The Korean word “sohwakhaeng,” which means small but certain happiness, was the hottest consumer trend in South Korea last year. One could think of a pint of crisp cold beer on a hot summer day as an example of “sohwakhaeng.” It is understandable that people pursue small happiness in daily life as they struggle in the society that makes big dreams and successes unlikely for so many people.
A sculpture created by American artist Jasper Johns about 60 years ago seems to have predicted the “sohwakhaeng” trend. The rising artist at the age of 30 created a sculpture of ale cans that he often enjoyed in bronze. The beer brand he chose was Ballantine Ale with an oval-shaped label placed on a brass yellow can of simple design. He allowed visible brushstrokes over the painted labels to distinguish the cast cans from the actual ale cans. Johns also added the fingerprints of a thumb on the sculpted cans and the bottom of the base to emphasize the human touches added in the creation of the art piece unlike mass-produced cans at a factory.
As the then New York art community was led by the mainstream artists of elitism and abstract expressionism represented by painters such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, more familiar and relatable art pieces including Johns’ ale cans were often criticized or mocked by the established art community. Johns later obtained a reputation as the “father of pop art” for having created art pieces inspired by commonly-found images and symbols, not only beer cans but the U.S. flag, maps, targets, and numbers. He is currently recognized as one of the most important living artists in the U.S. and his works are sold at very high prices — one of his pieces from his early career was sold at 110 million dollars.
A beer can is one of the most trivial and unimportant objects in our life. It’s tossed away as soon as it’s emptied. However, we are given an opportunity to see ordinary beer cans from a new perspective thanks to Johns. We pay attention to their shapes and label designs for the first time and contemplate on the value of our daily lives and seemingly meaningless objects symbolized as beer cans. We get to ask ourselves the value of everything and the meaning of small happiness in everyday life.