Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Schizophrenic Arts of Korea

Dear Korean,

As Korea has a hyper-competitive education system/society, are students actively discouraged from becoming musicians or artists (I mean real musicians. not the k-pop, look-good-but-can’t-sing-for-peanuts, populist kind,) and if so, what kind of person would pursue these activities in Korea?

Just Kinda Curious

Dear JKC,

Your instincts are on the right track. Traditionally, musicians or artists were not a venerated occupation in Korea at all. They formed the lowest of the social order, along with butchers and executioners.

However, it is important to note that this attitude does not indicate that traditional Korea was hostile to arts. It is quite the contrary. One of the essential qualities of the members of the yangban (= noblemen) class was the ability to write beautiful poetry and draw elegant black ink paintings, which were all part of higher learning along with broad knowledge of Chinese classics.

So it would be more appropriate to say that Koreans have a strong sense of “high” art and “low” art. For Koreans, anyone who wishes to be considered educated must have a general knowledge of the “high” arts. On the other hand, those who devote themselves full time to “low” arts are considered, well, low.

Such attitude persists to this day, except that the categories of “high” and “low” art have changed. “Low” art included new forms of pop culture, such as cartoons or pop music. Indeed, most Koreans did not consider pop musicians to be artists until around 15 years ago.

The interesting part is the new “high” arts in Korea. Guess what the most prominent form of new “high” art in Korea is? Fellow Koreans, what did all of you learn when you were children? That’s right – Classical music! Indeed, classical music has become the high art in Korea, as Chinese poetry and black ink painting went out of style. Since every Korean mother wishes her children to be educated, learning to play some classical music instrument has become an essential part of Korean childhood. The Korean himself had to learn piano, and violin is also quite common. Drawing and painting is also included the “high” art category, although to a lesser degree.

So let’s get to the answer of the last part of the question. Who are the people who pursue artistic activities in Korea? For “low” arts, mostly creative-minded people who did not do so well in school. This trend has been changing in a major way recently, but even as late as 10 years ago, it was a big deal for someone who attended Seoul National University (= best college in Korea) to become a pop singer. Slightly earlier in time, there were some Korean pop singers who initially gained notoriety as “SNU graduates who can sing.” (For example, Jeong Seok-Won of 015B.)

What about “high” arts? Answer: every Korean, until s/he quits. Some quit early, like the Korean himself who quit in less than a year after throwing massive tantrums. Many Koreans keep it up until they reach college, when they major in something other than music. And a considerable number simply continues on, flooding world’s top conservatories. (Bonus points for anyone who can identify the talented cellist in the picture.)

Aside 1: the Korean recently took a violist to Cal alumni bar in order to watch college football. Upon entering and seeing the sea of black hairs and brown eyes, she said: “Oh, it’s just like Juilliard.”

Aside 2: when Margaret Cho held a show at Carnegie Hall, her opening joke was: “I am certain that I am the first Korean to stand here on the stage of Carnegie Hall without a violin in my hand.”

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@hotmail.com.

-EDIT Oct. 22, 2008 8:28 a.m.- Proving the high-low point, Dong-A Ilbo highlighted an SNU grad who debuted as an actress. (Article in Korean.)


  1. Han Na Chang? The only reason I know her is because my cousin (who was also forced to learn violin as a kid) showed me her videos on YouTube.

  2. People whose parents are artists can become artists. Also, the mentally ill.

    Actually, I think it's allowable to become an original, spontaneous artist as long as you get a Master's and PhD and a tenured position in whatever creative form of self-expression you choose.

  3. oooh soo sad T_T ...
    and it is like Hungary,at some points...

  4. For famous "high" people doing "low" music, don't forget Tablo from Epic High who is more famous for his degree in Stanford than his music.

  5. This answer is rather incomplete, although in most ways you're on track, you've neglected to mention the Munhwajaebohobeop and the various efforts for cultural preservation plus the often intense association of nationalism and some types of traditional or semi-traditional performing arts.

  6. btw...where are breakdance crews on this scale?

  7. Eons ago, Nuna took art, piano, singing, speech(stand in front of podium and yell kind), calligrapy and swimming lessons.

    Offsprings of the rich attended because they could smirk their way into SKY (The dumb ones bought stand-ins at exams). They were also sent to private grade schools with uniforms(!) while ragtag spawns of working professionals/intelligentsia wiped noses with the sleeves of dirt-stained white tracksuits (bought from the local stationer for 5000 won) and soon dropped these classes in favour of cram schools.

    Nuna remembers a subset whose children went into field-orientated high schools such as dance, visual arts and sports schools (excluding baseball, for which you could get sports scholarships to high-ranking academic high schools). Out of an entire graduating class, only one or two would successfully debut with the school's recommendations, and even fewer made it big. Politics often meant more than talent. Whether their talent was natural was also debatable, as careers in sports/arts were considered to be for kids "too stupid to study".

    Then there were the poor kids who couldn't afford to wear a different set of clothes every school day (6 days a week, Saturday being a half-day). They would go into business or technical college. This was useless, because even in the 90s you needed a university degree to scrub public toilets (employment in the gubment sector). If these kids learnt a non-academic pursuit, it was solely due to their willingness.

    Nuna's parents tried to find Nuna's natural talents. Nuna sucked at everything except swimming and art, so Nuna ended up doing something her parents approve of. Nuna suspects this happened to the majority of Koreans around her age, rather than any stigma relating to the "entertainment industry" (though applying for an Entertainment Visa to enter Korea still requires HIV checks) or the poverty surrounding the arts.

  8. boo ksoje, it's no fun if you get it right the first time.

    cedarbough, what you pointed out is such a minor blip that it is not worth getting into in a general post like this.

    maxiemilla, breakdancing would be in the "low" category, but like all "low" arts in Korea, it is increasingly gaining respect.

  9. Computer crashed but I came back...not going to rewrite everything but figured I'd just drop a link this time around.


  10. you know,I saw an interview with Gambler(? maybe,it was long time ago)but they said,they can make a living from breakdancing,because they are considered as professional artists!!and getting some support from the government,also?!I was so surprised and happy about that,they are so much respected!


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