Local and National Art

Translated from Turkish by Translators for justice

Source: http://www.birikimdergisi.com/haftalik/7914/yerli-ve-milli-sanat#.V948cfB97NM

September 11th, 2016

Barış Özkul

The director of state theatres, Nejat Birecik, announced that in the beginning of this year’s season only “local and national” plays will be put on stage. Plays by Shakespeare, Chekov, Brecht and Dario Fo are not supposed to be staged in theatres. The announcement is as follows: “In order to reinforce national and moral feelings, we, as humanist and nationalist artists, open the curtains with only local plays for the purpose of contributing to the nation’s unity and integrity.”[1] A characteristic of the AKP era is that a simply right-wing sensitivity that operates with leftist vocabulary has set in. It is impossible to explain a self-contradictory term like “humanist and nationalist artists” anywhere outside Turkey. But it has been a while since that threshold has been crossed here. There is no longer a ground for discussing anything on the basis of reality.

Let’s ask this nonetheless: Is “local and national art” possible? It can’t be simply denied. It has been observed in the history of art. One of the hallmarks of the fascist-totalitarian regimes of the 20th century was “local and national” art. In Nazi Germany, the politics of cultural purification exercised after 1933 aimed to cleanse German art from Jewry and Bolshevism. For this reason, books were burned, and paintings were smashed. A similar frame of mind prevailed in Mao’s Cultural Revolution, too. This time the goal was to cleanse China’s communist future from capitalism’s harmful effects. The Red Guards broke into the China Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing in 1966; they smashed Michelangelo’s sculptures of David and Venus de Milo, and Apollo de Belvedere. Four professors of the academy (Ye Qianyu, Luo Gongliu, Li Kuchan ve Huan Yongyu) were beaten with belts and exposed to public on the grounds that they brought the inventions of the capitalist West to China. The artists and intellectuals who were locked into campus prisons established by Mao made an “autocritique” and confessed their crimes in stadiums swarmed with thousands of people.

If what we make of art is as such, “local and national art” is most certainly possible. In case you encounter a work of art you are unfamiliar to, you simply say “I spit into such art”[1] and move on. But not even a single work of art was produced in Nazi Germany that passed to humanity’s shared memory. Just as not a single worthwhile novelist, painter, composer or architect emerged from the conservative wing during the fifteen years of the AKP rule. For authors like Tanpınar, Orhan Pamuk and Yusuf Atılgan[2] do not spring from “local and national art”; at the most, those like Nihal Atsız[3] do.

The Ottoman Empire, which the AKP lays claim and gives reference to, did not regard art as such. The Ottoman dynasty, who was the empire’s most Western-minded family, directly promoted Western art in the 19th century. If we take theatre as an example, III. Selim, II. Mahmud, Abdülaziz, II. Abdülhamid are sultans who were closely related to theatre and ordered the staging of plays at their palaces.

Metin And indicates that there was nearly five hundred dramatic texts in II. Mahmud’s library: most of them vaudevilles, some tragedies, comedies and dramas. Donizetti’s opera of Belisario was performed at the palace during Abdülmecid’s rule (1843).

Abdülmecid and Abdülaziz frequently went to theatres outside the palace. Abdülmecid had the Macbeth opera staged in 1848 at the Naum Theatre in Beyoğlu, and Abdülaziz had the Faust opera staged in 1868. In the same years, Moliere’s La Maladie Imaginaire was performed at the Çırağan Palace. Abdülaziz, who was the first Ottoman sultan to visit Europe, saw the Il Travatore opera and the Giselle ballet in Paris. None of these are “local and national” works of art. [2]

  1. Abdülhamid, who has been refurbished as a “headstrong” leader figure nowadays, was also not a conservative sultan in terms of culture and lifestyle, as is being told. He had a theatre stage built in the Yıldız Palace in 1889; there he had many performances staged, including Western plays. Abdülhamid was a person who had distinctive tastes within a specific tradition.

However, not only the AKP not a representative of a specific artistic tradition, but it came so far by imposing a mixture which lacks the feeling of fine taste, and in which distastefulness and pragmatism intertwine (a new style emerged, which did not hesitate to carry Sinan the Architect’s monumental mosques built by stone masonry into the 21th century with the skyscraper technology of reinforced concrete). It seems the forthcoming period’s new principle of art will be tested by being “local and national”. To be local and national means to move away from high-quality art. But more than that, there is a practical impossibility in terms of Turkish literature. Since the Tanzimat Period, since Şinasi’s The Marriage of a Poet, there has not been anything like “local and national theatre” in Turkish literature. Those who insist on local and national theatre are probably supposed to bring the Ortaoyunu[4] and Meddah[5] traditions to the modern stage. Or a stronger possibility is reproducing the surreal atmosphere of Turkey’s “national consensus” via theatre. If that is the case, there is no need to call it art.

[1] Someone from the state theatres published a disclaimer after a while, but it was not a disclaimer that denied the surging local and national sensitivity.

[2] See. Metin And, Tanzimat ve İstibdat Döneminde Türk Tiyatrosu: 1838-1908, İş Bankası Kültür Yayınları, 1972.

[1] This is a reference to an actual statement by Melih Gökçek, the mayor of Ankara, in 1994. At that time he was a member of a party that is the precursor to the AKP. Upon seeing a publicly exhibited sculpture in a park, he told the press these exact words.

[2] Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar is the author of The Time Regulation Institute. Orhan Pamuk is a Nobel Prize winner. Yusuf Atılgan is also a prominent author of literary fiction.

[3] Nihal Atsız was an ultra-nationalist author.

[4] Ottoman comic theatre.

[5] Ottoman public storytelling performance.

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