Ask anyone and they will agree: 2020 has been a terrible year. From the coronavirus to natural disasters, economic crisis to corrosive nationalism and racism. If you follow the news in Turkey—or, worse, if you are a journalist responsible for covering the news—the situation here seems particularly grim. Certainly there are countries in worse shape than Turkey. In fact, under Trump the dysfunctional U.S. has been giving Turkey-watchers a particularly bad case of déjà vu. Yet the speed with which political events shift in Turkey and the steepness of its democratic, economic, and social decline sometimes makes it feel particularly cursed among nations—at least for those who still stubbornly hope for something better.
I write about art and culture. I do not report on the minutiae of the slipping lira, the repression of civil society, or the crumbling justice system. I respect and benefit from the work of my colleagues who do report on these topics. As someone who lives here, I cannot be unaffected by the latest news of youth unemployment, elected leaders being arrested, and women being murdered—murdered over and over again by men who enjoy impunity.
And so as I absorb this constant stream of bad news, feeling it move from my eyes to a deep pit in my stomach, it is hard not to sometimes question why one would write about art and culture when there are so many more urgent topics. As I write this, we are reaching the end of a particularly terrible week in a particularly terrible year. And so I ask once again: why art?
The poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht was a person well familiar with bad news. A communist as well as a Jew, he fled Germany in 1933 just after Hitler came to power. From exile in Denmark he wrote a poem that began with the phrase “Truly, I live in dark times!” Brecht goes on to ask what importance art or the ‘eternal questions’ can have when the political situation is this dark: “What times are these, in which / A conversation about trees is almost a crime / For in doing we maintain our silence about so much wrongdoing!” To speak of anything besides the darkness, and particularly to praise beauty—does this not make us insensitive?
Yet in another passage from the same period, Brecht seems to make the opposite point. In a famous poem, he writes:
In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing.
About the dark times.
In other words, as dark as things get, there will always be a need for art. And the task of art in dark times might just be to articulate that darkness—to make it visible, understandable, vincible.
This is all well and good, but must art be political to justify itself? There is one school of thought that would say, “Yes”: art must be explicitly committed to political causes. Another school would say, “No”: art should not be treated as propaganda but should remain committed only to the beautiful. And then there are those like me who think that art is always political—whether it admits it or not, whether it’s about a military coup or a lover’s face, whether it’s a march or a dance song, whether it’s easily understandable or obscure. In fact, one might say that one of the most obviously political gestures an artist can make is to try to avoid politics altogether. For they will inevitably fall back in the web.
I don’t always write about specifically political art but this does not mean it’s not political. Let’s think about this in the specific case of Turkey. We are living at a time when, if people outside of the country think about Turkey at all, it’s to ponder the ruling Justice and Development Party's (AKP) latest action, the latest arrest, the latest foreign policy debacle, the latest state of the lira. I think particularly for those of us writing for foreign audiences, it is important to sometimes remind readers—and ourselves—that there is more to the country than these things. And one of the best places to see people’s ambitions, idiosyncrasies, dreams, and so on is their art. In this sense, even a pop song is political if it reminds people that there is more than the darkness.
Yet when thinking about promoting Turkish art and culture on the world stage, it is hard not to fall into a kind of soft nationalism. A recent ad campaign by Neflix Turkey illustrates this. Last week, the streaming company put up banners around Istanbul that stated, in Turkish, “Let them watch with subtitles now. Turkish series and films are up simultaneously in 190 countries.” The “them” here is countries like the US, Great Britain, perhaps France and Germany. For decades, Turkish audiences have watched films from culturally dominant countries in North America and Western Europe with subtitles (or dubbed). While even my retired Turkish uncle could name any number of American directors or actors, the average American would be hard pressed to name a single Turkish one. That is, until now, what the Netflix ad suggests.
Well, this has been changing slowly for decades. Some people outside of Turkey can now easily name Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Orhan Pamuk, or Fazıl Say—just as earlier they might have been able to name Halide Edip, Yaşar Kemal, or Yılmaz Güney. But it also important to be aware of the dangerous expectation that film, literature, and music should teach one something about Turkey. Did people read Virginia Woolf or listen to The Beatles to gain insight into the ‘British spirit?’ Of course not. Art from countries like Turkey gets read as sociology while art from other countries just gets read as art.
This is why the speed with which youth culture is traveling today is so exciting. In popular music, for example, global trends may make the world more homogeneous but they also put it on slightly more equal footing. A band like She Past Away are not popular because they are from Turkey as opposed to somewhere else; they are popular because they produce good, spooky dance music. When they tour the world, their fans in Mexico who stream their albums or listen to them on YouTube sing along with the lyrics in Turkish simply because they happen to be in Turkish. When so much of the world has parroted back lyrics in English or French for so long, it is exciting to see them sing back in Turkish or Korean or even Spanish. Rather than nationalism let’s call this a soft third-worldism.
Yet we started with the question of art’s importance in bad times and now we have moved to the uneven patterns of art’s global distribution. If we need a sign from within the Turkish context that art remains a deeply important matter, look no further than the statements of President Erdoğan. Just this week, he spoke at the Presidential Culture and Art Awards Ceremony. He argued there that artists should not “emulate the foreign” but “come to life with local inspiration.” This echoes his longstanding laments that a westernized, left/liberal elite is dominant in Turkey’s artistic life and the AKP has yet to establish “cultural hegemony.” This fear is partly confirmed by the names to whom this year’s awards were given. Only two of them (musician Özdemir Erdoğan and director Derviş Zaim) are widely known and all of them are men. By its nature, conservative art simply cannot keep up with the times. Hence the ruling party’s anxiety about cultural matters.
And so even the most seemingly trivial art can affirm life beyond the plans and agendas of this country’s—or any country’s—rulers. Some days, where I see the brightest hope is not art necessarily devoted to a cause but rather art that expresses people’s commitment to beauty, joy, or just simply surviving: getting through another day with something to make it just a little more tolerable. And so there will be singing in the dark times. It may or may not be about the dark times, but it most certainly will exist in spite of it.