Korean art is difficult to assess because the Koreans have kept their art to themselves. Outsiders have therefore ranked the Korean product as a provincial variation of Chinese art--a variation, moreover, that produced no important developments of its own, such as the color print of Japan. A further difficulty has stemmed form the fact that the creative periods of Korea's past have been short-lived and most of Korea's great art has died out, leaving few traces of greatness behind it.
One of the reasons for this neglect is that modern Korean scholars have not yet had time to do the task. Much more is now known about the whole range of Korean art, from neolithic times to the present, than was known a generation ago. Archeological excavations done during the period of Japanese rule in Korea (1905-45) have brought to light a great body of fresh materials for the study of the art and archeology of ancient periods, and the despoliation of tombs since the fall of the Yi dynasty in 1910 has provided many new examples of Koryo pottery for the study of ceramics. For the study of the Choson (Yi) period, much is available in the national collections as well as in private collections, but it has been only in the last ten years that Korean scholars have had the opportunity to study this period according to modern methods of research, since that area of investigation was almost completely closed to them during Japanese rule.
The studies that have been done to date have been largely by Japanese scholars who have undoubtedly contributed to the popularization of the subject both in Japan and abroad by publishing many well-illustrated and handsomely printed books. At the same time, a number of fine specimens of pottery and painting began to filter into museums and private collections in Europe and the United States, thereby arousing further interest. One of the chief services accomplished by the Japanese publications was to establish the fact that Korea, from the fifth century on, produced masterpieces, many of which are still extant, in all the major art forms of the Far East.
Moreover, a growing appreciation of Korean art has accorded it recognition for certain qualities which have set it apart in the museums of the world as distinctly Korean. The difference, in a word, appears to have resulted from the fact that Korean artists were obliged, more often by their poverty than by their neighbors, to rely upon beauty of line and shape rather than upon costly materials. The resulting works of art were marked by elegance and refinement during periods of political stability, but during periods of war they were rustic and careless. In both extremes of refinement and rusticity, however, were to be found . . .