If there is a programme, a concept like “westernization”, the Ottoman Empire is among the first examples that went through such an experience, Murat Belge suggests (2002). The westernization/modernization of Turkey has widely focused on the cultural scene and social structure of the country. Beginning during Ottoman empire with small reforms, it has developed into a new phase with the establishment of Turkish Republic, which has tried to find a place within its model of modernization, of West. The Republic of Turkey has had sharper, stringent understanding about modernization, aimed to form citizens fit for the ideal country that is going to be achieved through this project.
Belge claims that as the concept “West” thought to be slightly threatening, or apt for reservations, “westernization” was replaced by the term “modernization”, which was considered to be more neutral (Belge, 2002, p.43, Kocabaşoğlu, 2002, p.15,). Falih Rıfkı Atay’s equation also corresponds to this sense “global modernity=European civilization=westernization” (Atay quoted in Kahraman, 2002, p.169).
“In so far as the West was equated with the very principle of ‘civilization’” as Kevin Robins argues, “the logic of westernization had come to seem necessary and inevitable” (1996, p.67). The current political climax fashioned by the negotiations with European Union and the debates over the integration process has brought a ground control at issue. The reconsideration of the objectives of the westernization/modernization project and the standpoint of the country has also brought a reorientation process, thus a question of national identity, which has been constructed with the modernization project against the Ottoman Empire’s heritage.
European Union’s will to know its prospectus member has placed once again the definition of Turkey and Turkish identity at the centre of our everyday lives, making us revisit every detail from the food we consume to our understanding of the history of the country. The recent interests in Turkish art, exhibitions with the theme of “Turk” in it, are some artefacts of this reorientation process, which will be the focus of this paper.
Being mainly a cultural revolution, the Turkish Modernization project has focused on cultural field particularly, aimed to form modern and western minded culture and subjects. The subjects were exposed to dramatic changes in all fields with the reforms and revolutions derived from the West to form a “civilized” country. From alphabet, to measurement devices, from the way people dress to the music they listen to every aspect of life has been set towards West.
Uğur Mumcu , in his talk on the Köy Enstitüleri quotes from a humor magazine the answer given to the question “What is a Turkish citizen?”
…a Turkish citizen is someone who marries according to the Swedish Civil Code, penalised according to Italian Penal Code, judged according to German Penal Proceeding, administered according to French Administrative Law and buried according to the Islamic Code.
Kevin Robins , in a similar line, states that, “the question of Turkish identity and cultural experience” can not be evaluated without taking the European West into account (Robins, 1996, p.64). As an “other” of the story of the Europe, Turkish identity and European identity are considered together, at least in terms of Turkey. This divide that separates and connects us together, now visible with the encounter with EU has brought a tension, as Erden Kosova draws attention to, which :
… has a decisive influence on the formation of contemporary ‘Turkish citizens’ psyches. Constant oscillations between recognition and exclusion, desire and resentment, cosmopolitanism and isolation fabricate a reflexive process, a crisis of the Self which has to be defined anew due to the changing relations with the ‘historical Other’(2002).
The demand to adapt to the western standards, and the social codes comes “alongside the conviction that, however much they try to do so it will be impossible for them to succeed” (Robins, 1996, p.66). Hence there seems to be an unbreachable gap between the two parties. Turgut Özal, the 8th prime minister of Turkey refers to this binary divide and argues that ‘Turkey is not alien to Europe, as is the popular belief, but is her alter ego, her complementary identity... But still Europe cannot see anything but an alien presence; it can only see the Turks in terms of a ‘negative identity’ “(Özal qtd in Robins, 1996, p. 80).
Under this negative gaze, Turkey tries to define and perform itself as a European country, accentuates its representation to prove how European it is, how much it deserves to be a member of the Union. The exhibitions of late years that introduces (and thus defines) Turkey, “Turkish Art” and Turkish culture are part of this process. Since the acceleration of negotiations with EU we have been witnessing an increase in those sorts of exhibitions and “co-operation between the European Union and Turkey in the field of cultural policy and funding programs” as Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin draws our attention to (Alptekin, 2005, p.2). The question is, how this process affect the way we perceive ourselves, particularly how it affects the artistic production in Turkey.
Underscoring the effects of cultural contact on the artistic production, Peter Wollen lists three phases, three different responses to this phenomenon (1993). For the argument of my paper, I would like to outline Wollen’s idea of “tourist art”, one of the three phases he mentions, an art that evolved as a result of the flux of people through tourism, and the encounter between the locals and tourists. It is an art that is produced by the locals for the tourists, for the outsiders, non-locals who try to buy, commodify their experience in that foreign, exotic land, and thus produces and reproduces an idea of authenticity, of locality, of identity. As long as the artist is able to produce the codes of the local, the authentic, the work will be considered as successful.
Wollen argues that while tourist art “reduces and simplifies, striving for intelligibility to an alien target group of foreigners, and, like pidgin it uses makeshift means of expression around a central core of universal features” there is also a possibility for real communication between cultures, a possible dialog. Can artistic language “create structures of communication in the most unpromising situations” as Peter Wollen suggests?
