The reason we are moved by art is because it touches our soul. In this world, sometimes art seems like the last resort for our sanity. We suppose that artists have pure hearts and minds that enable them to create something inspiring. We tend to regard them as figures that are distanced from earthly matters. Viewed from this perspective, sexual assaults committed by many well-known artists committed, even against teenagers, are even more shocking for us. The tweets reporting sexual crime do not seem to decrease. They only get worse. Digging further, we can see that there was a deeply rooted problem that made all of them possible in the first place.
Chaos seems to be the perfect word to describe the current state of the Korean arts and culture scene. Although a bombshell was dropped in the political scene shortly after this issue surfaced and it clearly lost the public’s attention quickly, it is still an issue of critical importance.
The whole chain of tweets all started from a woman who reported that she was sexually assaulted by a male webtoon* artist when she was a teenager. She also wrote that another webtoon artist Lee Ja Hye, played a role in inciting the crime and even used the incident as material for her webtoon. This tweet was retweeted at an unimaginable speed. As this tweet went viral, the publisher of Lee’s books announced that they will stop printing all of her works. This was just the tip of the iceberg.
* a composite word made from web and cartoon
Soon after, similar tweets from women telling their stories of being sexually harassed by the poet Park Jin Sung were all over the internet. Women banded together quickly under the hashtag #sexual_crime_in_the_literary world. Then, the sexual harassment committed by the renowned author of the novel Eun-Gyuo (2010), Park Beom Shin, was in the limelight. In addition, Bae Young Jae, a poet that taught literature in an arts high school, also turned out be guilty.
This phenomenon was not exclusive to the literary world. Afterwards, curators, professors, performers, photographers, animators, and many more were found to be committing sexual crimes also. The issue of sexual crimes committed by artists is not new, but never has such an endless chain of reports of real experiences surfaced. It had become obvious that this dark side of the Korean arts and culture scene has existed for a long time, and that the extent of this disorder surpasses our imagination.
The tweet concerning the webtoon artist was just a tipping point. Numerous hashtags were created almost simultaneously and the archive just kept getting larger. Also, the experiences are all similar in a broader sense. Their lower position in the art world hierarchy was the weak point that was abused. The victims of the crimes were almost all women too, harassed by elder males.
▲ Photo of Park Beom Shin’s response tweet, now deleted. Provided by ohmynews.com
▲ Photo of Bae Yong Jae’s post on his blog. Captured from photo provided by inewspeople.co.kr
Then the question of “Why?” arises. Academics and professionals, including Professor Lee Taek Gwang (School of Global Communication, Kyung Hee University), and pop culture critic Jung Duk Hyun, share the consensus that this problem is not a one-time thing that can be attributed to a single individual. The serial phenomenon of sexual assault committed by artists is rather due to the power structure of the arts and culture scene remaining in Korea.
Specifically, the literary scene in Korea has a strict platform when one starts a career as a novelist or a poet. A group of judges, consisting of established senior artists, select very few artists that they deem worthy of debuting. This system became a custom and has survived until this day. It made relationships with seniors deadly important, and the whole literary world became a closed society. Thus, some of the artists exploit their position and power to coerce and sexually assault many would-be-authors.
The arts scene is no different. In our 2016 October Issue’s Cover Story “Release the Standing Water—Exploring the Cartel Structure of the Korean Art Scene,” we have recently dug deep into the cartel structure embedded in the arts scene. There are an incredibly small number of figures controlling the whole mechanics of the art world. In other words, when an artist or a curator gets famous through whatever means, their name and their existence itself become an authority.
This power structure enables the authority figures to commit sexual harassment shamelessly, knowing that the victims will keep their silence. This attitude is clear in the responses that the accused artists posted on their own social media outlets. Novelist Park Beom Shin quoted Stendhal, “I lived, wrote and loved,” and conveyed a very light-weight and unregretful attitude in his tweet after the controversy surfaced. Poet Bae Yong Jae also did not show any remorse and even worse, his words connoted that his sexual assaults were committed under agreement.
Jung stated that “the modern world has a strong weapon called SNS. Artists now are not confined to the existing system of debuting. However, some thoughtless artists of the older generation seem to be unaware of this change. With the help of anonymity, people started speaking up and exposing the naked truth.” It seems obvious that a technological breakthrough is occurring, and thanks to it, it served as an influential outlet for a better future.
The current sensational hashtag movement is therefore a positive sign that can incite some real changes for the arts and culture scene as a whole. The first step towards an overturning a problematic situation is knowing exactly what the problem is. This step has been successfully achieved by brave and young artists via SNS and it should not stop here. Strategic remedies should be drawn up and should be implemented as soon as possible.
Professor Lee pointed out, “Revealing these hideous crimes itself would not solve the problem. After some time, it is highly possible that the inflictors would return. Individual apologies and self-reflection cannot fix problems that originate from a power relationship. To prevent the recurrence of similar incidents, institutional policies are needed.”
Indeed, considering the severity of the current situation, believing in the arts and culture scene’s self-purification ability seems to be naive. Just as the streams of reports are unprecedented, the solution must also be groundbreaking. Those who deserve criminal punishment need to be punished, and the debut system should be done fairly and transparently. Abusing of the power structure should cease, and to successfully achieve this goal, a peer review system, suggested by Professor Lee, can be helpful. Monitoring and keen attention from the artist society and people outside the arts scene are also required. Strenuous efforts will pay off, resulting in a much more dynamic and prosperous arts and culture scene in Korea.