Westerners know relatively little about Korea. Through film, food, music and fashion, Chinese and Japanese culture are more familiar, but, other than taekwondo, kimchi and recently Gangnam Style, Westerners have been exposed to very little of Korean culture. This is particularly surprising in the United States, a country that fought a war in Korea within living memory of many people. Tonight I joined a group of people celebrating the achievements of my friend and colleague Mary, a retired high school teacher who has devoted her retirement to not only learning about Korean culture and teaching it to others, but teaching others how to teach about it. This evening’s event marked the publication of her book on teaching Korean culture in schools as part of the U.S.’s Common Core school curriculum. The book is groundbreaking; so far, no such book has been created to teach about China or Japan.
When I trained as an art historian, it was Japanese art that I was most interested in, but as with most cultures, Japan and its culture has not evolved in a vacuum. Many people know of the influence of continental Chinese culture on that of Japan, but the influence of Korean art and culture on that of its island neighbor has been little acknowledges over the centuries, and particularly by the Japanese. When I was studying Japanese ceramics, it became clear to me that the role of Korean ceramics and Korean potters in the history and evolution of many of Japan’s kilns was considerable. So, as part of my Masters degree, I studied Korean language for a year and endeavored to learn about Korean art history too. Twenty years ago there still weren’t many specialists in Korean art in the UK or US, but I was lucky enough to have a couple of devoted professors and the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum were finally starting to display their Korean art collections. Here in the US, over the past 20 years or so, in part because the Korean economy has grown in strength, there has been a growth in the interest in Korean art worldwide. More American museums are displaying Korean art, more books on the subject are being published, and there is much more interest in Korea in the broader population, including among the nation’s school teachers, who are keen to learn more about the “Hermit Kingdom” and its cultural offerings.
Thanks to this growing interest among schoolteachers, I have been invited to teach Korean art history for seminars in Los Angeles the past few summers. Although the subject is not my specialty, I take great pleasure in sharing with them some of the great masterpieces of Korean art, explaining as best I can in a short time how some of it connects with Chinese and Japanese art and some of it is quite unique. I never get really deep into the subject, but I know I am helping open a door to new artistic world for some of the teachers – a world of which I was barely aware myself when I was a student. Today, I gave the lecture to a group of teachers in Seattle – the reason for our family trip there this weekend. After my lecture, I incorporated my Giveaway by offering a prize to the teacher who gave the right answer to a question I posed at the end of the lecture. It was a Korean mirror decorated with an embroidered peony flower, a delicate and refined example of the exquisite skills of the artists of this under-appreciated culture.