After relentless prodding from most of my social circles to watch the Netflix series Squid Game, I gave in already and opened the page on my app. I pause in awe realizing that underneath that little white “play” button is the success of more than 20 years worth of meticulously orchestrated strategies.
I look around and K-pop is amazingly everywhere: media, food, fashion, and now in the UN assembly. Korean culture is ablaze, even brighter in this pandemic, while the Philippine cultural industries are struggling to fan their own dimming embers.
How did K-culture do it? This Korean wave did not happen spontaneously. After the Asian Financial crisis of 1997, then president Kim Dae-Jung identified strategies that would solve Korea’s image problem and create new industries on top of traditional manufacturing. He invested in two economic drivers: information technology and culture.
In 2009, the Korea Creative Content Agency (KOCCA) was established to efficiently support the growth of the cultural industry. Brilliant minds from the public and private sectors gathered to revolutionize strategies for developing and distributing K-culture. Their thoughtful collection and analysis of market data guide business plans to attract people locally and overseas.
Korea’s leaders clearly did not waste this COVID crisis. Probably foreseeing the extended lockdown in 2021, they focused their efforts on online activities, while people were stuck at home. With an astounding 42.7 percent increase from the previous year’s budget, they rode the streaming wave and created a concert hall designed for virtual concerts. This was a big bet which they apparently won, because last June, a concert streamed by K-pop band BTS became the world’s biggest-earning online music event, with 1.33 million online viewers from 195 countries.
Culture is largely seen as monolithic and sacred, only meant to be revered inside a glass case in a museum, something no one should dare commodify.
Meanwhile, in the Philippines, the pandemic bared the systemic deficits of our cultural industries. Creative workers are forced to play the stereotype of angry, hungry artists suddenly in need of ayuda.
The cultural agencies are making the most of what they’re given, but the measly budgets are a glaring indication that many people view culture and art as independent from economic (read: important) concerns. Culture is largely seen as monolithic and sacred, only meant to be revered inside a glass case in a museum, something no one should dare commodify. This aversion to capitalist ideas comes naturally to a people with a long history of inequality and injustice. But business, itself, is not inherently evil.
If we want to advance, we have to acknowledge that there are multiple values in culture — and in its aliveness.
The concept of “cultural capital” was raised as early as 1998 in terms of heritage conservation during a meeting organized by the Getty Institute of Conservation. Cultural capital includes tangible or intangible assets that have separate economic and cultural values. It can exist in ideas, traditions, beliefs and customs shared by a community, and it also includes intellectual capital, like language, literature, music. Cultural capital appreciates and gives rise to a flow of goods and services over time, and thus requires investment and incurs risk.
Reframing culture within this economic viewpoint would allow creative solutions on issues of growth, sustainability and investment.
Recent buzz about the proposals for a Department of Culture and the Creative Industries Bill brings the promise of our own KOCCA. The Creative Industries bill, now in the Senate for approval, seeks long-term investment from the government and employs the knowhow of private sectors. Finally, here comes a vision for a management that is poised to employ economics and technology; that respects the need for a proper research agenda and revolutionized education for going forward.
However, amid this excitement, I still worry. I find it odd that the proponents find the need to distinguish creative industries from cultural industries, saying that the latter, like natural heritage sites or indigenous rituals, “have little to contribute to intellectual property, job creation and wealth.” Sprinkled in the discussion of the bill are undertones of the same thinking that relegates culture as a trivial burden of the past, instead of leveraging it as a foundation of creative endeavors.
I recall the painting in Nick Joaquin’s play A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino. The artist painted himself as a creature with two heads: as both Aeneas and Anchises, the son carrying his father on his back while fleeing from the burning city of Troy. This is a perfect illustration of the crisis that we are in. Nick Joaquin reminds us that cultural heritage is the source of all poetry and creativity, it is the conscience (yes, a burden, in a way) that can save us from dangers that come with commodification.
The bills passed for the development of Philippine culture are iterations that are meant to develop — like all good innovations — and we are all rooting for their success. As soon as we get through the troubles of definitions, squirm through the obstacles of bureaucracy, and sort out the overlaps in mandates of existing cultural agencies, these measures can help realize the swollen potential of Filipino creatives. Even if it would take 20 years, as it did with K-pop, I’m certain the sweet success of the Philippine creative industries will be worth the while.