Thursday, January 22, 2015

Istanbul Modern Art Museum & Koc University Presention

In a trip filled with ancient and medieval history, today we got a look at Turkey in the modern world. In the morning, all of us students explored Taksim Square and Gezi Park, a small public park located on a hill right next to the Square. Throughout the history of the Turkish republic, these two spots have played important roles. Taksim Square has been the location of a great number of protests and demonstrations, and a number of defining moments in Turkish history, such as the "Bloody Sunday" attacks, have taken place here. In one of our pre-departure classes, we learned of a recent series of protests that took place in Gezi Park within the last two years concerning an Ottoman-style mall complex that the Turkish President Erdogan wanted to construct in the the park's current location. The thought of a return to the Ottoman past, combined with the anger at the potential loss at a major gathering (and protest/demonstration) space, caused the protests. It was fascinating to stand in a place filled with so much recent Turkish history, after visiting and studying sites with so much of Asia Minor's ancient and medieval history.

After the morning exploration, the group visited the Istanbul Modern art museum. Founded by a family who became wealthy through pharmaceuticals, the museum's goal is largely to put modern Turkish artwork in its rightful place among the world's best pieces. One of the exhibits on display was titled "Past and Future," and drew upon the museum's permanent collection to complete two objectives: first, to give a brief history of art in Turkey from the late stages of the Ottoman Empire to the present; and second, to usher in the future of Turkey's (and especially Istanbul's) modern art scene. It was very interesting to see the transitions in Turkish art over the past 150 years, and notice the parallels between the style changes in the works and the changes in the dynamic of the area over this time period.

In the late stages of the Ottoman Empire, the sultans would send artists to Europe in order to learn from the very best. However, from looking at the works produced during this time period, there is still a distinctly "Ottoman" feel to them. After the War of Independence and Ataturk's ascension to power in the first few decades of the 20th century, the style of art completely changes. At this point in history, Turkey is looking to become European themselves, and this largely continues for the remainder of the century. Turkish artists are still flocking to Europe to learn the trade, but they are now painting in a style that is no longer unique to the region. Instead, they are playing "copy-cat," trying to do exactly what the Europeans are doing, in order to be accepted as a European country. Therefore, one can clearly see a European artistic style to Turkish artwork during this period. Unfortunately, Turkey has been constantly rejected from joining the European Union, and since President Erdogan's current government came to power in 2005, there has been a significant shift in the Turkish view of the West. Instead of looking outward, Turkey has begun to look culturally inward, and this has clearly shown in its artwork. In recent pieces, there has emerged a much more unique "Turkish" style. The future of Turkish art, according to this museum, is to be uniquely Turkish, and will flourish regardless of whether it is similar to European artwork or not.

After the museum, we returned to the hotel for a presentation by Murat Ergin, Associate Professor of Sociology at nearby Koc University. His talk was titled "Turkey's Modernization, Culture, and Religion: Cultural Boundaries" and it focused on the changes in these areas of Turkey's background over the last twenty years. His findings were extremely interesting. In doing his research, Professor Ergin conducted a number of surveys throughout Turkey, asking questions about people's identities, their religions, their personal feelings concerning certain minorities or groups of people in Turkey, as well as their feelings on certain issues such as religious education in schools. He reached the conclusion that, while Turkey has grown significantly from an economic standpoint over the last twenty years, this growth has not coincided with significant changes in social development. Through his surveys, he learned that 66.2% of people surveyed would object to living next to a gay couple, and 49.0% would object to living next to an atheist family. Despite the secularization of the country nearly 100 years ago, 61% of those surveyed still chose that, if they were to choose one word to describe their identity, they would choose "Muslim" (the second place answer was "Turk," chosen by only 13% of people surveyed). Professor Ergin attributes these findings to two kinds of nationalism subscribed to by the current government administration. The first is neo-liberal nationalism, which equates national pride with becoming an advanced nation. The second is Islamic nationalism, which makes the argument that Turkey should be the leader of the Islamic world. These two forms result in a great push for economic growth, but does not push for social development.

At the conclusion of his research, Professor Ergin defined three types of people in modern Turkey. The first group, constituting, 25% of the population, he calls Engaged Cosmopolitans. These are the people who are extremely secular, Western-looking, and protest and against the current government. According to Ergin, they are "cultural omnivores," accepting and utilizing both domestic and foreign culture. The second group, called Engaged Provincialists, make up 30% of the population, and they actively reject Western consumption items. Other than this, however, they overlap considerably with the first group from a cultural standpoint. The final group is the disengaged, which makes up the rest of the population, and this group chooses not to participate in these practices. They differ culturally from the prior two groups, but tends to ally with the Engaged Provincialists on morality questions.

The findings of Professor Ergin, combined with what we learned from our visits to Taksim Square, Gezi Park, and The Istanbul Modern art museum, greatly helped to outline the dynamics of modern Turkey.

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