4 arts college students killed themselves in 5 months … what’s going on?

Disclaimer: The following is a totally unauthoritative personal translation of an article appeared in an online media <OhmyNews> on October 19, 2011, revealing hardships felt by arts college students in the current government that forces business (money) mind and attitude in all areas irrespective of their true nature, which resulted in 4 suicides in 5 months for a renowned arts college in Korea, Korea National University of Arts. All rights regarding this post rest in the author of original article or <OhmyNews> and this post will be scrapped at their request immediately. Original article (in Korean) can be located following the link at the bottom.

Cruel autumn for juniors of ‘Go-eun Choi’

[Cruel college story ②] Chugye University for the Arts – Korea National University of Arts

“Dear Ma’am. This is room in the first floor. I am sorry, I hesitated several times … Can I get some more rice or kimchi? I am really sorry all the time. I think I will get paid in mid or late February and I will pay up all remaining electric bills. I am really sorry for making you wait for such a long time. You help me all the time … I am really ashamed and sorry … I am grateful for all your help.”

Last January, a 32-year-old promising artist who even won a prize in an international film festival was found cold dead. The memo she posted on the door of her landlady’s home was speaking for the dreadful lives of artists, and soon ruling and opposition party members and even then Minister of Culture, Sports, and Tourism Byeong-guk Jeong asked for passing the ‘Welfare Act for Artists’. This ‘Welfare Act for Artists’, in essence, tries to extend the benefits of unemployment insurance and occupational health and safety insurance to artists.

In October, about 9 months since that incident, arts university students, the ‘juniors of Go-eun Choi’, are passing through a ‘cruel autumn’ now. Chugye University for Arts is designated as a ‘shoddy college’, and, in Korea National University of Arts, as many as 4 students killed themselves between last May and September, within mere 5 months. The ‘Welfare Act for Artists’ proposed through bipartisan cooperation between ruling and opposition parties is now stalled at the Legislation and Judiciary Committee table due to opposition from Blue House, government, and Grand National Party.

[Chugye University for Arts] One month since ‘shoddy college’ designation … college students like ‘sand grains’


In Chugye University for Arts campus is a tent condemning the ‘shoddy college’ designation by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MoEST). (Photo by Hyun-jin Hong)

Last October 7, in the midst of ‘Baked Salmon Festival’, the Chugye University for Arts campus in Seodaemun-gu, Seoul was quiet. Lively quips ‘Chugye, what a fuss now’ in the poster on the front gate looked rather odd.

‘Baked Salmon Festival’ is a festival prepared by Chugye University for Arts graduates resisting against the ‘shoddy college’ designation by MoEST. It has a subtitle ‘MoEST that makes even run-away salmons (graduates) come back’. Works by graduates and students are exhibited here and there all over the campus.

On the basketball post in front of the playground was stuck an ‘expulsion notice’ in the name of the Minister of MoEST that read ‘This school is decided to be demolished since its ulterior intention to plant an ideology which is indifferent to uniform social structure into the minds of young manpower was disclosed’. This is a satire against MoEST’s intention to designate a ‘fine arts school’ as a target of restructuring under an undifferentiated criterion of post-graduation employment rate.

Although ‘ran-away salmons’ returned, enrolled students were actually calm. One thing that reveals this is the number of students working in the ‘angry Chugye’. According to Hyun-jeong Lee, a senior of Engraving Print, about 15 work in ‘angry Chugye’ presently and only 5~6 can act for it anytime. 1,200 students are enrolled in Chugye University for Arts. She said this in a bitter face.

“Artists are always somewhat like sand grains. Very self-oriented and, since all work individually, some friends think ‘my life will get a little tougher, I need to practice more, school will not look after me anyway, let’s just think of my success’ even in this circumstance.”

One month since its ‘shoddy college’ designation. University administration rolled up its sleeves to prepare a plan to save itself such as to cut down its overall number 1 tuition by 10% in 2012, to ramp up scholarship to students by 15% starting from the 2nd semester, and so on. Chugye University for Arts plans to put in 8B KRW (7.256M USD) as direct education fund such as expanding scholarship fund, securing full-time teachers, etc.

