Define an artist. This is no easy question. It could be more productive to change the question to “Who is an artist?” or “Who has proven him-herself to be an artist?” PhD candidate researcher Shin Gyung-jin adopts a discourse analysis approach to trace the different meanings and usage of “the artist” at specific moments of history. How is the idea of an artist produced? Regimes of knowledge are questions of power control. Her archaeology focuses on Korea, on and off in relation to Chinese art history. 博士候選人研究員辛庚珍受福柯的考古思維啟發,重回多個世紀的「現場」去重新凝視不同時代建構「藝術家」的論述和權力效應。藝術家的定義的問題,變為「誰身體力行符合了特定時空的標準藝術家?」又或…。全文分四次發表。

/…1st of a 4-part essay


Introduction 考古精神出發的論述追蹤

The contemporary art world, consisting of art galleries, museums, and producers of art history, has relied heavily on singular authorship of art-makers. Such a status of artists we are familiar with today, however, was constructed only a few hundred years ago. Until the advent of the modern subject in the Enlightenment, artists had been perceived in different ways. Even the idea of the single author has slowly collapsed in author discourses in the 20th century, such Roland Barthes’ declaration in his 1967 essay ‘The Death of the Author.’ The birth and destruction of a particular type of artist are influenced by complex factors of a milieu — for example, perception of the subject, technological progress, production structure, political power relations, and so on. Therefore, the question “who is the artist?” must be answered at a social and historical level beyond the internal analysis of art objects.

The task of art historians and critics was traditionally considered to establish continuities and find a single pattern by focusing on art groups, schools, movements, the spirit of a period, and the personality of the artist. In the 20th century, we saw growing interest in longue durée, a unique historiographic approach established by the French Annales school that stresses social history over a long, expansive period of time, for a kind of total history. In this context, Michel Foucault argued, in his book The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language (1969), for the pursuit of a ‘general’ history that reveals the ruptured and discontinuous nature of history rather than a ‘total’ history that highlights continuity and succession between events. His archaeological methodology, based on particular cues excavated from the past, aims to unveil the conditions and rules that made something possible as historical knowledge. [1]

Through Foucauldian archaeology, this essay tracks down records that preserve traces of the figure of the artist that is a collective image beheld by the general public of specific times. By reading the dominant figures against the sociopolitical conditions, I aim to uncover the power relationship that had imprinted the formation of the typical images of artists in each era. My questions are as follows: ‘What are the stereotypes of the artists held by the majority of people throughout Korean art history?’ ‘How were they formed by the support of power or dominators of the time?’ In doing so, I seek to reveal that the concepts of an artist have been constructed not merely by specific genius artists or movements but rather by social and political power relations of the time.


Figure 1 an outline of the changing figure of the artist

  1. Court Painters 宮廷畫師

One of the earliest documented artists in found records of Korean art history is the mythical tale of a court painter, Solgeo (率居, ?~? 8c) in ancient Korea – thus far the only painter documented in Samguksagi (三國史記, History of Three Countries), the government’s formal history book published in ancient Korea. In that period of time, painters of the royal court were selected by a court painting office – a government office under the royal authority – to take on the practical painting work for the country with the provisions of a stipend and a given position for the work. They were the most prolific artist group in ancient times and the Middle Ages in Korea. Most works of artistic value from the period were created by them, and the three great masters of Korean painting – Solgeo, Yinyeong and An Gyeon – were all court painters. The record includes the following description of one of Solgeo’s paintings.

Once Solgeo drew an old pine tree on the wall of Hwangnyongsa Temple, and the pine tree showed barks on the trunk with branches and leaves looking so real that kites, crows, swallows, and sparrows sometimes flew into it and hit the wall. (嘗於皇龍寺壁畫老松 體幹鱗皴 枝葉盤屈 烏鳶燕雀 往往望之飛入 及到 蹭蹬而落) [2]

This mythical tale has been adapted into stories, such as folk tales for children, until recently when it was promoted to be the typical image of “the painter of ancient times” to the general public. This tale reveals that the primary criterion for evaluating the quality of painting was the realistic and vivid representation of the object. It is worth noting, however, that the connotation of “representation” is somewhat different from that in western art. While representation in western art means (photographic) precision in imitating the object, representation in eastern art means maintaining the “living energy” – an ancient Chinese aesthetic theory based on the Theory of Fundamental Energy of Nature in the Southern and Northern Dynasties of China (420 AD – 589 AD) – that is, expressing the object as vivid and harmonious as if it were alive.

