Culture remains a field for power struggles as AK Party marks 10th year

PM Erdoğan calling sculptor Mehmet Aksoy?s ?Monument to Humanity? (on the left) in the eastern Turkish province of Kars a ?monstrosity? resulted in the monument being demolished in 2011 by the local municipality, while the premier?s remarks earlier this year on his government?s plans to privatize state-funded theaters drew protests from thousands of thespians and theater-goers (above).
The cultural policies of governments in Turkey seldom come under the magnifying glass, often neglected among the hurly-burly of everyday politics.
Yet during the past decade, under the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government, matters of culture and arts prevailed among the most hotly debated topics in Turkey — from landmark cultural centers being closed and monuments being pulled down to plans on privatizing municipal and state theaters.The country has undergone many significant political and economic changes throughout AK Party?s 10 years in power, but has the cultural field seen its fair share of those transformations? Sunday?s Zaman spoke with three significant figures from the Turkish arts and culture world on the cumulative effect of the AK Party?s tenure on the cultural field thus far.

They highlighted politicians? mistrust toward the arts, governance problems and ideologically motivated political approaches as problems that still remain to be resolved.

According to Associate Professor Asu Aksoy from İstanbul Bilgi University?s department of cultural management, who is also the director of the Cultural Policy and Management Research Center, in the last decade the AK Party dropped significant clues concerning the change of policy in the fields of arts and culture. ?The issue of what kind of a mentality should be adopted was discussed very widely. The process of renovating the Atatürk Cultural Center [(AKM) in İstanbul] is a signifier of this mentality. Atilla Koç, the culture and tourism minister at the time, declared that they plan to destroy the center in order to construct a more modern and ostentatious new building that would impress not just with its architecture but also include giant conference halls that would function as a tourism center,? she said during an interview with Sunday?s Zaman, pointing out two important issues within such reasoning.

First of all, Aksoy draws attention to the will which prefers to destroy an already existing cultural heritage rather than keeping and protecting it for the public and, secondly, the will which looks for financial income through using such spaces, as in the example of converting parts of the building into convention centers. ?Of course no one knew what was going to happen to the income that was planned to be earned from such spaces. It wasn?t clear whether it was going to be used for culture or not. In the end, the public did not let this building be destroyed. Several lawsuits followed the process, and the center couldn?t be used for several years. It has now been handed over to the private sector to conduct the restoration,? she explained, stressing the quest of building flagship structures which will function as centers of attraction. ?Rebuilding the Topçu Barracks, which was destroyed in the 1940s, on the other hand, is quite the opposite of what is happening with the AKM. The common thread is bringing commercial activities to these places, such as putting an ice rink in the complex,? she notes.

According to Prime Minister Erdoğan?s 2023 vision, which includes many goals for the 100th anniversary of the Republic of Turkey, many other examples of flagship buildings and complexes are planned to be constructed throughout the country. However, the architectural style and identity of these places is planned in a way that is reminiscent of a specific period of the Ottoman Empire, which is also not clear, Aksoy highlights. ?There is a desire to make a modern reading of the Ottoman period and filling it not with culture but with an understanding focusing on consumerism,? she elaborates.

The fear of arts and culture in Turkey

Established curator and director of research and programs at SALT in İstanbul, Vasıf Kortun, says the Turkish state has already had an unaltered arts and culture policy for years which has continued in this period as well. ?So many contemporary cultural works that do not compromise, do not shy away from being different, and that deal with discrimination and injustice and are truly critical are being impeded and their production hindered with the tools of state. The state does not support them, despises them, pushes them out of the social structure or simply threatens them,? he said, which makes one remember the controversial speech delivered last year by Interior Minister İdris Naim Şahin in which he said, ?There are a great number of people who support the terrorist organization [Kurdistan Workers? Party (PKK)] through their works … of art.?

Another internationally acclaimed curator, Beral Madra also agrees with Kortun, saying that the cultural policy of Turkey has remained unchanged since the 1940s in terms of content, aesthetic and application. ?The only change is the adoption of privatization, which commercialized arts and culture. There is a significant disconnect between Ankara and İstanbul, between the formal and private cultural policies, which is not parallel to the contemporary cultural industry parameters requiring the state, local authorities, the private sector and civil society all operating in harmony together. The AK Party financially invested in the project of İstanbul?s status as the European Capital of Culture in 2010; however, this could not be converted into a sustainable cultural policy in the years that followed,? Madra elaborated.

One of the achievements of efforts exerted for 2010 was to build numerous centers in the various districts of İstanbul. ?There are more than 39 cultural centers in 39 districts of İstanbul. This is a very positive breakthrough. But when we look at what is being done in these places, we see that it centers around educating women and children — which is of course a very important need. However, the question is whether these activities are amateur cultural productions or not. What I mean is, do these people produce musical compositions? Do they write plays or stories? Do they give concerts in other centers, for example?? Aksoy asked, also pointing out the lack of creativity in the productions undertaken at these centers.

?I wish the process of giving cultural funds to these centers could become transparent so that independent artists could be included in these places to create a more diverse program. In this regard, arts and culture are something to be afraid of in this country. If art is not asking a question, cannot open a new perspective, then what is the meaning of it? We all need to understand that arts and culture is a field of thought, a field in which diversity is important,? she stressed, adding that it otherwise becomes a field in which knowledge is repeated rather than constructed.?

Governing arts and culture

As for the issue of how cultural activities should be conducted in upcoming years, all three experts believe that the state and private sector should work together while also being audited by actors to protect the rights of the public.

Kortun underlined that Turkey needs a state policy rather than a party policy. ?Otherwise I sincerely believe that there is no future for Turkey. We should first believe this, and only then will it be easy to create a model of governance,? he added.

In a similar vein, Madra also called for cooperation between politicians and experts regardless of their political affiliation. ?There is no doubt that politicians won?t give up their own party principles, but harmony between them and the principles of global cultural policy could be established,? she stressed.
Questions such as how culture should be governed, how the state should organize the field of arts and culture and what the missions of cultural institutions are, are being asked and debated in public for the first time in Turkey, says Aksoy, citing recent discussions on privatizing state theaters in the country. ?This is a very positive development; however, the outcome of these discussions is also important. Culture is not something that everybody would agree on. It cannot be regulated through orders, an approach of ?such and such a thing cannot be done in the public sphere,? or ?such and such a thing is moral or immoral? cannot regulate this field. We witnessed this ideologically regulatory attitude in the removal of the monument in Kars. The prime minister said this is a monstrosity and it was destroyed,? she said.

Kortun also stresses the fact that the monument in Kars was in a field, not in a building. ?Whether you like it or not, it should have been there. Just like I believe that the right of elected politicians to speak should be less than that of the individual when it comes to culture, I also believe it would be better if they avoid talking about these issues. Arts and culture is the most fragile segment of our life, and they should be protected from the majority when necessary. Culture is a field of debate; it won?t stay as is, and you cannot anchor it. It is not a service and it is not done to please or carried out only if it is plausible. Getting angry at the 1930s and taking down a monument in 2011 is not the way,? he explains, pointing out a bigger problem of setting a bad example: ?If the prime minister orders something demolished, what would the people on the street do? What would a student in high school learn??

Rumeysa Kiger, İstanbul
Today’s Zaman
9/12/2012

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