Ethics of Art or Ethical Art, that is the question!
The Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan prefers privatization of the country’s theatres
As the 18th Istanbul Theatre Festival opened its curtains this month, the joy of theatre lovers was overshadowed by incidents regarding the country’s theatres. The Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan announced the implementation of new regulations for the Istanbul Municipal Theatre and the privatization of the country’s theaters. Since then, many actors, theatre lovers and supporters of autonomy for the arts took to the streets to protest.
It does not matter anymore why such changes were seen necessary since the arguments bear the seeds of a dangerous cultural-war that the government seems to wage in arts and culture.
Video made for solidarity with theater artists featuring a part of Hamlet's speech "to be or not to be"
The new regulations for the Municipal theatre claim to set ethical standards
There was no need to discuss the importance of autonomy for the arts since we all seemed to take it for granted. But when something threatens this autonomy, it is better not to take it for granted and go to fight for it. It was a clear threat on the autonomy of theatre since the regulations include clauses refering to ethical values of society. Also, there is a plan to give the artistic control of Istanbul theatres to civil servants. Even if there were problems in the old system - when a change is imposed from above in such an unsettling manner it is difficult not to fear for the future.
The new regulations will stop the recruitment of new artists and the inactive staff will be gradually laid off. The new system will be project-based with the existent staff but who will decide on the criteria for the projects?
Protest:The Municipal Theater shall not be destroyed, free theater against fear
In the old system there was a repertoire board made up of artists who proposed the plays to be performed during the season and the last decision was given to the board of directors headed by the general art director.
Even though this seemed in some cases to spoil the art director with too much authority, in the new system these decisions will be made by the literary board that will include no artists except the art director and instead will be made up of civil servants appointed by the City Mayor and other state officials. This could make decisions more ideological than artistic.
Yet such a change seems to be in line with the Prime Minister’s statements that he wants to achieve in the moral sense what his party has achieved in the material sense. They want to couple their conservative democrat stance in the political sphere with conservative aesthetics in the art sphere.
Erdoğan also openly attacked the “elites” of theatre, calling them “half-portion intellectuals” for making art for art’s sake and humiliating the public. He claims that their art will be for people’s sake.
There is a clause in the new regulations which states that the repertoire will “pay attention to the general ethical values of the society.” But what those ethical values are, who will define them and how, is left open.
Withdrawing State support from the country’s theatres
On the other hand Erdoğan claimed that there are no theatres run by the state in developed countries. The reality is that in almost every developed country theatre is subsidized. But he withdraws state support from the theatres. However it is not clear how this will function since it is most probable that once the theatres are privatized investors will not really take interest in the enrichment of the public’s artistic and cultural life but in their personal profit making. However Erdoğan did not fall behind in this matter either by stating that if they like a play, they will sponsor it.
Video featuring theater artists calling for the public's solidarity in their protest: Free theater against fear, free art against fear.
Fight for the freedom of art
When you look particularly at the history of theatre you see on the one hand that sometimes even the most powerful rulers allowed themselves to be criticized by it. That was the case in the times of Aristophanes or during the Ottoman Empire since the traditional Turkish improvisational theatre could voice criticism of the authorities even if to a certain degree.
On the other hand however is the dark history of Degnerate Art, Stalinism and McCarthyism with terrible consequences for people involved in theatre and arts, prosecuted and persecuted as enemies of the state for their art. Erdoğan did not see a need to conceal his agenda when he stated that “theatres cannot take government subsidies and then criticize the hand that feeds them”. The future will show whether his name will be suffixed with an "–ism" or not, since Turkey has already made an infamous reputation for free speech during his reign.
There was a big public protest in Taksim on April 24th organized by İŞTİSAN Istanbul Municipal Theatre where the Union of Actors and the public showed their solidarity. Many other protests followed. In addition, many voiced their opposition to these developments during the opening of the Istanbul Theater Festival and Thomas Ostermeier who participated at the festival with his production of Hamlet referred to the importance of art’s autonomy and its power.