>Languages and Cultures, University of Michigan,
>jahn at umich.edu) and Nojin Kwak (Nam
>Center/Department of Communication Studies,
>University of Michigan, kwak at umich.edu)

Frank Hoffmann

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