Book Review: The Transformation Of Turkish Culture

The Transformation Of Turkish Culture:  The Atatürk Legacy, edited by Güsel Renda and C. Max Kortepeter

There are a great many contradictions at the heart of this book, and it is the sort of book that few people would likely enjoy reading.  On the one hand, if you looked at the behavior of the transformation of American culture in the period during and after independence, you would note that America’s culture changed thanks to a broad involvement of a great many people, many of whom were relatively obscure, in the formation of culture.  That is not the case in the Turkish republic.  In virtually all of the cultural aspects spoken of here, Kemel Pasha had a major role in deciding and determining the shape of Turkish culture.  The authors praise this authoritarianism because of their pro-government bias, and then they whine about how few people there were to actually be involved in the creation of Turkish sculpture or media or music or cinema.  And there is an active anti-populist bias here that assumes that the authors and other elites know best and that the taste of ordinary Turks is not particularly worthwhile when it comes to culture, and that Turkish art deserves government subsidies because it cannot be supported based on actual mass Turkish appeal.

This book is almost 250 pages long and it contains a discussion of various aspects of Turkish culture that have been profoundly changed by the establishment of the Turkish republic, along with a great many calls for Turkey’s art to be supported by the state and for it to be considered as fully European.  The book begins with a list of plates, acknowledgements, and a list of contributors before a short discussion of Turkish culture over the last two millennia.  After that there is a discussion of Turkey’s cultural transformation in general as it relates to political and religious matters.  After that there is a discussion of opera and ballet in Turkey.  This is followed by a discussion of the language reforms of the Turkish republic as well as a discussion of Turkish cinema from its origins in the early Republican period to today.  There is a paper on Turkish sculpture and its development as well as a discussion of trends and characteristics of contemporary Turkish literature.  There is an essay of Turkish theater during the early Republic (and a later chapter that discusses contemporary Turkish drama, with a distaste for popular melodrama and a preference for socialist “realism”), as well as one on Turkish radio and television and their slow beginnings.  A discussion of music in the Republican era as well as the controversy of the Turkish press (including French and Armenian but apparently not Kurdish newspapers) as well as Turkish architecture as well as an index round out the book.

This book does present enough information to demonstrate that Turkish culture in the Republican period is worth celebrating.  Yet at the same time there were massive and wrenching shifts that took place between Ottoman times and contemporary Turkish culture, and the authors do not do a good job at being honest about their ideological biases and perspectives and the way that these shape their approach to Turkish culture as a whole with a strong bias towards state-supported elite culture that has minimal popular appeal and that requires subsidization.  As a reader, it must be admitted that I approach this book with different assumptions, including a tendency to be wary of any claims by corrupt elites to have their private culture supported by tax money when they do not feel a sense of appreciation and regard for the people who are coerced to support it.  When you add to that the way that the book completely neglects to talk about Kurdish culture within Turkey at all as something worth mentioning, much less celebrating, the layers of injustice that exist in this book is something that is far too much to ignore.  This book provides the perspectives of the authors, but it is not one I can support or endorse in any way whatsoever.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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