Saturday, October 16, 2010

Catholic Church of Korea's Understanding of Beauty

The Korean Catholic Church has been concerned in recent years about the way it has dealt with the art in its possession. The Church has not shown the interest that the art specialist would like to see. Dr. Hong Gemma, in her doctoral thesis, "The Church's Progress in Sacred Art," has some revealing things to say on the subject; a  review of the thesis appeared in the recent Peace Weekly.

Over the past two thousand years, the Church has inherited a great patrimony and should  continue to contribute to the religious, cultural, and artistic desires of our modern age. However, in Korea, according to Doctor Hong, the record of the Catholic Church's sensitivity toward art and artists has not been good.

Our understanding of art has been limited, she says, to using it to decorate our churches, to help us in the liturgy and to pray; it remains only a material tool to be used when needed by the Church, and does not express the values of the Church. This passive notion of art can be seen when we look at the interiors of our churches and see a monotonous display of  repetitious art, much of it imported from the West as a result of the foreign missionaries working in Korea.

Surveys have revealed that Catholic preference in art follows traditional lines; abstract and non-conceptual  expressions are not readily accepted. There is a need now, Dr. Hong believes, to discover and use the works of new artists, as well as doing away with the distinction between  sacred and secular art. The notion of inculturation in art should not mean going back into history but finding out where we are now with our  Korean sensitivities toward the beautiful, and not copy from the West or be limited by the past.

We have built many churches in recent years, but it is not easy to find anything  that is representative of Korea in architecture or in sacred art.  Money is not allotted for the artistic aspects of our buildings;  plans are not carefully thought out  and lack sufficient consultation.  Dependence on donations from Catholics results in a smorgasbord of styles and a lack of  artistic harmony within the churches. She suspects that most Christians are not interested in sacred art which means less money for the upkeep and preservation of art within the Church.

But some of the blame, she feels, must go to the priests and parishioners who do not appreciate the place of art in the liturgy. When a new priest comes to a parish, and the art within the church does not meet his approval  the art is removed, defaced or is ignored, causing discontent with the artists. If this situation is to change, she sees the need to educate priests in art appreciation, for in Korea all depends on the priest: the planning, the building and the selection of the works of art come under his authority. Because priests have this very important decision-making power, she recommends that learning the skills of artistic appreciation begin early in their education, for it is not something that comes automatically.

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