Conversation with

    With a BFA and MFA from the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles and a PhD in Architectural History from Istanbul Technical University, Jale Nejdet Erzen is a painter and art historian who has taught design, history of art, photography and aesthetics at Middle East Technical University since 1974, where she currently works part time. She has served as a visiting lecturer at the universities of Osaka, Bologna and Koper-Primorska, edited the Boyut magazine (1980–1984), founded the SANART Aesthetics and Culture Association, which she chaired 1992–2010, organized the 2001 International Congress of Aesthetics, and served as the president of the International Association of Aesthetics (2016–2019). Jale Nejdet Erzen’s awards and prizes include the French Ministry of Culture’s Chevalier Prize in Arts and Letters, the Turkish Chamber of Architects’ Contribution to Architecture Award, the “Oak of Art” Prize, a Fulbright Fellowship, and the Japan Promotion Grant. She has published extensively in Turkey and abroad on Mimar Sinan, architecture, art, and aesthetics. Her paintings are prized holdings in public and private collections.


    Holder of a BSc in Civil Engineering from Gazi University, an MA in Economics from Hacettepe University, and a PhD in Political Science from Bilkent University, Hasan Bülent Kahraman has taught at Hacettepe University, Bilkent University and Sabancı University. He was among the founders of Sabancı University, where he served in various administrative positions. He served as vice-rector of Kadir Has University and head of the Department of Visual Communication Design. At Kadir Has University, he also served as dean of the Faculty of Communication. Later, he served as the president of Netkent University. Kahraman is an Ertegün Visiting Professor in the Near Eastern Studies Department of Princeton University. He is a member of the Abdullah Gül University Science Committee, the Işık University Advisory Board, Sabancı Museum Executive Board and International Consulting Board, Contemporary Istanbul Art Fair Executive Board, and Akbank Art Advisory Board. Kahraman served as senior advisor to Prime Minister Erdal İnönü, Deputy Prime Minister Murat Karayalçın, and President Abdullah Gül as well as to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism (1992–1995). He worked as the BP National Prestige Council member, was elected to the USA–USIS Young Leaders program, and was a member of the 2013 Education Goals Commission prepared by the State Planning Organization. Kahraman designed and launched the Abdullah Gül Presidential Museum and Library as chief curator. He was the art director of the Europalia Turkey festival organized by the Belgian government in 2015, and has curated numerous international and national artists’ exhibitions. He has also worked as an independent art critic since 1977, with over 20 books and innumerable articles on political, cultural, literary and visual theory published to date. Kahraman is a member of the American Political Science Association, Middle Eastern Studies Association, College Art Association, Turkish History Foundation, Social Democracy Foundation (SODEV), and Board of Trustees of the WWF Turkey.


The need for a major advance in the area of culture is a frequent topic of discussion. As Turkey’s president remarked in a speech, “Education and culture remain the weakest links in the great transformation of the past 14 years.”[1] It’s heartening for advocates of education and culture to hear that the government will focus on these areas now. All the same, we must examine why those links have remained weak for so long and determine how to focus new efforts to contribute to social development. Turkey ranks lower on the UN Human Development Index than it does in indices of economic development; the data indicate that by comparison we’re less developed in education and culture. We hope that a breakthrough here will improve our position in human development. My question to both of you is, what kind of cultural breakthrough should we envision?

1. Ministry of Culture and Tourism Special Awards Speech February 2017 [in Tr.],173414/kultur-ve-turizm-bakanligi-ozel-odulleri-sahiplerini-bu-.html

We’ve needed an effort of this nature for years. The question is how and where do we start to invest in cultural policy? The first thing to do is to define culture. The general understanding is that culture is religion or art. I happen to think of culture as everything produced by humans – including everything practical as well as spiritual, and by spiritual I don’t necessarily mean religion. Cities, finance, law, and health systems are all cultural institutions. Humans are cultural creatures. If you restrict these cultural institutions, you send humankind back to the start of the evolutionary process. Humans are essentially cultural beings, not natural ones.

