Banu Karaca, The National Frame: Art and State Violence in Turkey and Germany (Fordham University Press, 2021).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Banu Karaca (BK): The politics of art and the ways in which art is governed have preoccupied me for quite some time. The comparative reading of Turkey and Germany that The National Frame offers was motivated by their strikingly similar struggles in claiming modern nationhood through the arts. I came across these similarities by happenstance. When reading Martin Stokes’s account of Turkey’s cultural policy in his The Arabesk Debate, I was struck how much it mirrored discussions in Germany, where I had grown up. Comparisons between Turkey and Germany have been largely foreclosed by geopolitical imaginaries that have construed the world in terms of “East” and “West,” and, more recently, “Islam” and “Christianity.” Grappling with this foreclosure, I wondered what would happen when one takes seriously that Germany and Turkey, just as their imperial formations, share a long and troubling history of cultural encounters and political affiliations; when one does not center radical alterity but begins with the assumption of familiarity, intimacy, and co-constitution? Initially, the project was animated by two rather simple questions: How have these historical parallels produced such vastly different outcomes? And to what extent do these histories shape contemporary art worlds in Turkey and Germany? I pursued these questions through an ethnography of the art settings of Istanbul and Berlin by examining how artists speak about their work and how they navigate the art world, including state policies pertaining to the arts.

Tracing the trajectories of cultural policy in Turkey and Germany, I came to understand this field of statecraft as a push and pull between the political expediency of art—mainly mediated through ideas of art as a greater good—and the desire to control its transformative potential. I interviewed corporate sponsors, who cast themselves as civil society actors and hence as alternatives to the state, while de facto sharing in a division of labor with the state in governing the arts. I began to follow the monies that sustain the art world, and that, for the most part, are rooted in histories of state violence and dispossession. I found that collectors describe their practices as intensely personal, while always also referencing the national frame to legitimize their possession of artworks. Censorship was frequently set in motion when artists engaged unfaced experiences of state violence. It is no coincidence that, since the 2000s, such censorship has drawn on the vocabulary of the “global war on terror” to mark moments in which art was seen to cede its “civilizing” function.

And, lastly, I wanted to look at the role of art in urban space, at biennials and large-scale arts events that increasingly have had to content with how deeply dispossession, genocide, exile, war, and military violence remain intertwined with the history of art and its institutions. By the end of this research, the bulk of which covers the period between 2005 and 2011, I arrived at conceptualizing the art world as a terrain of struggle in which the supposed inherent goodness of art, its assumed civilizing power, is constantly constructed and disrupted. But even more so, it was the joint analysis of the cases of Turkey and Germany, that crystallized how the production, circulation, and presentation—indeed the very understanding—of art are predicated on histories of violence and their disavowal. It is this disavowal that keeps calling art back into the national frame.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address? 

BK: The book works its way through the debates on the arts in nationalist projects, emphasizing the unease that characterizes cultural policy. For instance, it probes the obstacles in situating first West and then a reunited Germany firmly within the artistic heritage of “the West.” This move entailed concerted efforts to suppress both the history of East Germany’s socialist art and of the anti-modernism that had guided German cultural policy before the Third Reich. It reads the contingencies of this process along with those of the “Turkification” of Turkey, with cultural policies that until very recently had the dual mission of researching and disseminating a “Turkish culture” that was supposedly “already out there” and still coming into being, the very foundation of the republic and yet—given the unwieldy heterogeneity of its population—nowhere to be found.

The National Frame discusses how the art worlds of Istanbul and Berlin have been shaped by genocidal violence and dispossession, a dispossession that is now reproduced through the enterprising of art and the aestheticization of business. It examines art as a site for “taming” social difference and obscuring state violence but also as a space for emancipatory politics, for accounting for the past and imagining different futures.

The book closes with recent artistic exchanges between Turkey and Germany, the latest iterations of an enduring asymmetric perception, in which art from Turkey continues to be categorized as either “ethnic cultural production” rather than art, or first and foremost “political.” Here the “political” denotes local or national concerns that stand in contrast to the purported universalism of unmarked German art. The book brings these analyses together by drawing on critical and postcolonial theory, art theory and aesthetics, political anthropology, and the anthropology of art to show that despite the intensified and much-studied globalization of the arts, artistic practices, arts patronage, and sponsorship, collecting and curating art, and the modalities of censorship continue to be refracted through the conceptual lens of the nation-state.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have? 

BK: My hope is that the book will be a companion to scholars interested in local formations of the global art world, and to those who engage questions of art and memory, state violence, aesthetics, urban and museum studies as well as institutional critique. The goal was to make the book as accessible as possible to enter into a dialogue with scholars and practitioners in the arts, cultural policy, and the public humanities, as well as general readerships interested in the inner workings of the art world.

