Turkey’s era of cultural desiccation

AKP AK Parti
(Photo: Wikimedia)
For two decades, Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has sat atop Ankara’s political hierarchy, setting priorities from increasing civilian oversight of the military to expanding access to healthcare and housing. But one area where AKP has failed to deliver is in the arts. While party chair and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claims that “a nation is crippled without art”, his words – and AKP’s policies – have never been matched by actions.اضافة اعلان

In 2003, a year after AKP came to power, it merged the culture and tourism ministries into one state agency, a move viewed by many as a marker of the party’s anti-art ideology. By merging these entities, the country’s leadership essentially declared culture as something for outsiders, a useful tool to attract tourists but not to be consumed by Turks. 

From an ideological perspective, the neo-Islamic approach to culture adopted by AKP has been geared toward the Eastern features of Turkey’s rich and diverse culture, a history that some argue has been forgotten and belittled by “White Turks”. This vile and derogatory term is used by AKP stalwarts to stigmatize Turks who have embraced Western ideology, a trend that has concerned the ruling party since its inception. 

In a December 2020 interview, Erdogan’s chief policy adviser, Ibrahim Kalin, explained why. The “adaptation of irregular modernity in Turkey has imposed this duality” between East and West, he said. To respond, Kalin continued, Turks need to get back to their cultural heritage and roots. 

Kalin, who is a professional baglama lute player with several albums to his credit, is one of a few AKP members dabbling in the arts. Most others, from Erdogan on down, are more circumspect, which might explain why AKP’s pledges to promote the arts have gone unfulfilled. AKP’s cultural output is limited to a handful of television shows featuring the lives of Ottoman sultans and Erdogan gifting the Odunpazari Modern Museum a calligraphic painting of “vav” (one of the 99 names of Allah) that he penned himself. 
Moreover, there is an ongoing lack of understanding of the role the arts may play in society.
Unfortunately, it is clear from the current regime’s spending plans that it has no intention of strengthening artistic diversity further. For 2022, the Directorate of Religious Affairs received more than three times the funding of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. The current budget for religious affairs is almost 17 billion Turkish Lira ($1.14 billion), an increase of 24 percent from 2021. Bricks and mortar expenditures tell a similar story. Recently, more than 2 billion lira was allocated for the renovation of Istanbul’s Ataturk Culture Center – a perfectly functioning art center that closed down after the Gezi Park demonstration, whereas the State Theater’s budget only lured around 300 million lira. 

Even when the government does invest in art, it does so in poor taste. Moreover, there is an ongoing lack of understanding of the role the arts may play in society. Mehmet Aksoy’s Monument to Humanity sculpture, intended to promote reconciliation between Armenians and Turks, a catalyst of sorts for peace, was dubbed a “freak show” by then-prime minister Erdogan.

Instead of promoting artists such as Aksoy, the government has chosen to spend 4 million lira on a watermelon sculpture with a giant baby coming out of it as a symbol for the city of Diyarbakir. A statement with a lack of taste and void of meaning. Installations like this one feed the popular sentiment that AKP’s taste preferences are more multi-storey car parks and shopping malls than museums and galleries.

Cultural censorship is nothing new in Turkey, and AKP is not alone in playing favorites with its budget. But what is different now is the level of polarized discourse espoused by the country’s leaders, which is producing a nationalistic backlash against artists and cultural icons who do not share AKP’s politics. 

The list of artistic victims is long and growing. In January 2017, fashion designer Barbaros Sansal was attacked by a mob at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport after criticizing AKP on social media. A year earlier, curator Beral Madra was wrongfully accused of being a traitor by AKP parliament member Bulent Turna, which led to the cancellation of the 2016 Canakkale Biennial. And in May 2018, the country’s most popular rapper, Ezhel, was arrested during a live performance and charged with promoting drug use; he has been living in Germany since 2019. 

If free expression, art, and culture are measures of a society’s diversity, then Turkey is the very definition of homogeneity.

Whenever AKP is dethroned – be it next year or in 10 years – their time in power will be remembered as an era of decimated arts budgets, neutered cultural institutions, marginalized artists, and the forced dormancy of artistic difference. As actor Levent Uzumcu, another artist demonized by the AKP regime has noted, “there is only one future, and we are deciding it now”. Sadly, that future will be less culturally vibrant as long as AKP is calling the shots.

The writer is a journalist based in Istanbul. She reported on the Arab Spring from Beirut as a Middle East correspondent for Milliyet newspaper. Her work ranges from current affairs to culture, and has been featured in Monocle, Courier Magazine, Maison Francaise and Istanbul Art News.

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