The most important factor is education, and specifically, a high level of education that incorporates research and new technologies and that can lead to advances in technology, science, and the quality of life in our cities. Yet, all over the world today, educational programs aren’t developed to foster cultural diversity but rather to promote an ideology of growth; education aims to mold people who will serve this purpose. In Turkey, education policies are designed to rein in free thinking.

In general, education and cultural infrastructure are shaped by social and economic policies.


Cultural policies are crucial and have been debated in Turkey from time to time from a variety of viewpoints. There are differences, however, in how the subject is being debated now. In the 1970s, the main question was this: Should the government, through its ministry of culture, contribute to the formulation of cultural policies, or should it simply guide them? And the conclusion was that the government should play a part in formulating them because this thing we call culture can’t possibly create its own large or formal spaces or raise the necessary funds. Government must contribute without always expecting a practical and regular return, although it should make large-scale plans and aim to create added value in the long term. It should also be responsible for organizing cultural events far too big for the private sector to finance, from the running of large-venue opera, ballet and theater all the way to archaeological digs.


Which also happens to be government’s constitutional duty.


Government has a constitutional duty to be involved in the production of culture and to spend resources on it. Needless to say, the private sector or independent cultural producers will also make their own contributions in this area, but their efforts will tend to focus more on the aesthetic and artistic side. No government anywhere supports highly avant-garde or experimental work. They’ll make the facilities available, and they might offer indirect support. It all depends on the democratic values of a country and whether the government takes a liberal and contemporary approach to culture.

But that’s not what Turkey is doing. Since the mid-1970s in particular, Turkey has chosen to implement a highly controlling and indoctrinating cultural policy. This stems from our own historic heritage. For a variety of reasons and influences, we’ve changed cultural camps at certain points in our history, moving between a more traditional Ottoman-Islamic-Turkish culture and a Western one. Governments have generally chosen one over the other in formulating their cultural policies, rather than arbitrating between the two. In developed countries, established cultural policy has two main features. The first is that governments provide material support to the cultural arena to facilitate its growth. The second is that learning about culture and acculturation are primary purposes of education. In such countries, education is more than conveying information; it’s about broadening the public’s cultural vision. The aim is to arouse the public’s desire to read books, watch films, go to concerts, and the theater. Since this debate is already over in developed countries, the essence of cultural policies there is to foster local, non-governmental, and autonomous cultural growth. Thanks to the resources provided by government, a democratic culture emerges where everyone can take part in the cultural production of their choice, even if it is in opposition to government.


We urgently need to reconsider the priority that Turkey’s public sector affords culture; as Atatürk said, “The foundation of the Republic of Turkey is culture.” On the one hand, our country has an indisputably rich cultural heritage. On the other, the role of culture in economic and social development is on the rise worldwide. Countries everywhere are recognizing the need for development strategies that prioritize culture and creativity, and developed countries are implementing policies that enable cultural assets, the arts, culture industries, and creative sectors to contribute to local and national economies. Despite its cultural assets and the global trend, Turkey lags behind many countries in both access to culture and contribution to world culture. Culture’s share of the public sector budget, an important indicator of government priorities, is negligible and well below the one percent target frequently talked about. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism receives just .5 percent of the national budget, only half of which is allocated to culture in the best of cases.

Professor Kahraman has provided a great explanation of what government’s role should be. Could we talk about the current nature of its role in Turkey? Almost everyone in Turkey says government should look after, protect, invest in, and channel resources to art and culture. In this light, how would you describe the relationship between government and culture in Turkey? How influential is government in the cultural sphere? More importantly, is government an authority in art and culture? Does government – by definition – have a role to play in culture? What kind of relationships with the arts and artists do governments have elsewhere in the world in comparison to ours?


There are three principal factors here. One is government. What sort of role does it assume in the field of culture? The second is, who are the producers and consumers of culture? Non-governmental organizations are hugely important here. And finally, as you mentioned, there is local culture. In other words, there is a less formal world of culture produced by certain populations, like the rituals of religious holidays and folk dances.