At this moment, there is heightened attention to how imperial and colonial violence have been constitutive for historical collections of art—and for monumental regimes the world over. With grassroots organizing, this attention is now more systematically reaching contemporary arts institutions. I see The National Frame as a contribution to these struggles that seek to (re)claim the emancipatory potential of art by showing that state violence and dispossession are not aberrations or “solely” constitutive for collections of the past, but the structuring elements of the contemporary art world and its institutional landscape. This seems especially important as calls to decolonialize the museum are met with a vicious backlash and artistic memory is (once again) under attack by nationalist, right-wing politics. Since unleashing military violence on Kurdish cities in 2015, Turkey has experienced a deterioration of human rights and with it arts freedom, which has deepened in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt of 2016. The two-year state of emergency, now codified into law, has allowed the government to target independent arts spaces, first in the Kurdish provinces and then the entire country, confiscate their archives, and tear down community memorials honoring victims of state violence. In Berlin, the Humboldt Forum, a partially resurrected palace indexing Prussian imperialism, aims to bring the city’s non-European collections and their problematic provenance to its famed museum island. At the same time, the third largest party in parliament, the right-wing Alternative for Germany, is pursuing its agenda for a return to “German art” by targeting BPOC art spaces and inundating federal and local cultural departments with inquiries asking for “justifications” for arts funding that goes abroad or to “non-German” artists (that is, artists with an immigrant background) at home. These are but a few examples of how ideas of “national art” continue to hold their sway in politics and how national frames keep inserting themselves back into the globalized art world.

J: What other projects are you working on now? 

BK: Currently, I am working on two interrelated projects that examine how both the possession and dispossession of art—that is, questions of ownership and loss—have shaped the knowledge production on art and heritage. One strand of this research focuses on episodes of state violence against non-Muslims in the late Ottoman Empire and the early Turkish republic, beginning with the Armenian genocide, during which artworks were looted, confiscated, or made illegible. The second strand is a more general contemplation of the role that imperial and colonial plunder and the experience of the Nazi art loot have played in shaping international heritage regimes, especially in legal terms. Along with the debates on restitution, I continue to work on questions of arts freedom and censorship.

J: How has it been to launch a book during a pandemic? 

BK: Initially, I feared that it might be a bit of an anticlimactic experience, as I was unsure as to what extent online formats would work. But actually, it has given me a chance not only to give book talks at the university departments that kindly invited me, but also to virtually visit classes and meet with independent reading groups and art world practitioners across the globe. While I hope that we can be in each other’s presence again soon, rather than across small rectangles on a screen, I am truly grateful for these generative, intimate gatherings.


Excerpt from the book (from the introduction: Intimate Encounters, pp. 1-3, 16-17)

Intimate Encounters

Istanbul, October 5, 1993. Enter Kenan Evren, retired chief of the military staff and leader of the infamous 1980 coup d’état. During his presidency (1980—1989) and under his direct orders, 650,000 people were taken into custody and tortured, at least three hundred died or disappeared under unknown circumstances, tens of thousands had to leave the country, more than one and a half million were blacklisted, fifty people received the death penalty, nine hundred films were banned, and unions and associational life in Turkey were completely disbanded. But on this day, he did not don his military uniform, nor was he receiving accolades for this political “service.” He was celebrating his first solo show at Aksanat. The gallery had opened only a few months prior, designed to be the cultural flagship of Akbank, the banking arm of the Sabancı conglomerate. The exhibition, it seemed, was well received. Politicians, business leaders, and retired army officers were in attendance, the press interest was lively, and at least one painting was sold for the sensationally high price of 500 million lira (about $35,592 at the time, and a hefty sum for the local art market in those days). One notable absence, however, marked the event: Artists and curators, incensed by the exhibition, had decided to boycott the opening. We would hear from them the next day, in a review written by the art critic Ahu Antmen (1993) for the daily Cumhuriyet: The painter Mehmet Güleryüz suggested that Evren had better chosen a prison to show his paintings. The artist Gülsün Karamustafa found it inconceivable to “accept Evren as a colleague,” and Orhan Taylan went even further, noting that it was “shameful” for the entire discipline of painting that Evren, the “enemy of democracy” incarnate, had taken to “paint and brush.”

How can one explain the discomfort and outrage that this exhibition induced? It was the obvious connection between art and power, politics and money, the unmasked presence of the military-industrial complex in the art world. The outrage was directed at the effort of an ex-dictator to legitimize, even absolve, himself through the recognition of the art world. It was, most likely, further fueled by the fact that when in office, Evren had personally intervened in art exhibitions and openly professed his distaste for abstract and conceptual art. Perhaps it was also that he reinforced the almost stereotypical image of the artist-dictator or that he repudiated the curiously powerful idea that someone “sensitive to art” cannot possibly be such a bad person.”

