Arts vs Theory

"Art is a microscope which the artist fixes on the secrets of his soul and shows to people these secrets which are common to all." Leo Tolstoy, writer

What is art without theory?

This is a loaded question in itself, one which I shall explain the context of in a more elaborate manner by the end of this post. This is not meant to be a usual one, nor will I hope the impact will pass in moments. You don't have to agree with everything I say, but I would like you to consider this. Rather, I would like it very much if you can sit and think about this question for a short while.

How can one exist without the other?

A classic question that my teacher, Patricia Goon once posed to me is how dependant the teacher is on the students. We can't merely say that the teacher is still a teacher without his or her students, nor can the students be defined as students as such without the one mentor to lead or to guide them. In some ways, we are still very much defined by the concept of 'the other'. Our identity, our sense of self, does not exist without being able to place ourself in relation to those outside of us. I am Malaysian because...I am not Singaporean. I am a male, because...I am not a female. It is, in some ways, incredibly simplistic, and I won't go as far as Hegel did when he proclaimed that “each consciousness pursues the death of another.” Nevertheless, for our purposes, the very core truth remains relevant: that while the word art itself may be a grey matter, the black and white marriage of art and theory respectively cannot be divorced.

How much of art can live without theory?

Perhaps it should also be further explained that when I say art, in this context, I mean the making art. The practice. The performing. The singing. The writing. The filming. The capturing the essence of the spiritual, physical, metaphysical, and emotional moments to be let out from the depth of our hearts by way of film, painting, dance, song, and visuals.

What is theory without art?

What is the learning of history without revising that which has been done before? What is the concept of learning if we do not push the boundaries of what we already know? How much do we push if we do not know where the boundaries lie? How do we know how to push without learning about how others have pushed before us? How can our intellect be celebrated and exorcised if the concept of theory and the learning or expanding of theory is banished?

What would history be without theory?

It would be confined to the mines of the netherworld, perhaps. It would mean that Germany would not have been as apologetic had they not sought deep within themselves for the root causes of Nazism Within an artistic context, it would mean that the world would continue to move without at all considering Laura Mulvey's concept of the female gaze. It may mean an engineer or an architect repeating the same mistakes that would lead to a building's collapse, having not paid attention the errors of yesteryears. Taking what is good, leaving behind the bad, and moving onwards and upwards to building better buildings. To making better films. To painting better pictures, write better songs, perform better dancers.

To make more art.

My main point here is that, for the most part, it is impossible to separate the notion of theory and art completely. The act of doing and the act of reading, writing, or thinking, are just as interlinked at birth as they will be at death. You can, perhaps, attempt to make a modicum of distinction between the two. The most crass is that theory is the domain of the classroom, the geeks doing the reading and the writing, screaming at themselves to get the right answers, pushing, changing, challenging the accepted notions of the masters of the past by twisting the concepts, playing with the variables, and turning the jar upside down in order to make a difference. This is the knowing of the rules, having not just an understanding of what has come before, but also of respect of those who have been here before you, while forging a mind of your own at the same time.

But what use is the theory without the doing? With regards to filmmaking, this is the side of the practical, where the classroom still exist, but not as you know it, since it is in the outside world. It is the world of the falling rain, of being chased by security guards, of shooting at abandoned sites, of struggling for electricity sources for that Kino, and of, “Shit, the camera just broke. Basket...” It is the world of the snow falling like dead ashes of yesteryears, the stifling heat of 500 days of summer, the spending of big bucks that climbs up to the tens and thousands and millions of won, ringgit and dollars, the pushing and cajoling of others to create something, anything, which has not been done before. Something that will never be replicated again. This is what a film shoot is like. Sometimes it is hell; the heaven comes after.

But this cannot be done without studying the works of others. The concepts, the ideas, the theories of others. The rules and regulations forged by others, the rules and regulations that you want to break or follow. Or the same time. The study need not be formal, it need not be consistent. Some of the most influential filmmakers never went to film school. Those who rang the whole academic nine-yards end up doing other things, things sometimes not even remotely related to the world of filmmaking. Nevertheless, film need to be understood on a certain level. How was it told? What are the devices used? In which direction should the camera float to? When should the editing point be done? Could it be after the smirk, or just before? What difference would those two extra seconds make? You would know, you would understand if you have studied film (formally or informally, consciously or otherwise). Beyond the specialist field you're looking at, a deeper set of questions also needs to be cultivated. Why are we here? What are we? What will become of us? What is the difference between you and me? Are these differences the criteria that will forever define us, or can we somehow find a way to rise above the colour of our skin or the direction of our prayers? How do we define the concept of human rights, justice, and freedom not just of expression, but of life?