The traces of tourist art are not confined within the low-key culture. In contemporary visual art scene and its attitude towards non-European artists, off centre, similar relations are at issue. Jean Fisher discloses that the demand of ending “cultural marginality” lead the art industry exhibit more non-European artists (2004). In order to “manage the difference” as Jean Fisher and Gerardo Mosquera suggest, artists from the periphery have given the chance to exhibit their works, show their existence in art venues of the West (Fisher & Mosquera, 2005, p. 6). Thus, applying a “multiculturalist” perspective has become the response of the art institutions, confronted with the need to deal with cultural encounter in our era. However, the selection procedure of the artists is a little bit problematic she argues, as what is looked for is “appropriate signs of cultural difference”, an attitude Fisher bluntly defines as exoticization.
Non-European artists are still ‘expected’ to produce either “ ‘ethnic’ or ‘political’ art whilst other positions are tacitly ignored”(Fisher, 2004, p. 235). In other words, artists are expected to show, underline the differences what make them non-European and accordingly adopt the expected positions, for the sake of success.
Similarly Nikos Papastergiadis argues that “The argument about the need to expand the cultural boundaries of art seems to have been interwoven with a fetishisation of the alterity of the artist from the margin” (2005, p.341). As a result, those artists are considered not as individual subjects but as representative of essentialized, homogenized, exoticized culture that suits to the mindset of western institutions: “The exoticized artist is marked not as a thinking subject and individual moderator in his or her own right, but as a bearer of prescribed and homogenized cultural signs and meanings” (Fisher, 2004, p. 235).
As Stephen Foster has argued, the exotic functions dialectically as a symbolic system, domesticating the foreign, the culturally different and the extraordinary so that the “phenomena to which they …apply begin to be structured in a way which makes them comprehensible and possibly predictable, if predictably defiant of total familiarity” (Foster qtd in Huggan,2001, p. 21)
Exoticism, as Huggan suggests gives the illusion of closing the gap between the familiar and the exotic, the foreign, it seems to domesticate the strange, however, in essence it keeps it at a distance. In his own words, exoticism “effectively manufactures otherness even as it claims to surrender to its immanent mystery” (2001, p.13).
exotic :1590s, "belonging to another country," from L. exoticus, from Gk. exotikos "foreign," lit. "from the outside," from exo- "outside," from ex "out of." Sense of "unusual, strange" first recorded in English 1620s, from notion of "alien, outlandish." In reference to strip-teasers and dancing girls, it is first attested 1954, Amer.Eng.
Huggan lists three ways that the exotic, the stranger is being interpreted; “mystification (or leveling-out) of historical experience; imagined access to the cultural other through the process of consumption; reification of people and places into exchangeable aesthetic objects” (2001, p.19).
The rising interest in Balkan region and art beginning with its contact with European Union, preceding the example of Turkey bears the language of this exotic language. Since 2004, we come across with exhibitions travelling around Europe to provide a platform for introducing “Turkish”ness similar to what has being happened with Balkan Art since 1990’s. The Balkans or so-called South Eastern Europe countries have been the focus of the European Union, as they have become one by one members of the Union. Alongside have come attempts to understand, define and map the region. “Balkanization”, Balkan identity, and the validity of a recent invention called “Balkan art” have being discussed exhaustively:
Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin draws attention to the similarities between those two particular cases, the interest in Turkey, Turkish art and culture and the interest in Balkans: “Probably there are similarities and a kind of raison d’etre within the Balkan region. Mainly it goes along with the ideological and political strategies of the European cultural policy decision-makers”(Alptekin, 2005, p.2). In accord to the cultural policies of Europe, at different times different regions, ranging from Balkans to Caucasian region, and to Turkey, has become the focus of attention says Alptekin. In case of Balkans, he remarks to the invention of “an abstract geographical area”, the South-East European region. He claims that the motives behind this invention are beyond “economic, geographical and political concerns” that European Union regards itself to be. The need for ‘otherness’ plays a crucial role at this inventive process. However cliché it is, Alptekin says, “the issue of the ‘other’ and ‘otherness’” is a still an unresolved and current problem (Alptekin, 2005, p.2).
Reflecting on the exhibitions, that focuses on , that claim to represent Balkan art and Balkan peninsula Miško Šuvaković claims that those exhibitions “…have explicit political function in constructing and performing the new European identity in the still-not definitely established European space”(2005). Šuvaković’s take of the issue also shows parallels with Alptekin and also with Özal, that considers the approach towards Turkish identity as a constitutionary other of the still not fully defined Europe. Within those exhibitions different tenses are at issue, Miško Šuvaković further tells (2005). Balkans are regarded from the perspectives of :
…Traditional modernist exoticism (Balkans as other, authentic and original), postmodernist eclecticism (Balkans as potentiality of quotations archive), Brazilianization (neo-liberal regulation of Balkan cultures), archaeological evaluation of discovered places, of oblivion and censorship of modernist progress, etc .
