2016 Sejong Writing Competition
Winning Entries :: Essays :: Adult third place
third place, adult essay division
Growing up: The Child, Art, and the Imagination
Kim’s “The Glass Shield” uses art as a medium through which to examine the imaginative propensity towards unconventional definitions of fun that is given up in the transition from childhood to adulthood. The creativity that inspires M and the narrator to stretch their unraveled yarn across the length of many subway cars is born from a childish delight and curiosity that is stifled by society’s fear of the novelty of their idea; they are only unraveling yarn, but the train employee confiscates even this simple outlet of imagination due to the bomb-scare it inspires in other passengers. There seems to be no place in society for those who deviate from normalcy until art is brought into the picture. Art becomes the haven of creativity, the sanctuary of imagination, the salvation of M and the narrator’s livelihoods, and yet art is also the double-edged sword and the transparent shield that keeps reality at bay but cannot block it from view.
Despite how prominently it is featured in “The Glass Shield,” defining what art is still presents a challenge. I like to think of it as an attempt to preserve the wonder, imagination, and ability to laugh at and be inspired by the unexpected, all of which seems to be lost to the daily grind of life. On some levels though, this definition is unsatisfying; it doesn’t address the perseverance that is necessary to convince society to regard one’s “acute sense of fun” (215) and its products as art, and it doesn’t include the necessity of having an explanation for one’s art. Art is something born from the artist’s emotion and individual perspective, but even though we don’t necessarily understand why the red and blue yarn against a green background was like “an artist’s painting, like the landscape of (the narrator's) heart” (212), that doesn’t mean that we can’t find our own meaning in the piece itself. According to the story, the importance of art is derived from its being shared. By reaching people who interpret the same artwork in unique ways based on their individual experiences, art can unite an array of diverse peoples and form a community through the relatability of a single object. But herein too lies the problem: the need to understand. Society wants an explanation, so much so that there is such a person as the Professional Art Reporter. The professional’s job is to use analysis to reverse the sublimation process of art and then package the art into an easily digestible format, but the irony is that even the professional doesn’t really understand art. The concept of the photo shoot is supposed to be freedom, but the professional and the photographer really just want a repeat performance of what happened on the subway with the yarn. They don’t have the imagination to see the potential freedom in a childish sword fight; they can only appreciate it in retrospect.
The relationship between M and the narrator is familial in nature, despite their not being related by blood. They live together, attend interviews together, and continue to depend on and support each other despite their numerous failed attempts and despite society’s lack of understanding. The friendship between M and the narrator represents not only the strength and perseverance derived from interpersonal relationships, but it also represents two different ways of living that are trying to be reconciled with one another. It almost feels like M and the narrator are two faces of the same person, two facets of the same personality. The narrator is the self-conscious, pragmatic side that is subject to the judgment of society; he worries about how he is viewed by others, thinks about the future, and wants to portray an image of respectability. On the other hand, M is the inner child; he lives in the moment and throws caution to the wind, which is exemplified when he decides to buy a sword instead of food. Though they have tackled several interviews together and become “professional interviewers” of sorts, the relationship isn’t meant to last. They had collaborated in “giving encouragement to fail-aholics” and “were delighted to be someone’s shield, even if the shield was only plastic or glass” (230), but reality was looming through the transparent medium. The narrator muses that “life had become a sort of three-legged race” (222), and being tied to someone was resulting in both of them moving slower, getting more and more behind in society. Furthermore, M and the narrator’s riding the subway circle line becomes a metaphor for how they’re circling around the same obstacle (interviews, whether it’s being the interviewer or the interviewee), going round and round but not really going anywhere.
Art is what ends up transforming them; it is what puts the fork in the road. Like the activity of unraveling the yarn, the more they spend their time practicing art and creating new interview methods and questions, the further they drift apart. But the yarn still connects them, and through the tension in the string they can still feel each other’s presence. However, the bus route is not like the subway’s circular path. The exhaustion from what society had turned from fun art into tedious work begins to take its toll, making the narrator realize that their paths were starting to differentiate. The fork in the road—the loss of fun—was forcing them to choose, and “he chose the left and I chose the right” (231). What used to be one electrical wire had frayed into two halves, and the adult was splitting from the child, hardly even noticing that anything had changed until it was too late. “The Glass Shield” is a story about the transition between childhood and adulthood, and despite the shield in the story being made out of plastic, it really was as fragile as a glass shield. The glass shield—art—could only serve as a temporary barrier against the pressure of reality until it was forced to crack.