Despite such an incredible ability to reproduce the “living energy of objects,” it is debatable whether the court painters were acknowledged as truly great “artists” by their contemporaries. This is because court painters primarily created paintings that represented the ideology and the sensibility of the royal court rather than paintings based on their personal feelings and tastes. According to Samguksagi, the court painting office in the ancient royal court, which was responsible for selecting and training painters, was in charge of all aspects of the court’s paintings and systematically responded to the demand for paintings. Records of the court painting office in the Joseon 朝鮮 dynasty (1392~1898) offer more details regarding their work. According to the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty, court painters’ primary responsibilities included painting landscapes, the imitation of old paintings owned by the royal court, pictorial documentation of diplomatic envoys’ visits and national ceremonies, illustrations, paintings on pottery, decorative court artwork, and kings’ portraits. [Figure 2] They were also in charge of drawing ordinance maps and other maps, as well as practical illustrations for military, agriculture, medicine, architecture, geography, and astronomy.

Most of the court painters’ paintings had clear objectives of use by the royal court and included little individuality of expression. For instance, when they produced drawings of various ceremonial processions and palaces, cultural practices and objects from foreign countries, and portraits of royalty, the painters were asked to portray the objectives accurately with precise touches and use sophisticated, colorful tones. Exceptional ability in depicting objects was required to document the achievements of the country and portray the majestic presence of the kings whereas painters’ individuality had to be hidden as an imperative. In fact, they rarely produced paintings for the sake of appreciation per se, such as landscape paintings, which suggests that the status they held was no more than that of a technician. Only a handful of painters drew landscape paintings in the style of the royal family at the king’s order, and the paintings received recognition only when they catered to the royal family’s interest and received compliments from the king. In other words, their amazing ability in mimetic practices existed to support the authority of the royal family only.

Another ground for the hypothesis that court painters were unlikely to have received proper recognition as artists was that their social status was quite low. In particular, as Confucianism had been established as the ruling ideology of the country since the dawn of the Joseon dynasty (1392~1898), paintings became looked down on, and most court painters were treated as a lowly class in society. No matter how much recognition they received, there was no room for them to climb to a higher class through promotion, and the responsibility for managing court painters was given to scholar-officials instead of noted court painters. The status of court painters was somewhat raised in the late Joseon dynasty in the 17th century when the technician class began to take shape. Professional painter families, which passed on the painting career as a household business, began to emerge among court painters. By the 18th century, the work of court painters garnered more appreciation, and paintings became recognized as a profession with the rise of the petty official class. In the 19th century, court painters’ status finally rose from that of craftsmen to “artists.” Court painters played a pivotal role in the advancement of professional painting techniques until the court painting office was closed by the Japanese Rule in 1910. [3]

Meanwhile, the changing selection criteria for court painters in the late Joseon dynasty shows a shift in emphasis from court painters to literati painters. Dowhaseo ran painting tests on bamboo, landscapes, figures, birds and animals, and flowers and grass to recruit court painters. The greatest emphasis was placed on drawing bamboo, followed by landscapes, considered to embody the essence of painting at the time. The emphasis on bamboo drawing suggests that the literati painting orientation began to influence court painting.


Figure 2: Painting of Joseon Envoys’ Procession to Edo Castle (朝鮮國通信使行列圖), 18c, National Museum of Korea, accessed 14 June 2020,


  1. Literati Painters 文人畫家

Another essential segment of artists in ancient times and the Middle Ages in Korean art history is the literati painters (文人家). They were scholar-officials who were highly skilled in poetry, calligraphy, and painting. Signs of literati-styled paintings did not appear in records until the 11th century in the Goryeo dynasty (918~1392). Early literati painting in the Goryeo dynasty developed as a natural progression of the liberal arts activities of the nobility and scholar-officials who liked painting.

The evolution of literati painting from a hobby to an art genre in the Joseon dynasty (1392~1898) was closely tied to the ruling class’ changing ideology and political system alongside the founding of the Joseon dynasty. The first emperor of the Joseon dynasty, Yi Seong-gye (1335~1408), established the country on the foundation of Confucian ideology through collaboration with emerging scholar-officials – Confucian intellectuals from the Goryeo dynasty. The scholar-officials were students of new Confucianism and had successfully gained political positions in the late Goryeo dynasty, establishing themselves as a force to be reckoned with. The immense political shift created by them became the foundation for Yi Seong-gye to establish the Joseon dynasty. Henceforth, Joseon became a society in which the scholar-officials were part of the political establishment. Consequently, the art of calligraphy and painting, considered to reflect Confucian ideas, thrived based on the leadership of the scholar-officials, which further advanced through the kings’ patronage. [4]