I ask all of these questions because of the problems that has been afflicting my school over the past several months. I did not write of it then, because to do so would be premature; my understanding of the issue then and of Korean politics was and is still not as satisfactory as I want it to be. Unfortunately, waits for no man, and it won't wait for me. It certainly won't wait for Lee Myung-bak, a man whose administration could possibly put a time-limit on my university. It is unfortunate that he is the president of the Republic of Korea.

In short, my university was recently audited by the government, a routine act that doesn't usually last more than two weeks, but lasted over a month in this case (uncomfortably shifting our class schedules along the way). The feeling on the ground wasn't a positive one; conservative elements within academic and government administrative circles have not been happy with us for a while, and some felt that payback measures were being considered. They weren't far wrong: once it was completed, it recommended for the heavy discipline several staff members, including Shim Kwang-hyun, a professor in the School of Film, TV and Multimedia, and the university president himself, Hwang Ji-woo. In addition, it called for less emphasis to be placed on theory, and more on the “practical” side of things. To that end, the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Sports wants to cut down on the theory departments, as well as to shut down completely the Creation of Narrative Department. Much like Nike, it wants us to just do it, rather than to think about what it is that we're doing.

Our president then immediately resigned as an act of protest, claiming that the audit was nothing more than a blitzkrieg protest aimed at curtailing the freedom of the academia. “It has become conspicuous that the final target of the storming audit was a president’s resignation,” he said. “ Instead of becoming a vegetable president, I have decided to resign in order to reduce the pressure to KNUA from the government.” While initially I was puzzled by this decision (wouldn't it be better to stay and fight this along with the rest of us?), I realise the wisdom behind his decision; after all, the money for that brand new RED camera didn't come from Mr Hwang's own pockets.

It has to be noted that these events are not in themselves isolated from other happenings. The leaders of other influential organisations have also been or are in the process of being replaced. President Lee's associates, referred to by seasoned Korean media veteran Choi Min-hee as the “Lee Myung-Bak-Style Parachute Corps” have been appointed to a number of media channels, such as the news channel YTN, the SKY LIFE satellite channel, and even the English-medium Korean-culture propaganda machine Arirang TV (it's not so bad, actually, it's just incredibly...boring, at times). Chung Yeon-ju, the main man at Korean Broadasting System, also did not survive; he was eventually removed for The main man at one of the biggest television network in Korea, also did not survive. The same thing happened at the Korean Broadcast Advertising Corporation. Things were at a level that even the International Federation of Journalists felt the need to issue a statement last year. It's general secretary, Aidan White, described the “unacceptable” situation as “a disaster if Korea returns to the oppressive policies of the past.”

And if you think it ends there, think again: the National Museum of Contemporary Art and the Arts Council of Korea have also suffered similar fates. In response, a petition was signed and endorsed by authors up and down the country, with some very strong words were dished out: “... the very foundation of this country's art and culture is being endangered by the administration's anachronistic political logic and half-baked bureaucracy,” it rages (you can read the original here. “The value of democracy has been buried.” Thus, the removal of a couple of teachers and presidents here is not going to shed tears down at the Blue House.

Getting closer to the point, however, there is an axe that hangs over the school, an axe that has long threatened to drop down by the neck and sever the head of this particular dragon. And as a matter of course, they can. The Korean University of Arts is not a conventional university by any means, certainly not when you place it in tandem with other powerhouse like Korea University or Seoul National University. It is certainly not one that came about with conventional means, either. Rather than being put under the aegis of the Ministry of Education, my university was created by and then placed under the watchful eyes of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. Its creation was fast-tracked, one that came about via a Presidential Decree (No. 13528) rather than tabled through parliament. This basically means that the power lies with one man to create it. Thanks, then, should be given to Roh Tae-woo, for the presidential decree that almost literally single-handedly created this university.