Fast forward to Berlin, April 2004. Another arts institution, another controversy. The Hamburger Bahnhof, part of the national gallery network of the State of Berlin, announced that it had secured a seven-year loan from the collection of Friedrich Christian Flick. Having negotiated the loan, the German government presented it as a win for the city and its inhabitants. The; financially squeezed German capital had long been hampered in its pursuit for new acquisitions for its museums, and this loan would enhance the state collection. The first exhibition curated from the Flick loan was to be presented in 2005. But then, news emerged that Flick had assembled his collection of 2,500 pieces of contemporary art and modern masters with the Nazi fortune accumulated by his grandfather, Friedrich Flick. The latter had successfully avoided paying reparations to the thousands of forced laborers, mostly Eastern European Jews, he had exploited during the Third Reich, and this despite his conviction at the Nuremberg Trials. Berlin’s art world was up in arms. For the local artists’ association Friedrich Christian Flick’s deal with the Hamburger Bahnhof was nothing short of an attempt to whitewash his family name through art. To make matters worse, he had managed to do so by having his collection exhibited in a public museum, and hence at the taxpayers’ expense, as the upkeep, storage, and insurance of the artworks in question would be covered by the state.

I take these two examples, the tensions and unease they produced, as ethnographic occasions to tackle understandings of art and its emancipatory potential, of art as a reflection of Enlightenment values, and an avenue for critique and self-reflection. Today, art is described through a wide range of theories and positions, yet the majority, if not all, of public and official discourses on the national (the state) and supranational level (for example, UNESCO or the European Union) share the assumption that art is inherently good. This idea of the inherent goodness of art, its daily trials and tribulations, be they structural or contingent, forms the basis of this book. While transnationalism and globalization are increasingly at the forefront of both artistic practices and the scholarly analysis of art – and for good reason – l propose to reexamine what it means that the idea of the emancipatory potential of art has been intrinsically bound up with the history of the nation-state and, hence, understandings of what it means to be modern, indeed what it means to be “civilized.” Wrestling with the paradox that within a globalized art world dominant understandings of art remain refracted through the national frame, this book interrogates the assumption of the inherent goodness of art through, against, and across the national contexts of Turkey and Germany. It does so by exploring instances that cast doubts on the assumed civilizing power of art, that unsettle discourses on art as a vanguard of freedom and democracy. It proposes that exclusionary narratives of national art histories, censorship, and the role of economic dispossession in the assemblage of art collections, that is, different forms of state violence, are as important to understanding art as is its emancipatory potential.

[…] The Enduring Power of Asymmetric Perception

In their video work Road to Tate Modern (2003), Şener Özmen and Erkan Özgen appear to us as present-day versions of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Donning suits and ties, they are on horse- and donkeyback respectively, with Özmen carrying the iconic Quixotian spear – in his case, a long stick. Riding through the mountainous outskirts of Diyarbakir, where both artists hail from, they seem weary. A soft song hummed in the background accompanies them.

Tired from the long journey – forty days and forty nights, according to Özgen/Panza – they decide to refresh themselves at a little stream that cuts through the arid landscape. Once back in the saddle and a little farther along the way, they cross paths with another traveler. Addressing him in Kurdish, they say that they have lost their way and ask which path to take to reach the Tate Modern. With gestures and words, the traveler directs them up the mountain. “Is it far?” they ask. “Yes,” he replies, “yes, it is very far, but you can make it.” Road to the Tate Modern humorously yet forcefully questions the possibility of arriving at the center of the global art world – exemplified by the seemingly unreachable Tate Modern – when producing in its double “periphery.” Here, the notion of periphery denotes not merely Turkey, or Istanbul for that matter, but the war-torn Kurdish landscape. Özmen and Özgen’s work poignantly addresses the fact that where artists come from not only affects the conditions of artistic production but continues to shape the perception of their work. The global hierarchy of value pervades the transnational circulation of contemporary art through dichotomies of “East” and “West,” “ethnic art” and “art proper,” “artistic centers” and “peripheries.” […]

A more recent inflection of this assessment is the notion that art from Turkey is first and foremost “political” – with political denoting local or national concerns. In contrast, German art is now understood as unquestionably modern and as not (or at least not necessarily or primarily) related to national politics. “Now” is the operative term here, since this has not always been the case, not least in the official German imagination, in which modernism in the arts was long identified as decidedly “un-German.” It was, after all, not until the 19508 that West Germany adopted explicitly Occidental cultural policies to transcend long-standing anti-Western and antimodernist currents as part of its post-World War II rehabilitation into the international community, a process that the historian Konrad Jarausch (2006) has described as “recivilizing Germany” – a term I will return to in more detail in the course of the book. What makes this asymmetric perception even more notable is that Turkey embarked on aligning itself with the “West” by “modernizing” its artistic canon as early as 1923. As Ottoman art, like all aspects of its cultural landscape, was deemed unfit for the modern nation-state in the eyes of its new leaders, modernism was officially, if contradictorily, embraced. Whereas Germany’s position has been normalized – that is, it has been accepted as part of the modern West – the question of what makes for Turkey’s modernness in the arts and beyond has remained a matter of contention ever since. Despite these notable divergences and the long-standing emphasis on alterity between Turkey and Germany in politics, scholarship, and public discourses, both locations share intriguing historical and structural similarities.