In addition to the political background, the introduction of “the theory of literati painting” from China to Korea in the 17th century critically enforced the role of literati painting as a mainstream art from the mid-Joseon period onward. Literati painters argued that the vigor of a painting hinged on how cultivated and learned its painter was; therefore, the literati were supposed to be more academically and artistically capable than professional painters. Huang Tingjian (黃庭堅 1045-1105) of the Song dynasty (960-1279) stated that a painter could paint well “only when he learned thousands of books by heart, had full exposure to notable historic works, and had a wide range of dignified experiences.” In other words, he proposed academic cultivation and noble experiences as the conditions of good painting. While their study and experience were partly influenced by Taoism and Buddhism, their foundation was always based on Confucian values. The literati rejected the idea that the joy of painting is not hedonistic; they struggled to link the joy of painting with cultivating morality, and viewed morality and art as complementary. In other words, the “Confucian ideal” of realizing the politics of kingship (i.e., the ruler achieves political goals through virtue) through education and the purification of practices and traditions, designed to help people recover their innate nature of a good heart, must also be in line with art. The political ideals of Confucian intellectuals of the ruling class impacted artistic activities.

The enthusiastic reception of the theory of the literati painters in the Joseon period was a result of the thriving bureaucratic society based on “Confucian ideology,” as in China. Originally, painting was also thought of in China as the specialized function of professionals and considered to have nothing to do with the literati. However, as the scholar civil servant society was established in the Song dynasty, the “theory of literati painting” emerged. Since the literati were at the top in all areas of politics and economy in the intellectual history of China in the Song dynasty (960~1279) and the Qing dynasty (1644~1912), their tastes and economic power dominated the painting culture. With the “theory of superiority” of literati painting of Dong Qichang (董其昌, 1565–1666) in late Ming dynasty following the “theory of scholar painting” of Su Shi (蘇軾, 1036–1101) of the Northern Song dynasty, painting was perceived as an essential mode of cultivation that the literati had to acquire, and the scholars who painted well were hailed as the “perfect figure[s] in poetry, calligraphy, and painting.” [5] Although the view of painting as a lowly craft remained deeply rooted in the Joseon period, the Chinese theory of the superiority of literati painting offered literati painters a theoretical basis for their practice. In both China and Korea, the theory of the superiority of literati painting continued in the need for interpreting and monopolizing art to align with the values of the literati, evident in the social system and power structure in both regions.

In the period of the rising power of the literati, even court painters, who were not the literati, produced paintings that catered to the tastes of the literati. The political ideals and philosophy of the literati also influenced values and preferences in painting. Literati painters argued that rough, unskilled brush touches instead of sophisticated brush touches express the inner world better, and the approach took hold as a painting style. [Figure 3] This was partly due to the fact that the literati class had much less time to develop techniques and the talent on fine brush strokes like court painters were able to, and partly a result of their effort to seek freedom in thoughts, by maintaining a distance from sheer techniques in order to come closer to the essence of objects. Modern Chinese researchers also argue that the form is unimportant in “literati painting,” and it has historical artistic value by “playing a creative role with a spirit of eternal avant-garde.” In the late Joseon dynasty, even court painters used the approach of literati painting.

The power of the theory of literati painting in China and Korea became the target of suspicion and criticism in the modern era. This was a result of the loss of the substance and the meaning of the class of the literati, as the concept of the nation was introduced in the modern states. The last court painters who painted using the literati painting approach gradually decreased in number. And as the modern system of the Joseon art exhibition was established by the Japanese rule in the early 20th century, literati painting disappeared altogether with the literati class.

Figure 3: Jung Seon, The landscape of Inwang Mountain, 18c, Wikipedia, accessed 14 June 2020,

/… end of part 1 of 4


[1] Foucault, M. (1972). The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language. Pantheon Books, New York.

[2] Ahn, H. J. (2012). “Solgeo: His Social Status, Active Period, and Artistic Style”. Korean Journal of Art History (274). pp. 5-29. Art History Association Of Korea

[3] Researchers of Kyujanggak. (2010). The Life of Joseon Specialists. Kyujanggak Library of Culture vol. 4. Kyujanggak Institute for Korean Studies. Seoul National University.

[4] Kang, H.W. (2011). Korean Literati Paintings. Han-gil Art.

[5] Ye, L. (1991). An outlined history of Chinese aesthetics. Shanghai People’s Publishing House.

About the Author

Gyung Jin Shin (辛庚珍) is artist, researcher, and PhD candidate at the School of Creative Media, the City University of Hong Kong. Her art works have been exhibited and screened in the US, Europe, and Asia. Her research interest includes art’s social engagement, post-media discourse, post-digital art, new materialism, media archaeology, and Critical Theory.