Will Erdoğan be able to ‘groom’ arts and culture?

Will Erdoğan be able to ‘groom’ arts and culture?

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s proclamations on the privatization, or the granting of autonomy to state and city theaters have taken their place as significant targets in his political platform for the future. 

Thus, we can say that in the third term of his governance, Erdoğan is heading toward the most radical move of his term in office that would leave the most intense marks. 

In order to understand what Erdoğan wants to do in this field and to be able to read through what kind of a mentality and atmosphere of sentiment he bases his assumptions on, the text that we need to reference is his Kahramanmaraş speech on May 4. This text can be regarded as the prime minister’s explanation of his view on the culture and arts field, and of artists. 

As a matter of fact, typical signs of Erdoğan’s frame of mind and his personality immediately become obvious in this speech. The prime minister, as in many other chapters, first draws the topic into an axis of conflict - an axis of fighting - and then he positions himself on the disagreeable platform he has just defined and attacks the opposition party. 

As he has done in each of his addresses recently, Erdoğan bases his Kahramanmaraş speech on “the elite vs. the nation” opposition. At one pole of this paradigm stand, “the elites who look down on people, who are engaged in the activity of imposing their own rights on 75 million, those who have claimed they know best since the Ottoman political reforms of 1839 and who claim that what they produce is high art.”

 Well, who does the prime minister place opposite the segment that he defines as “these”? We have his answer in his next sentence: “[These] look down on and do not take seriously the verbal masters and pen masters [meaning Necip Fazıl] of Kahramanmaraş, the masters trained in Anatolia and Thrace…” 

Who is the real artist? 

It doesn’t end there. Erdoğan, first and foremost, records that “these” are not “real artists”: “When the political wing of these assume that the title deed of Turkey belongs to them, then the elitists assume they have the title deeds of art, science and information in their hands. And they do injustice to the real artists of this land.”

These statements are actually the manifestations of Erdoğan’s reaction and rage against intellectuals that he sees as “elitists”: “Only they can perceive theater, cinema, music, sculpture, painting, literature. They do not like the nation, the nation’s true labor, its culture and its preference. They have humiliated this nation for years with their caricatures…” 

And all these accusations are followed by the Prime Minister’s “Art for the sake of the community” thesis. 

Can art and culture be AKP-ized? 

The frame of mind revealed in these statements is clear enough. The prime minister rejects a significant portion of the cultural and artistic buildup created in this country – not only during the republican era – but in fact since the political reforms of the 1839 (Tanzimat), one of the most important landmarks of Turkey’s modernization and westernization endeavor, on the grounds that they were produced by “elitists.” 

As happens with each statement based on generalizations, this text holds several problems. For example, he disregards the agony suffered, the pressures endured, the high prices that had to be paid by several names among the arts and culture circles – those he has accused - during the one-party, Democrat Party (DP) and military regimes. Moreover, an important section of these artists are known to perform art for the community’s sake. 

The third controversial point is that Erdoğan has this perception that he regards himself as the only authority to decide what is art or what is not. We have witnessed that he, as a prime minister, enjoys an extremely broad authority in every field, including the question: “Where should a championship cup be presented?” Apparently, he attributes the power of opinion to himself as to determining what art is and what it is not. 

Another problematic aspect of the speech is his public defamation of artists, of his effort to pull the artists into a conflict with the public. It looks as if the already existing polarization strains society will expand to include the culture and arts field. 

Finally, the political target Erdoðan reached at the end of his speech is the declaration that “the dynasty and the caste system will come to an end” also in the arts, science and intellectual fields, after the bureaucracy and justice. 

We can say that the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government has taken action to stamp its signature in the arts and culture fields after politics and justice, and that now the “conservative art” target has been added to the project of raising a religious generation. 

However, this time, a very different world is waiting for Erdoğan, who boasts of winning every battle he has entered, a world that has its own unique norms and dynamics.

Sedat Ergin is a columnist for daily Hürriyet, in which this piece was published on May 16. It was translated into English by the Daily News staff.

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