But, ‘angry Chugye’ including Ms. Lee think this kind of plan cannot be an essential solution. They insist it is absurd to judge ‘fine arts schools’ by post-graduation employment rate and the criterion should be changed. During last one month, ‘angry Chugye’ staged signature movement and performance requesting the modification of evaluation criterion for fine arts school’ in places like Seoul station, Gwanghwamun, Insa-dong, etc. They’ve collected about 2,300 signature papers so far like this. They target 10,000 signatures. Ms. Lee raises her voice.

“People who don’t know anything about what fine arts, practical arts, or applied arts are, such ignorant people are pushing the college restructuring on the high chairs of MoEST. When I look at other schools, fine arts departments are going away since they think those departments are ‘not competitive’ enough. Fine arts classes become nuisances that bite off school grades. If this thing goes on, all fine arts classes will go away.”

Another ‘angry Chugye’ Ga-eun Lee (senior, Occidental Painting) also sighed, “government is treating fine arts like trash since they cannot see any tangible achievements right away. What do they think of fine arts …?”

Direct talk of a senior, “don’t paint if you want to live on it”


A Chugye University for Arts student Hyun-jeong Lee is staging a solo protest in front of Seoul station. (Photo by ‘angry Chugye’)

Of course, the ‘problem of earning your living’ is important even for those who do ‘fine arts’. Hyung-jeong Lee feels her hearts broken all the more since government evaluates them based on whether they are enrolled in the ‘company health insurance’.

“Though I like this, it is not something one can choose half-heartedly. It is not because we want to earn huge money or we earn only small amount. It is because we fear we may not live. I should make enough to pay for what I eat … Nowadays, they say ‘880K generation, 880K generation’ but we fear we may not earn even that amount. My younger sister who graduated from Hong-ik University College of Fine Arts does not earn 1M KRW (907 USD) net amount a month. This is her 2nd year as a worker, but she does not earn 15M KRW (13.6K USD) a year.

But, I realized ‘I want to do this’ only at my senior years. ‘Since I am young, let’s do it only for 3 years.’ I made up my mind to do this for 3 years at any cost, and the country that forced me to make up my mind so hard is not satisfied to make us scared and timid to follow our dreams. It is actually torturing me to do that. Artists live on pride, self-esteem, and they even crush it .. They didn’t give us any money and now they humiliate us saying we are ‘shoddy’ …”

At 4:30PM that day, there was a special lecture titled ‘Post-graduation career and arts reality’ in Chugye University for Arts. Kyoung-han Hong, a Chugye graduate and fine arts critic (editor of a monthly journal, Public Art), gave a sincere advice to his juniors.

“Guys, you didn’t come here to get a job, right? You came here because you liked painting, right? To be Van Gogh, to be Soo-geun Park. But, no one wants to be like Van Gogh or Soo-geun Park while they were alive. All want Andy Warhol. Please guys, don’t try to be a painter if you want to live on it. Every year, about 30,000 new fine arts students like you graduate from school. Paints. They all paint a lot at first. Then, they can count them with their fingers. Why? Money. Living. Paints, expensive lately. Just one paint is about 30 ~ 40K KRW (27 ~ 36 USD). The way an artist can earn money, that’s really simple. You should sell your paintings. That will pay you some. But times like now when economy is not good, people don’t buy paintings. So, few can survive. Then, how do we live? Only one thing. Pride. You should keep your pride even if you die starving. So, please don’t paint if you want to live on it.”

Critic Hong’s ‘advice’ made about 30 students in the lecture room somber.

[Korea National University of Arts] 2nd, 3rd cases while hush, hush … finally 4 committed suicide over 5 months

In last October 12 afternoon, sponsored by ‘professors’ association’, an open forum was held in School of Film, Tv, and Multimedia, Korea National University of Arts (KNUA) in Seongbuk-gu, Seoul.

The ‘school topics’ discussed that day was the succession of suicides by students. Two were sophomore of School of Visual Arts, and other two were junior and senior of School of Film, Tv, and Multimedia, respectively. Earlier in last October 6, a memorial service was held for 4 students who had given up their lives in KNUA campus. One can still see commemorating notes for the deceased students in KNUA campus.

In May when the first student committed suicide, KNUA was hush-hushing about that incident. Professor Gyoo-chan Jeon, School of Film, Tv, and Multimedia where two of those deceased students had been enrolled, deplored “At first incident, we flinched but tried to spare words not to cause pains or inconveniences to others nearby. This led to second, third, and fourth incidents, eventually.”

