Sarah-Neel Smith, Metrics of Modernity: Art and Development in Postwar Turkey (University of California Press, 2022).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Sarah-Neel Smith (SNS): I started writing this book in September 2001, though I did not know it at the time. I was fifteen years old and had just arrived in Ankara, Turkey for a year as an exchange student. George W. Bush was president. The Turkish economy had recently collapsed. The attacks of September 11 happened a week later, and I spent the next year immersed in a predominately Muslim culture at the very moment a new political order based on fear of the Middle East took shape back home.
This formative experience raised a series of larger questions for me, which shaped my subsequent career as an art historian: How do visual media shape political dynamics between cultures? And how do creative individuals––artists, critics, curators––negotiate world-scale changes on the canvas, in criticism, and in the gallery? Metrics of Modernity is my attempt to offer some answers.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
SS: Metrics of Modernity is a portrait of the art world of 1950s Turkey. It focuses on a cohort of influential Turkish modernists who built a new art world in Istanbul and Ankara after World War II. These figures included the art critic (and future prime minister) Bülent Ecevit; the entrepreneurial female gallerist Adalet Cimcoz; and several prominent artists, such as Aliye Berger, Füreya Koral, and Bedri Rahmi Eyüboğlu.
As I combed through archives, tracked down artworks, and conducted interviews, I was surprised to discover that these cultural pioneers were not only concerned with aesthetics. They also grappled with economic questions—attempting to transform their country from a “developing nation” into a major player in the global markets of the postwar period.
This book bridges topics and literatures that are often walled off from one another under the categories of the artistic and the economic, the public and the private, politics and the market.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
SNS: This book is for scholars and students of Middle East history who are interested in learning about the central role of arts and culture within the history of political and economic development in the region. It is also for scholars and students of art history who wish to learn about a country and set of modern artistic practices that art historians have not previously addressed.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
SNS: I am currently writing my second book. Envisioning the Middle East: The Lost History of America’s Artistic Exchanges, 1952–1979 is a revisionist account of the work of seven American artists who visited North Africa and the Middle East in the early decades of the Cold War, including Robert Rauschenberg, Helen Frankenthaler, and Andy Warhol. It aims to challenge hermetic, nationalist understandings of “American art” by recentering the transcultural dynamics of political expansionism and cultural encounter. A portion of this research, which addresses Frank Stella’s formative trip to Iran in 1963, has just come out in the journal American Art under the title “Islamic Architecture in New York Painting: Frank Stella’s Irregular Polygons, 1965-1967.”
J: What is one of your favorite artworks featured in the book?
SNS: I love Ömer Adil’s painting Call to Duty (1924) because it so beautifully illustrates one of the most prominent themes of modern Turkish art: the transition from the Ottoman Empire to the Turkish Republic in 1923.
An aging father directs his family’s attention toward a map of Turkey on the wall. The father, whose snowy white beard and fez mark him as the embodiment of an old order, locks eyes with his young son, embodiment of the nation’s future. The young man’s wife and daughter witness the exchange, their cropped hair and short-sleeved dresses marking them, too, as citizens of the modern nation.
With his pointing finger, the patriarch commands his family to adopt the cause of the new nation (symbolized by a map of Turkey on the wall), and to leave behind the Ottoman past (signified by a landscape painting of the Bosphorus strait). Such Bosphorus views were a staple subject for Ottoman painters in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century; here, it serves as an instantly recognizable icon of an entire Ottoman cultural order that the painting’s subjects have already begun to leave behind. It can also be seen as a moment of modernist metacommentary, painting commenting on painting while standing in dialogue with the territorial nationalism of the new state.
Ömer Adil, Call to Duty (Göreve Koş), 1924. Oil on canvas, 91.5 × 125 cm. Istanbul Museum of Painting and Sculpture.
Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 1–6)
Art and Development: A New Framework for Postwar Art
In April 1964, the French poet, art critic, and translator Edouard Roditi published a short article, “Introduction to Contemporary Turkish Painting,” in the Portuguese art magazine Colóquio. Born in Paris and educated at Oxford, the multilingual Roditi had frequented French surrealist circles in the 1930s, served as an interpreter at the Nuremberg trials in the 1940s, and first encountered modern Turkish art in 1951 when he traveled to Ankara as a translator for the United Nations. In his 1964 essay, he criticizes European museums for treating Turkish art as secondary to art from other countries in the Council of Europe, emphasizing that Europe’s future was “more and more tightly bound” to Turkey’s. To make his case, Roditi presents several artworks by Yüksel Arslan, Aliye Berger, and Bedri Rahmi Eyüboğlu, figures all now recognized as pioneers of modernism in Turkey. At the top of the essay, and covering nearly half the page, is a photograph of a 160-foot-long mosaic wall made by Eyüboğlu for Expo 58 in Brussels, the first international world’s fair to take place since World War II.
Bedri Rahmi Eyüboğlu’s mosaic wall at Expo 58 in Brussels, 1958. Courtesy SALT Research (Utarit İzgi archive) and Rahmi Eyüboğlu.
Yet rather than advocating for modern Turkish art in aesthetic terms, as one might expect, Roditi appeals to a political-economic concept: economic development. Roditi exhorts his readers to abandon the common assumption that Turkey’s “underdeveloped economy” predicts an equally underdeveloped art scene. “There is little causal relation between the degree of economic or technical development of a country and the quality of its art,” boldly proposes Roditi in his opening salvo. In fact, argues Roditi, the reverse is true. In Turkey, contends Roditi, the very same condition that “ensures economic underdevelopment”—plentiful leisure time—yields a vibrant modern art. By reframing the presumed vice of economic underdevelopment as a virtue, Roditi positions modern Turkish art as equally significant as the European practices privileged by a Western critical establishment.