At the same time, the reverse could also potentially happen. President Lee could potentially call for the closure of my university altogether. It would certainly win him a lot of points within the conversative crowds. Of course, nothing as drastic as that will happen...or could it? Emergency meetings were held late throughout the nights at the tail end of last semester, discussing what sort of actions that the university staff and students could take. After all, Lee Myung-bak appears to be a very strong-minded and strong-willed person, one who appeared not to really care that people spent almost half of his first 100 days in office in nightly candlelit vigils. It is very possible that he won't stop at the recommendations of the original audit.

Would the other schools be closing ranks as this threat to academic freedom come to pass? Would they heck. The special status granted to my school since its inception (by way of creation and other forms of support) has resulted in some of the other universities privately gloating in the potential downfall of one of our departments. Some even had the temerity to suggest that we've “gotten away” from our original purpose of creating and developing professionals for the culture industries. My classmates well-versed in these matters informed me that KNUA's status as the best film school in Korea is not one that is well-received by other universities. Not well-received, perhaps, but not undeserved, for the departments here are stocked with pedigree. Speaking for my own department, the people walking the corridors are people who knows how many film beans in a row makes five. Lee Chang-dong, director of 'Secret Sunshine', is the main man when it comes to the scriptwriting majors; take a 30-second walk up the corridor, and Korean New Wave stars Park Kwang-su and Park Chong-won run the rule over the production workshop classes. Other majors, departments and schools also have their own industry leaders working the classes. Like I said, I do not know yet of the undercurrents in the relationships between the universities here. Nevertheless, I certainly don't think we give out too many of those “fake” diplomas given to “substandard” and “poorly written” submissions by students, do we, Sungkyunkwan University?

I, for one, think that it would be unlikely that the entire school would be shut down. There is that threat, though, and to be honest, it is not a comfortable position to be in, even for me. Nevertheless, I resent the thought of having an entire department shut down for political reasons. I do believe that, earnestly, honestly, sincerely, with all my heart, that censorship is not the way to go. The shutting down of an entire department would have deep ramifications not only for that one, single department, but also for others across the board. Censorship has no place in the academia, and it certain does not have the right to exist when that academia is concerned with the creative arts. What kind of art would that be?

I don't know what kind of art that would be, but I do know of the kind of art that we do make here in my department. 'The Chaser', directed by my admittedly-rarely-seen classmate Na Hong-jin, was the second biggest film in Korea last year, while my friend's short film, '6 Hours', was selected for the Cannes Film Festival. There are many others within and without my department and class who do distinguish themselves. I do not mean to sound like I am boasting (other people in other schools in other universities in other countries, etc. also do well), but I do mean to say that whatever it is that we're doing here, and however it is that we're doing works. It is not a perfect school (not by a long shot, believe you me), but it is one that has stepped up to the plate time and again. These students do not just turn up for the production workshop to blow their won on filmmaking. I am incredibly sure that the same applies for the other departments and schools as well.

And so I write this, because this is one way in which I feel I can try to make a difference. Others protest, many more dance, some shoot and edit videos. I write this, and in English, because this bit of news is not one that has been largely spread throughout. It has appeared in some of the specialist media (a film magazine article has been written specifically about this issue, one that will give more context to this particular crisis. I will translate that at a future date). I write this in English, because the meetings have thus far been conducted in Korean, and not much effort have been made to reach out to the foreign students in terms of informing and keeping us up to date (beyond my coordinator's perfunctionary “Don't worry, everything will be fine.”). I write this because I want more people to know about this issue. I write this because I worry, to a certain extent, about my school; it is not a perfect one, and it can be completely unforgiving, especially for one who still struggles to overcome racial, cultural and linguistic barriers.

But it is my school. Not only that, it is our school. If there is one aspect that I do get about Korean society, it is the tendency to describe things in a communal context. Not my father, but our father. Not my house, but our house. Not my school, but our school. It is a school of arts, one that has been besmirched by efforts to silence it, with further, possible ramifications to come. The freedom to espouse creative thoughts and ideas without fear of ramifications is not only our privilege, it is our right as members of the academia.

I write this, then, in the name of academia everywhere. I write this in the name of the arts.

For art is life.

And if we allow for its censorship, if we allow for the will of others to silence us for the sake of politics...then what does that say about us?

*There's a site (in Korean) that keep tabs on the situation, as well as an online petition supporting my university here. If you feel so inclined, do drop by and give us your support. Thank you.

Movie for the day: 'Bobby Deerfield' by Sydney Pollack.