Korean Popular Culture

The Textbook-in-progress of the Ivy League's first class on the Korean Wave. This blog is the work of University of Pennsylvania EALC 198/598 students (Spring 2006 & 2007). Please apply proper citation when using any part of this blog. For details on citing this site see: http://www.bedfordstmartins.com/online/cite5.html#1

Friday, January 26, 2007

In Defense of [Korean] Popular Culture

According to Matthew Arnold, culture is the "best that has been thought and said in the world". The word "culture" conjures a multitude of of varied connotations--"culture" can be a painting by DaVinci or Sienna Miller on the cover of InStyle Magazine, a piano piece by Chopin or an R&B chart-topper by Ne-Yo; Raymond Williams (in "Keywords--A Vocabulary of Culture and Society) justifies the spectrum that culture covers by asserting that "culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language". Returning to the aforementioned examples of culture, the works of DaVinci and Chopin marked what was "best" of their respective eras; their contributions were "endeavours to know the best and make [this] knowledge prevail for the good of all humankind" (Arnold). That said, are fashion magazines, hip hop music, MTV and Hollywood representations of the culture of our time? Arnold Levis declared that "the twentieth century is marked by an increasing cultural decline"--does his bold statement hold any weight? It is essential for one to take into consideration the distinction between "high culture" and "popular culture", but Levis' words still allude to a painfully truthful reality, perhaps one that we are still in denial of.

What is the popular success of J.K Rowling's "Harry Potter" compared to the classic plays of William Shakespeare? One may argue that the reason Shakespeare is established as a larger literary giant is because his works have the credibility of transcending time--would J.K Rowling be held on an equally high pedestal centuries later?--I think not. One may argue that Shakespeare and Rowling are both highly successful authors, but their works are classified under such different genres that it is not possible to compare them on a fair playing field--or it may be that society regards pop culture as decidedly less deep/meaningful/important than high culture. Who decides these standards and labels anyway? How does one arbitrarily classify a work of art as pop or high culture? Popular culture is "culture actually made by the people for themselves" (Williams)--since we make the rules, don't we have the same power to break the rules and guidelines we set for ourselves?

If the success of a cultural object is measured by the popularity of the product, pop culture objects win hands down: "popular culture reaches a far wider audience than high culture" (Macdonald). There is a disproportionate discrepancy between the probability of one picking up an entertainment/sports/fashion magazine versus reading a Shakespearean sonnet at leisure. Popular culture is the culture of the masses (Arnold), one might even say that it is a "low-class" culture (in contrast to high culture). Other labels and criticisms of pop culture include stigmas that pop culture is trivial, superficial, meaningless, an intellectual wasteland, and paradoxically, that pop culture lacks [high] culture altogether. That said, are we a lost generation without culture, refinement or talent, driven by self-seeking pleasures and monetary gain?--the enormous "financial rewards" (Macdonald) of popular culture cannot be overlooked. Is our society as trivial, superficial and meaningless as the mass pop culture we indulge in?

Why are we even in a class that focuses on [Korean] Popular Culture? I don't think pop culture is as inconsequential as the stigmas placed around it. Pop culture creates group solidarity, a sense of identity and belonging to the members involved. It also establishes identity, acts as a social glue, and at its core level, offers entertainment--where would we go to alleviate the stresses of life without music, television, magazines, sports, computer games, Facebook, etc.--besides being an enjoyable and pleasurable activity, pop culture provides the occasional, much needed escape from reality. An important point I would like to highlight is how pop culture acts like a social glue and creates a sense of identity, and how this applies to Koreans and Korean Popular Culture. I have noticed that Korean-Americans are a lot more nationalistic than Chinese-Americans. Their KP (Korean Pride) manifests in a variety of different forms, from being an activist in political issues such as LiNk (Liberty in North Korea), or indulging in Korean drama serials/being closet K-pop fans. I was surprised to see that an American-born Korean friend of mine had a huge flag of Korea hanging by his bed--no Chinese-American would ever do that. Perhaps for Korean-Americans, Korean Popular Culture holds a deeper significance than simply surface entertainment--it helps forge a deeper connection with their heritage and solidifies a sense of identity and community, which is so ever so essential in the melting-pot, "culture-less" culture of North America today.


At 1:48 AM, Blogger Joe Mondello said...

Hey, I just discovered your blog and I really love it. Just a few thoughts about this post.
First of all, about high and low culture and pop culture. Shakespeare was pop culture in his day, in that his work appealed to a broad audience. Many of the things that people now consider high culture were at their inception popular culture. That said I think it is not impossible for something initially considered popular or culture to ascend to the ranks of high culture over time. Citizen Kane and Casablanca were not indie films nor were they released in art theaters exclusively. I personally think the factors that make cultural products resonate are depth and insight of feeling and perception about the nature of mankind and the world. To that end, some of the television shows currently airing in the U.S. (e.g. The Wire) may find lasting appreciation as high art.
To take some examples from Korean culture, specifically drama, I think we find that a majority of Korean TV dramas are maudlin, crass, and derivative both of their predecessors within their genre and of other dramas. We see the same simplistic crises played out again and again (amnesia, people pretending to be dating for whatever reason and winding up falling in love, mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law in conflict, etc.). It's this repetitiveness that makes the exceptions all the more admirable. I am thinking specifically of the recent 소문난 칠공주 (Somunnan Chilgongju: sorry, I don't know the English title), which both reveled in and transcended the strictures of the drama format. The most notable instance was the story of Michil, who grew up a flimsy, spoiled princess, married a promising young man, but wound up dissatisfied with her life. Despite being pregnant, she left her husband and got a job in a small town hospital. As a viewer, it is apparent that the decision has provided an opportunity for Michil to grow into the fully developed adult human being that being a spoiled young woman in Korean society hadn't. At the same time, the viewer can see that this growth process which in another (e.g. American) context would be a cause for celebration for all is viewed extremely negatively by her parents, who can't bear seeing their princess laboring like a commoner. We can see through this that a parent's wishes for their child may not always be the best thing for the child.
To me this message represents an amazing departure from the typically cotton candy-light thought that goes into the average Korean drama. It seems to me that future Koreans, looking at this somewhat light area of Korean culture, may find something both timely and enduring in this drama that is lacking in others. Perhaps Somunnann Chilgongju will some day be viewed as a high cultural product.

At 10:24 PM, Blogger Samantha said...

I agree completely with your post, Sandy. Pop culture is very important to establishing a national identity, especially for groups like Korean-Americans who are geographically displaced from Korea. I think pop culture is a better expression of the values and aspirations of a certain culture than high culture simply because it reaches everyone in the population, and not just the elite. Pop culture is a great way for people of any culture to connect with a nation and learn more about what is important to that nation. It's also a lot of fun, which I think makes it an enjoyable and convenient way to learn about a culture (which is why I decided to take this class!).


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