2023 Sejong Writing Competition
Winning Entries :: Essays :: Adult first place
first place, adult essay division
Tradition and modernism exist in tension with one another. Tradition constantly and inevitably influences modernity, while modernity pushes tradition aside, seeking progress and novelty. Kim Jung-hyuk analyzes this tension in “The Glass Shield,” focusing on tradition and modernism in art, and characterizing this ideological tension as a human friendship. The narrator’s relationship with M in “The Glass Shield” juxtaposes postmodern and traditional ideologies, providing a vehicle for Kim Jung-hyuk’s commentary on the nature of art.
Neither the narrator of “The Glass Shield” nor his best friend, M, entirely represents traditionalism or modernism. Rather, the two main characters demonstrate different combinations of postmodernism and traditionalism. The narrator acts primarily within the bounds of traditionalism. He offers reliable, linear narration reminiscent of traditional literary conventions. He is predictable, steady, and straightforward. M, in contrast, embodies postmodernism. He is unpredictable and spontaneous. However, neither character is at peace within his natural ideology. The narrator longs for and loves the subjectivity of postmodern art. After M stretches out the yarn on the subway and the narrator terms it “art,” the narrator “did have a sense of missed opportunity” (216). He finds the varied interpretations of their stunt beautiful and enticing when M thinks them ridiculous (220). In contrast, M embraces spontaneity, but longs for the structure and predictability of traditionalism. M pulls the yarn into a line while the narrator stands next to its circular tangles (214). With the narrator’s help, M “put the price of it [the beer] on the left hand side of the table” (217). M relies on the narrator to create the structure for which he longs, and the narrator relies on M to provide the spontaneity and excitement that he craves. Their relationship works because each has–and creates–what the other wants.
The tangled mess of yarn that the friends bring onto the oxymoronic "circle line" symbolizes and undermines their interconnectedness and interdependence (208). The narrator’s coincidental exclusion from creating the artistic experience foreshadows his voluntary exclusion from M’s pursuit of a more traditional, linear lifestyle at the end of the story. M wishes to continue working as an interviewer, a constant job with an element of the performative fun that comes naturally to him. He no longer needs the narrator to help him create the structure he craves, because the narrator inadvertently created a permanent structure for him by “saying the art word for the first time in [his] life” (215). The “art word” creates a world in which M and the narrator are experiential artists. Together, they create “special” experiences for others to enjoy, similarly to their earlier job interviews (226). As their notoriety increases, the narrator sees M’s tendency towards structure, tradition, and linear living, and pulls away from him. In doing so, the narrator falls fully into a postmodern mindset, finding his true self and his true beliefs by rejecting his natural linearity and embracing postmodernism.
The narrator’s interest in and final fall into postmodernism is signified by circles–the opposite of the lines along which M chooses to live. He sees the tangles of yarn on the subway seat as “an artist’s painting, like the landscape of [his] heart” (212). They represent the endless possibilities and interpretations of the human experience. Without M pulling him towards the linear, the narrator follows this convolution of opinion quickly and joyfully. He admires the Internet’s many interpretations of the yarn, and considers glass shield simultaneously pointless and extraordinarily useful (224). This duality of truth, opinion, and reality directly contrasts with his clear narrative style. This forces the reader to accept a traditional narrator with postmodern ideas and to create a postmodern definition of art in the process–that art is a subjective, “special experience” (215). By this definition, art constantly changes, circles back on itself, and alters to fit any reality that an individual brings to it. Traditional art is powerful because it cycles the past back into the present, and consumers of traditional art recreate it by experiencing it in a new way. Modern art is powerful because it uses tradition to recreate the past for a modern viewer with modern experience. When generations of art coexist, all art is modern in the individual experience, and the moment of consumption is itself an artistic recreation of art.
When understanding experience as art, life itself becomes art so long as it is experienced. This is why the narrator wonders if M is “just waiting for [him] to loosen the ties first” (222). He realizes that he must experience life and art on his own terms and in his own way. In a final attempt to revitalize his friendship, the narrator asks M to “‘go back to the beginning again’” (231). The narrator circles back to his childhood dreams, and M chooses to continue following the straight path in front of him. M is not interested in circling back, in re-experiencing, or in rediscovering. He seeks practicality, sustainability, and the traditional lifestyle to which he is drawn. The narrator recognizes that his artistic awakening, triggered by “the art word” on the subway, is incompatible with M’s new lifestyle and with his own traditional tendencies, and their relationship fades.
“The Glass Shield” is a story of personal and artistic redefinition that engages with literary tradition through its narration and use of writing as a vehicle for societal commentary. By allowing tradition and postmodernism to coexist in his narrative, Jung-hyuk makes a powerful case for their coexistence in the external world of art, as well. The two are not mutually exclusive, as evidenced by the narrator’s long-lasting friendship with M. However, there does come a point at which the two must separate. Tradition must follow its beaten path, and modernism must circle back to the beginning and learn how to recreate itself in a never-ending cycle.