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.