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‘Promoting’ culture is outdated

Jan 08,2018
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When BTS made an appearance at the American Music Awards last year, K-pop expert Hong Seok-kyung, a professor at Seoul National University, exploded in anger upon reading an interview by a Korean-American scholar with American media.

“The scholar said BTS owes its success to government support as if the Korean Wave is state-sponsored pop culture nurtured as soft power,” she said. “Not just this Korean-American scholar but the Western media also has this kind of misunderstanding about the Korean Wave.”

Ever since the Kim Dae-jung administration advocated the establishment of culture, administrations have been promoting cultural industries, but most accomplishments come from the private sector spontaneously. BTS was a low-profile group that garnered little recognition at the beginning.

“Hopefully, explanations that the Korean Wave is an outcome of export-driven cultural industries based on government support and active government promotion are no longer true,” Hong said. “Every government invests in culture and supports overseas expansion, but international success is not a result of government efforts. The government can help open the waterways but cannot make water flow.”

At the end of last year, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism announced its first literature promotion plan. It is a step forward from the lack of attention in basic arts. As the core of content is storytelling, reviving literature is a key task.

However, some say that the five-year plan for promotion of literature sounds awkward and is reminiscent of the government’s five-year economic development plans. “It is doubtful whether literature can be promoted,” Pyo Jung-hoon, a literary critic, wrote on Facebook, “and the mindset of government leading promotion in a certain field could plant the seeds of a blacklist.”

In fact, there are many cultural “promotion” agencies in Korea, such as the Korea Creative Content Agency, Korean Film Council and Publication Industry Promotion Agency. Perhaps the use of “promotion” in government agency names led to the misunderstanding that the Korean Wave is a product of state-driven cultural exports.

Can culture really be promoted? The concept has an impact on the cultural scene. As support for promotion leads to distribution of funds, political inclinations could trigger a “cultural blacklist.” The most desirable attitude of the government would be offering support with minimal interference. Here, the support should be “backing and aiding, not leading the development of a certain field, as it is up to the field to flourish or not,” Pyo wrote.

The government should focus on providing a solid infrastructure to build a healthy ecosystem. There is no liberal or conservative stance in establishing such infrastructure. “If the government wants to do something for continued development of the Korean Wave, it would be best to provide a policy foundation to improve the labor and living conditions of young people aspiring to succeed in popular culture,” Hong said.

In the new year, cultural circles need to draw a big picture in cultural policy. The Korea Creative Content Agency has welcomed a new leader, and other agencies will also have new heads. Hopefully, they will break from the old frame of “promoting” culture.

JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 6, Page 26

*The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.

YANG SUNG-HEE