As far as I can see, governments in Turkey have assumed the role of authority in culture from the very beginning – a claim that has only grown stronger over time. Take the Sanart Aesthetic and Visual Culture Association, for example; until 1995 or so, we received government assistance of one sort or another for our activities. There were also a number of public bodies that offered in kind assistance as well as funding. Public sector experts in theater, exhibitions or museums would provide assistance to us. Or government would arrange for an exhibition to travel to France, for example. But over time such public assistance dwindled to a minimum, especially for the contemporary arts. Government help is now limited to specific ideological activities, and with many other activities it is actively obstructive. When the arts are forced to rely on individual investments, access to culture and the arts becomes restricted to a particular class or income group.

But then I noticed something yesterday, at the Istanbul Biennial: Entrance to the Pera Museum was free, and visitors came from all walks of life. A lady with a headscarf and slippers stood next to a chic lady with her grandchildren, and foreigners, and so on. Which means that modernization is a universal aspiration, and not just for Turkey; regardless of their religious convictions, people want modernization according to their own understanding of what this means. Actually, Turkish society has been open to modernization since the 17th and 18th centuries because culture is open to innovation; culture is constantly changing, constantly growing, constantly renewing itself and nourishing humanity, and this openness is critical. That said, innovation has always faced accusations of disrupting the holy order, whatever that is. In Turkey, there were quantum leaps in the fine arts during World War I and the early years of the Republic. In music, for instance, there was so much innovation! But traditionalists have always attempted to block it all. These fanatical, orthodox segments of society have always lain in wait to pounce whenever major advances take place.

Today, these segments are in ascendancy again. They come to the fore to confront innovation and propose a highly restrictive and insular definition of Turkish culture.


What Professor Erzen says brings this question to mind: How are cultural values formed? Does government have a duty to strike a balance among them? We occasionally succumb to the notion of a static and unchangeable cultural heritage; yet culture is alive. What happens today becomes part of our cultural heritage. Does government have a duty to keep this balance in mind? Are the only significant cultural values the ones passed on to us by history, by our ancestors? You’d be covering a crucial point for us if you could discuss these ideas.


Culture doesn’t consist exclusively of new production; new production is always based on something older. Humanity has continuity. Modern humans have been producing culture for the past 40,000 years, right? Yet, at seeing the Lascaux Cave paintings, Picasso exclaimed, “We’ve learned nothing new since then.” In this context, therefore, culture is always a cumulative structure. This includes humanity’s tools and instruments. Everyday tools in one era become works of art or artifacts in the next. That’s why it’s crucial to understand and correctly identify past cultural heritage.

The issue here is that the state–culture relationship in our society, and others like ours, played another role as well: We adopted an approach to cultural production that cut off previous cultural production at a specific point in time and started from there. That is the fundamental reality of the era of the Republic. Ottomans, in contrast, had regarded culture as a natural progression with no break. The Republic severed this progression with a radical strike, transforming culture in Turkey into a battleground of ideologies. Culture abandoned the reality of its own material production and took on a significance proportional only to its ability to serve an ideological purpose. Each government’s preference brought a particular cultural policy and mindset to the fore. Turkey failed to generate reconciliatory cultural policies. Culture in Turkey turned into an area of division instead of harmony, and, sadly, the ascendancy of identity politics across the world since the 1990s has also fanned these flames here. The culture of one group’s identity is acceptable, whereas another’s is rejected outright, regardless of its cultural approach, expression or creativity. Turkey had the potential to forge a much deeper cultural synthesis than other nations; instead, we’ve been racking our brains over how to transport a past cultural heritage into our time.

Consequently, Turkey is attempting to reconstruct a non-existent past today, and the replica of past ages is presented as a cultural policy.

Everywhere in the world, there are clashes between government and producers of culture, cultural policies, and institutions of culture. These conflicts can only be solved with a democratic culture. In countries with strong democratic mechanisms, the debate is over.


So, a democratic culture would seem to be invaluable in the relationship between government and cultural institutions.