If we see the Church as a lamp, its oil, its spiritual energy, would be art, says a professor at the Inchon Catholic University. Writing in the Peace Weekly, he goes on to say that no matter how much oil is in the lamp, without being ignited by the flame from the world of art, we will not have much light in the Church.
Religion is in pursuit of reality, of an encounter with the deepest part of the self. Humanity in its search for this ultimate encounter, the professor maintains, cannot do without symbolism. We need symbolism applied to inanimate things to express the living truths of religion. And when we open to these truths deep inside us, we will experience, he says, the symbolism of art as a fragrance that brings us closer to our ultimate encounter. Art, when employed in this manner, in its pursuit of beauty, can lead us to experience the transcendent, and in such an encounter with universal truth, the professor believes we have the illumination that comes from the meeting of art and religion.
All of us have an image of God but not having seen God, we can only express our images, he says, in symbols, and it is these symbols that are put into words.
What do we understand by Christian art? What do we mean by Christian literature? It is the professor's understanding that whenever the artist has the Gospel vision portrayed in his work, there is Christian art. The way the Gospel message is integrated within the work of art--whether the vision is present or absent, true or false--is the criterion in deciding whether it's Christian art or not. When the work of art transcends time and place and speaks to everyone, it can, he says, be called a great work of Christian art.
Christian art in Korea because of the early history of the persecuted Church took time to develop. Lack of understanding and of a feel for the culture by Church leaders resulted in building churches and in decorative art that were simple copies from the West. The beginning of Church art, with Chang Bal and others, in1924, was greatly influenced by the West, but in 1954 with Chang Bal as the leader, a creative Korean art began to take form, putting aside the attempts of the past to imitate the Church art of the West.
With the large number of churches being built, and the starting of the Catholic Artist Group, there was a great development in Christian art, with many young people becoming enthusiastically involved. It was during this time that inculturation and Koreanization entered the Korean Catholic art world, a blending of the visual arts with the traditional cultural elements that appeared in their works and in the theology of the Church. The Second Vatican Council was the impetus for this development.
When we have a Koreanized Church, we will have a Koreanized Christian art, the professor says. The more particular (more Korean, in this case) and original we become, the more universal it will be, he says, borrowing the words of Goethe. Without the inculturation of our art, its message will be incomplete. What is Korean will of course always be ambiguous, but nonetheless the artist who is genuinely in touch with his or her cultural roots can't help but be Korean. We have to go beyond imitation and its limitations to create new artistic expressions that will make inculturation possible, and a Church that will be both truly Korean and truly universal.