By 1964, when Roditi’s essay came out, such claims about the relationship of art, modernity, and economic development were actually rather commonplace. Since the mid-1940s, authorities at some of the most influential Euro-American organizations of the postwar period, such as UNESCO, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, had vigorously debated the connection between artistic sophistication and economic development. Nearly twenty years before Roditi, UNESCO authorities had already concluded that “countries whose technical civilization is not highly developed are often among the most advanced in some branches of art.” In the United States, policy makers and cultural authorities concerned with their country’s diplomatic comportment argued that acknowledging the artistic advancements of economically underdeveloped nations was an important means to smooth relations between nations of unequal economic power. At the same time, many American authorities, such as the influential diplomat George F. Kennan, worried that the inconsistency between the “low” quality of American art and its “advanced” economic development undermined the United States’ legitimacy within an international community. But of course none were so concerned with the interrelationship of art and development as cultural elites in the so-called developing world, including Turkey. There, an artistic community had been raised since the 1920s to understand aesthetic modernism and socioeconomic modernization as advancing on parallel tracks within the frame of the nation-state, moving ever forward, and ever more rapidly, into the future.
How did discourses of economic development impact artistic modernisms in the developing world? This is the driving question of the present book, which takes the modern Turkish art world as a focused example that illuminates broader conjunctures of art and development after World War II. The early years of the Cold War were defined not only by military tensions between superpowers but also by conflicts about approaches to economic development, in what historian David Engerman calls an “economic Cold War” between Soviet-style state-driven industrialization and US-style capitalism. Minor powers like Turkey negotiated their position in this international community through their economic choices as much as their choices of political ideology.
Turkey, for example, made a definitive choice in the economic Cold War by abandoning its existing Soviet-inspired policies and signing on to the developmental regime prescribed by Western-bloc organizations such as the United Nations and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (later the World Bank). Turkey’s growing alliance with the United States was confirmed when it became one of fifteen European countries to receive funding through the Marshall Plan, also known as the European Recovery Program, in 1948. Spearheaded by the United States, the Marshall Plan was designed to help a ravaged Europe get back on its feet after World War II, but it was also intended to secure a bloc of anticommunist allies for the United States.
Scholars have long acknowledged art’s role as an ideological weapon of the Cold War, traditionally focusing on its use by American, European, and Soviet players to further their spheres of influence. Metrics of Modernity argues that artists, critics, and audiences in the developing world did not think only about aesthetics but engaged just as substantially with the economic dimensions of this global reordering—a widespread but overlooked phenomenon that this book elucidates for the first time.
Metrics of Modernity explores the ways in which members of the modern Turkish art world— artists, critics, and gallery owners—negotiated postwar ideologies of economic development within the realm of modern art. In the wake of World War II, newly created programs and organizations such as the Marshall Plan, European Economic Commission (EEC), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and the United Nations developed an array of economic metrics through which to measure and enforce nations’ performance. Privatization, individual consumption, and integration into international markets became some of the most prominent metrics of modernity used to regulate the entrance of emergent states like Turkey into the capitalist free market.
While originating in the economic sphere, these metrics of modernity also gained traction in the artistic realm. In Turkey, the intelligentsia used these concepts as touchstones for evaluating and improving their country’s “cultural level” as a correlate to its level of political and economic modernity. Sometimes the conversation between art and economics played out on canvas. At other times, such metrics of modernity shaped the ways that art was exhibited, consumed, and circulated.
The book explores important artworks of the period, exhibition ephemera, and an extensive archive of art criticism and political commentary in Turkish, French, and English. Cross-reading these materials, I reveal how the growing belief in the transformative powers of privatization played out at Turkey’s first two modern art galleries, Gallery Maya and the Helikon Association Derneği. I track how the metric of individual consumption served as an evaluative term within the Turkish art criticism that flourished alongside these galleries. I also explore the way that growing doubts about the efficacy of Turkey’s economic program manifested themselves in debates about how to visually represent “developing Turkey” through painting and ceramics. Metrics of Modernity ends in 1960, when a new regime reversed economic procedure, returning to the state-dominated models that had pertained before World War II.
Metrics of Modernity tells the story of art’s engagement with economic policies with which many nations across the developing world experimented after World War II. Focused on the twin goals of political liberalization and integration into international markets, national governments partnered with the United States to inject hundreds of millions of dollars into shaky new economies, to reorder national markets, and to transform consumer habits on a mass scale. Turkey’s longer-term experience of modernization, which began in the 1830s with a series of modernizing reforms known as the Tanzimat (1839–71), was similar to other developing countries. But its ten-year experiment in the 1950s was also quite distinct––in the decisiveness with which it began and ended, in the extent of the structural changes that were undertaken and the amount of US capital invested, and in the rapidity of Turkey’s transition from an isolated economic sphere to one integrated into international markets. The case of 1950s Turkey casts into particularly high relief the interrelationship of modern art and economic development in the postwar period, and it stands as a productive starting point for larger considerations about the interrelationship of art and modernization across the developing world.
The notion of metrics of modernity cuts across artificially imposed divisions between the artistic and the economic, which have blinded scholarship to artists’ interest in economic issues of the Cold War. Metrics of Modernity contends that artists do not produce work in an isolated aesthetic realm and then dispatch it to circulate within economic markets. Rather, I emphasize that their work is shaped, from the very outset, by an ambient awareness of the shifting conditions of a global economy, issues that suffuse critical discourse and enframe the question of what art, in the profoundest sense, is. By combining art history’s traditional analytical approaches of formal analysis history and social and intellectual history with the insights of economic history and Cold War studies, Metrics of Modernity offers a new lens through which to understand transnational modernisms of the postwar period.
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