Under these burden of perspectives how is the image of the Balkans created? How should we assess the Turkish example, how should we see the exhibitions representing Turkish art and culture in Europe, and the influence of those events on the art scene in Turkey? Under what circumstances display those exhibitions an image of Turkey? Can we mention about a “discourse” as in the case of Balkans, “that tries to liberate the notion of the Balkans from its misrepresentations, misinterpretations, stereotypes and essentialisation”, that tries to “demystify” the stereotypical approach towards the “other”? To what extent serves those exhibitions to the discourse of the dominant conceptions about Europe’s, West’s perspective?
Branka Stipančić talks about the three crucial exhibitions that represent art from Balkans, In Search of Balkania, Graz; Blood and Honey - Future"s in the Balkan, Klosterneuburg; In the Gorges of the Balkans - A Report, Kassel (2005) . Stipančić argues that even with their tittles those exhibitions display “the Western view and stereotypes”. And also she finds the “ethnographic” interest of the some selected artist supportive of the “exoticist” point of view.
Just replacing the word “Balkan”, with “Turkey” will voice the questions and doubts surrounding the recent interest in Turkish art and culture. These exhibitions represent Turkish culture, identity and art under the high influence of exoticization, under West’s gaze towards its others. Several exhibitions have being held around European cities to introduce Turkey and construct an image of Turkey, “Turkish art”, culture and Turkish identity. And although they range in their attitude towards the topic, they have a certain perspective, they inhabit an exoticist point of view, there is a sense of self-exoticism, an intrinsic orientalism. In their claim to cover a culture they are confined to be reductionist.
Jean Fisher’s argument reconsidered, that what Western art institutions expect to see in the non-European artists work is cultural difference and accordingly the work should be either ethnic or political to appeal to the West. In that sense, the scheme of the works from Turkey shown in Western art venues is quite telling.
The controversial “Urban Realities: Focus İstanbul” exhibition in Berlin, in 2004, which caused debates among the artists and considered as reductionist, superficial and exotic, “Call Me İstanbul” in 2004 in Karlsruhe, which can be considered within similar terms, “Turks: A Journey of a Thousand Years, 600-1600” in the London Royal Academy of Arts in 2005, which covers a wide historical bracket, with the mission to display the “prosperous Turkish history”, the recent “Made in Turkey” exhibition in Frankfurt that claimed to display a retrospective of “contemporary Turkish art”, which raises questions about who writes the history of contemporary Turkish art, “Saison de la Turquie” in France are some examples of the so called “representative” grand exhibitions.
In an interview with Erden Kosova, Vasıf Kortun suggests that this kind of exhibitions are far away from being self-reflexive, rather they are self-exotic:
If you frame this problem within the context of the neo-exotic, the situation gets more complicated. I have written in the past of a contiguousness of imagining desire, the periphery’s projection of what a centre may desire, and the center’s projection (or pre-projection) of what the periphery should want to desire (Kortun, 2006).
In the other end of the non-western art in western art context, Erden Kosova draws our attention to politically engaged works of art in Turkey and suggests that, regardless of their strict, radical and bold political stance, these works are not visible outside the galleries; they are not visible in public sphere, by larger audience, thus unable to raise a public discussion. (2006). The works that deal with the “social problems, traumas, cultural conflicts”, with the identity politics of the region, meet with the audience mainly in European art venues, and there is a feeling that those works are realized for the art venues in Europe, for the centre Kosova argues. In a sense, rather than being an opportunity for a public discussion as those works claim, they become an exotic element, another scene from third world in European art venues that commodifies the subject matter of the artist, the social and political concerns of a region.
Kosova in his interview with Diyarbakır based artist Şener Özmen asks whether the productivity decreases for the one in periphery aiming towards center, whether artist from periphery are still alive, vivid once they enter the realm of the centre (2001). Özmen tells that everything flows towards center, everything follows the stream of the center. And everyone is producing for the center, which he disapproves.
Art in short, came to be fielded as central to the very machinery of historicism and essentialism; the very Esperanto of European hegemony (Preziosi, 2009, p.76).
When considered along with Kosova’s evaluation, we can see a ground in Jean Fisher’s suggestion on the expectations about non-European artists within Eurocentric art scene. The acceleration of the negotiations with European Union has run parallel with the rise of Turkey themed exhibition in Europe and a politically engaged works in contemporary Art of Turkey, as a result of the west centric gaze towards its other, non-western art. And European Union, as a project of border definition and thus identity formation has triggered this development.
Šuvaković (2005) argues that the European cultural policy, that seems to be based on identitarian agendas, on borders that prompt the exoticist perspective should be problematised to solve this issue. Knowledge and exoticism, to know and to exoticize, as Tzvetan Todorov states stringently, does not seem to be working together: “Knowledge is incompatible with exoticism, but lack of knowledge in turn irreconcilable with praise of others; yet praise without knowledge is precisely what exoticism aspires to be. This is the constitutive paradox” (Todorov qtd. In Huggan, 1993, p.265).
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