Walking around Anguk Station in Seoul recently, I was struck by the remarkable amount of artistic activity taking place in Korea today. New galleries are sprouting up everywhere featuring some of the most creative work you will find anywhere. Some brave voices to suggest that Seoul is pulling away in Asia, and maybe in the world, as a hub of cultural production not only for TV dramas and pop songs, but also for conceptual art, sculpture and painting.
The combination of this expansion in artistic production with an explosion of new technologies emerging from Korean research institutes and companies raises a more intriguing question: Might there be something even more significant happening beneath the surface Might Korea lead some larger transformation on a global scale
I started teaching at Kyung Hee University this March, which has many Renaissance icons spread across its attractive campus. The founder, Dr. Cho Young-sik, had a vision of a second Renaissance back in the 1950s, speaking of "creating a world through culture." At the time, such a call for a new Renaissance must have seemed rather out of place with the lingering threat of hunger still around.
But lately, I wonder whether Dr. Cho knows something I don't. Perhaps something akin to the Renaissance is possible here in Seoul. Although many critics in the West have trouble taking Korea's substantial cultural activity seriously, the range of Seoul's impact in Asia and the world is impressive, and growing.
Of course, I am not assuming that Korea will produce an artist like Michelangelo or a scholar like Giovanni Pico della Mirandola who postulated a comprehensive order of knowledge based on scientific principles. The world is profoundly different this time around. Still, "convergence" has taken off as universal concept linking all scientific and social experience in Korea showing much intellectual creativity. Perhaps the combination of technology, the Korean Wave, art and finance in Seoul will now produce something of a great order of magnitude.
The Renaissance was set off by an explosion of intellectual and artistic activity during the 15th century in cities like Florence. The movement was led in part by the influx of scholars from the Byzantine Empire after its fall to the Ottoman Empire in 1453. A wide range of scholarship, from the ancient Greek classics to modern engineering flowered in Italy, creating a dynamic and rigorous intellectual ecosystem.
In Korea today, we also see a new influx of talented individuals from around the world, who bring with them remarkable skills and traditions. The crisis of a low birth rate has opened Korea up to the world and created a vital space for creativity that is drawing more people. As Korea becomes more international, it becomes more creative and vital.
Secondly, the artistic and intellectual revival during the Renaissance was undergirded by an influx of money as Italy became a major financial center under the guidance of the Medici family. A significant increase in global trade made it possible to finance large-scale public works in Italy beyond anything previously possible. The inflow of silver and the shift of the economic center of the Mediterranean from the Byzantine Empire to Italy made new projects possible.
In the case of Korea today, we can observe a massive geopolitical shift to East Asia with Korea increasingly looking as an attractive place for investment in that region. Korea is able to finance enormous projects, like Songdo City and Saemangeum that are on a massive scale. Its conglomerates have access to funding from around the world. Although Seoul is certainly not unique in this respect, if we look at the rate of change, Seoul has evolved by leaps and bounds in terms of international finance.
Thirdly, artistic production in the Renaissance was paralleled by advances in technology that went beyond previous technology. For example, the Sistine Chapel employs not only sophisticated one-point perspective in the illustrations, but also pulls together numerous frescos as an organic whole within an enormous space. That feat required a new level of sophistication in structural engineering. The arches and domes constructed from the 16th century on were not merely revivals of the Roman period, they were innovations fueled by imagination and technological innovation.
Today in Korea, we also find unprecedented technological innovation in smart phones and display systems. Koreans have a remarkable knack for bringing together diverse technologies to form new wholes. The Seoul Metro, for example, brings together technological innovations with artistic creations in a unique fashion.
Fourthly, a new generation of extremely talented artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Botticelli emerged in Italy whose work was strongly supported by that creative environment. Such artists found strong patrons to underwrite their dreams and created lasting monuments to human endeavor. The Medici family lavished attention on artistic production and artists stretched the limits of visual expression, setting down new paradigms that endure to the present.
Although it is still too early to speak of a Korean "Michelangelo," we do see an increasing amount of support among companies and wealthy individuals in Korea for artists. Whereas it was once obvious that the Korean artist had to go to New York to be successful, a sophisticated artistic scene is forming right here in Seoul.
Finally, a remarkable salon culture flourished in Italy during the Renaissance that brought together experts from a variety of fields to share their skills and insights in the pursuit of larger public projects. Financiers, architects, artists, literary figures and polymaths like Leonardo da Vinci formed life-long friendships that made it possible to unify discrete fields and produce masterpieces of public art. The gathered together socially for intense cross-pollination.
Perhaps salon culture is that part of the equation that remains a bit weak even today in Korea. There is remarkable expertise in Seoul, but individuals from diverse backgrounds do gather frequently in Korea in a relaxed environment to exchange ideas. Nevertheless, such a situation is not deeply rooted in Korean culture, but rather a product of the modernization drive when expertise was considered all important. Traditionally, the Korean "sarang-bang" culture encouraged a broad discourse between individuals who gather regularly to exchange ideas.
If something like the Renaissance takes off in Korea, it will be quite different this time around, involving new forms of technology and artistic expression. What we can be certain of, however, is that there is an increasing cultural vitality in Seoul today that is truly palpable.