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Erdogan to Turkey: I didn’t go to Yale, I’m you 17 janvier 2011

Posted by Acturca in Art-Culture, Turkey / Turquie.
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The Washington Times (USA) Monday, January 17, 2011

Claire Berlinski *, Istanbul

If you were just to skim the news about Turkey’s freak crisis, you might miss some of the interesting cultural subtleties. Erdoğan has recently described it as–you guessed it–a freak, and demanded it be torn down.

Turkey is going berserk over this, as well it should. The number of ways this demand is disturbing can scarcely be enumerated. Here’s one: « On a weekend visit to Kars, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan described the monument as an affront to the shrine of Hasan Harakani, one of the pioneers of Islam in the area in the 11th century. »

There’s an observation about the freak crisis that could be lost on foreign readers who will immediately (and with reason) think « Taliban, » « genocide denial, » and « Hell in a handbasket. » More than a whiff of all of that in the story, for sure.

But the other thing that’s going on here is a class war. Erdoğan’s comment here is, if not the heart of it, significant: « I know a thing or two about sculptures. You do not have to hold a degree in fine arts in order to admire a work of art. »

He’s playing here to something very similar to the anti-elitist sentiment Sarah Palin is often said to exploit. There is a huge segment of Turkey that has long felt the contempt of Turkey’s educated sophisticates, who strive with especial eagerness to be cultured and European and who clearly view them as ignorant, backward, pulpit-bashing, gun-clinging, sister-marrying snaggle-toothed village hicks. Just as in the United States, modern art is something of a totem for « stuff those hoity-toity elites who went to Yale keep telling us we should like because they have degrees in fine arts and we don’t. »

Can you sense the contempt for the taste of ordinary Turks in this comment, for example? “’I am now traveling around Turkey for a project, and the country is full of kitsch monuments from historical figures to animals and fruits,” said Zeynep Yasa Yaman, an art history professor at Hacettepe University currently working on a project on monuments and sculptures in modern Turkish art. “Before discussing the ‘Monument of Humanity,’ we need to talk about all those others. »‘

So that, too, is part of the freak crisis. Just to confuse things further, you’ve got to believe me: Yaman is right about the kitsch. There is so much kitsch-per-inch in Turkey that it would give Theodore Adorno seizures. Me, I love the stuff, but I’m not riddled with Turkish status anxiety. My status-conscious Turkish friends wince and pretend they don’t know me when I show them the great garden gnome I’m jonesing to put on my balcony and ask them for help in haggling for it.

The monument is freakish, yes, but someone with an educated palette for these things might in part for that reason find it interesting and artistically moving. Although the freak is a lesser work, it brings to my mind Joseph Epstein’s 1947 Lazarus Alabaster in the New College Chapel–avant-garde, expressively distorted, moving precisely in its ugliness. And really, you’re by definition part of an outrageously rarified elite if you spontaneously come up with an association like that or write a sentence like that.

By the way, when Khrushchev saw that statue on a visit to Oxford in 1956, he called it « a degenerate piece of rubbish. » He was apparently disturbed by nightmares about it. On hearing of this, Epstein reportedly suggested Khrushchev « keep off art criticism, which he does not understand, and stick to his own business, which is murder. »

But back to Turkey: A lot of what’s going on here really has to do with this, with Turks feeling patronized by what they perceive as an elite class–associated in their minds with « Europeans »–who look down on them. No one likes the feeling that the elites are looking down on them. A great deal of Erdogan’s popularity has to do with this sense: « He’s a normal Joe, like us. »

Now of course, Erdogan and those around him are no longer anything like normal Joes; they’ve become a fantastically wealthy and powerful elite in their own right. But this trope–« opposition=elite, AKP=humble-salt-of-the-earth » gets repeated endlessly, here and abroad, as if it’s still true. And Erdogan still knows how to use it to advantage–most of the time.

* Claire Berlinski is an American novelist, freelance journalist, travel writer and biographer who lives amid a menagerie of adopted stray animals in Istanbul. She is the author of There is No Alternative: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters, Menace in Europe: Why the Continent’s crisis is America’s, Too, and two spy novels: Loose Lips and Lion Eyes. You can read more from Claire on Ricochet. Visit Claire’s website here.

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