Turkey creatives condemn ‘crackdown’ on artists
A TOP anti-government composer’s works removed from the repertoire. Sexual references expunged from a play. A new bill that would increase the government’s influence on performances.
Cultural figures are complaining of increased political intervention that could undermine the quality of Western-inspired arts such as classical music, drama and ballet in Turkey.
The promotion of Western creative forms was championed by Turkey’s secular modern founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, but artists fear this heritage is being lost under the rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a pious Muslim.
World-renowned Turkish pianist and composer Fazil Say wrote in an open letter that his works had been removed from a state-funded orchestra’s repertoire in a “crackdown on artists”.
The Turkish culture ministry has dismissed Say’s letter as a publicity stunt.
The 45-year-old virtuoso is a fierce critic of the Islamic-rooted government and was handed a suspended jail term for blasphemy in 2013.
The Presidential Symphony Orchestra, which was to perform Say’s works “Istanbul Symphony,” “Water” piano concerto and “Hermiyas: the boy on the dolphin,” turned instead to veteran Turkish composer Muammer Sun.
Sun, however, turned down the orchestra’s request to play his works: “Kurtulus” (Independence) and “Cumhuriyet” (Republic), in a show of solidarity with the pianist.
“I see removal of Say’s works from the orchestra’s 2014-2015 programme as interference in arts and I am protesting it,” Sun told AFP.
He lauded Say as a “great composer” and a “world-famous artist who does not shy away from expressing his thoughts when necessary.”
Sun said Turkey’s current rulers “may be considering the arts in an Islamic framework” but insisted that culture was not incompatible with Islam and had flourished in the Ottoman Empire.
“There was opera in the Ottoman palace in 1850 where artists from abroad were performing,” he said. “The current rulers do not know the Ottoman history. They are ignorant.”
After founding the modern republic in 1923, Ataturk put in place far-reaching cultural reforms with an ultimate goal of attaining the “level of contemporary civilisations”.
Under Ataturk’s patronage, the Music Teachers Training School was opened in 1924 which was later transformed into the Ankara State Conservatory.
Western artists including German composer Paul Hindemith were invited to lecture at the school in the 1930s. The first Turkish opera premiered in 1934.
Standards in ballet were raised by Dame Ninette de Valois, the founder of the Royal Ballet who established Turkey’s first ballet school in 1947.
Yet Erdogan, much touted as a deeply religious leader who took over the presidency in August after steering Turkey for more than a decade as prime minister, has sought to reinforce the image of Islam in his nation.
In December, Erdogan lamented that Turkish students know Western scientists or composers like Albert Einstein and Beethoven, but cannot name any Muslim scholars or musicians.
State-run theatres are complaining of censorship and “political pressure” as concerns are running high over a contentious bill which artists claim is seeking to tighten the government’s control over artistic production.
If it becomes law, the bill would see an 11-member council appointed by the cabinet to decide arts funding, enraging artists who fear it would open the way for political intervention.
“This is unacceptable. Then let the politicians come and perform in theatre plays,” said Tamer Levent, head of the Theatre, Opera and Ballet Members Foundation which promotes the secular arts in Turkey.
Muride Aksan, former director of the performing arts and ballet department at the Hacettepe University State Conservatory in Ankara, said “the art of ballet feels its future threatened” by the government-led bill.
“The art of ballet can only exist and develop based on an institutional tradition,” she told AFP.
Last year, Mustafa Kurt stepped down as State Theatres director after a controversy involving the use of alleged racy language in a play based on the life of great German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
“Art directors of state theatres are assumed to be civil servants. The future may see removal of Shakespeare or Goethe’s plays from theatre stage,” Levent told AFP.
He added: “A Turkey which drifts away from universal values in arts will not do any good either to the people in Turkey or in the world.”
Aksan also said even though pressure on state ballet was not directly brought to bear, “interference in costumes in plays brings to mind censorship and auto-censorship which are unacceptable in the 21st century.”
She said the government must understand the country’s dignity and development can be sustained “not only with economy but also with the rise in science, culture and arts.”