Sang-jung Yoon, president of students association, spared words “many reporters are curious about individual reasons for suicide but individual reasons are just individual reasons. We just need to pay our condolences.” He then continued “Students held an emergency meeting in students association level and students seemed to have common worries about these incidents.”

“We worry ‘can I live on arts?’ Since we all try to pass through a hole in a highly competitive environment, we all ask this fundamental question ‘am I really doing arts now?’ There is a structural issue as well. Art is not something that B comes out as the output when you put A as an input. But the government and school ask immediate results like prize awards from concours. Most students don’t do such works and suffer from an inferiority complex.”

Mr. Yoon said ‘Chugye school incident’ is also connected to this structural issue.

“When you look at the Chugye school incident, they assessed arts school by post-graduation employment rate, which means they regard artists as workers. Our senior Go-eun Choi’s suicide early this year refreshed the Welfare Act for Artists briefly but it is almost over already due to resistance from government and ruling party. Their logic is they cannot enact that Act because artists are not workers. This is a contradiction. We can notice barren eyes towards culture and art here. It breaks our hearts.”

“All focus on their private works … no interest on others, just competition”


Arts related college students including KNUA announced a current situation announcement in June 2009 at Seoul square alleging “Myung-bak Lee’s government suffocated people’s right of speech already and tries to transform culture and art as tools of their own by judging culture and art by the standard of ideology.” (archived image, Photo by Kyoung-tae Lee)

Mr. Yoon pointed that this kind of ‘performance orientation’ was fortified more since the ‘inspection incident’.

“Earlier, this school had an alternative school-like ambiance. We used to get together to party, to show each other’s works to each other, and to review each others works. All these things are gone now. All focus on their works only. During that while, we compete each other; we became indifferent to each other. Since the ‘inspection incident’, school got stiffened.”

Last 2009, Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism (MoCST) performed an intensive inspection about KNUA and requested to stop consilience education, to shrink or close theory departments as well as to take disciplinary measures against professors. To this, then president Ji-woo Hwang resigned criticizing, “the inspection against KNUA is an inspection targeted at progressive culture and arts people.” Then, Jong-won Park, a new right, took the presidency. Ex-president Hwang who had been deprived of even the professorship at that time returned school this semester at supreme court ruling ‘Professorship remains even at the resignation from presidency’.

During the forum, professor Hwang said “Coming back from abroad, I feel deep responsibility as ex-president of KNUA at the news of continued suicides of my students.”

“One becomes 1st and another becomes 2nd by a narrow margin in concours. Arts education that totally disregards 2nd because of that narrow margin is an out-dated teaching. Stress from course works that drove students to suicides has partly originated from this kind of teaching. New teaching method that promotes shared-creativity should be prepared and delivered at professors’ level.”

In the forum that day, only about 10 professors and about the same number of students participated, a very low turn-up compared with interests about ‘KNUA incident’ from outside. One student who asked to speak expressed his disappointment, “I thought all would show up here as far as they hold professorship. It is really doubtful whether professors really have awareness of this problem of dead students.”

[After ‘Go-eun Choi’] October 20, will 600 Chugye students gather?

Last September 29 when massive candlelights asking half-cut college tuition lit for the first time in the 2nd semester, about 100 arts-related college students also joined the assembly. Among other college students who held candlelights and pickets, they raised hundreds of balloons with ‘eye’ drawings tied together sky high. Balloons that symbolize the meaning ‘look down’ rose high up the sky as ‘dragons’. They were joint works by KNUA, Chugye University for Arts, and Ewha Women’s University together.

One month since the selection as a ‘shoddy college’. Hyun-jeong Lee still dreams of ‘in-house solidarity’. Coming October 20, students meeting will be held in Chugye University for Arts for the first time since it was established in 1974. At least half of all 1,200 enrolled students are required for the meeting in 37 years to be valid. ‘Student meeting’ is a process for Lee to regain pride as an artist.

“So far, we were just good students. We pay as much as school asks, and we don’t try to know about school. But now, we realize we should start from regaining students’ rights through this. We students should not wear down too soon; it’s a long battle. I hope the meeting will be something we can discuss what to do in the future to motivate ourselves. And we demand apologies from MoEST and modification of evaluation criteria. MoEST’s formal acknowledgment of their mistakes, that’s the only way to advertise our school properly.

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