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Art, Democracy, and the Culture of Dissent in 1950s Turkey

  • Author(s): Smith, Sarah-Neel
  • Advisor(s): Mathur, Saloni
  • et al.
Abstract

Art, Democracy, and the Culture of Dissent in 1950s Turkey tracks the emergence of a modern Turkish art world of unprecedented size and dynamism between 1950 and 1960, a period during which Turkey first experimented with multi-party democracy. The scholarship on modern visual culture in the Middle East has often focused on the moment of nation-formation, emphasizing the determining role played by nationalist ideologies in shaping modern lifestyles in the new states that formed across the region in the twentieth century. In contrast, this dissertation analyzes what postcolonial scholarship has called the “moment of maneuver”: the transitional time when a young nation-state begins to rethink its nationalist past, while articulating a new vision of an international future through subscription to Western forms of liberal democracy. Cold War ideologies of democracy were a key reference for the members of the Turkish art world who inaugurated novel forms of institution-building, exhibition-making, and written critique. Drawing on Turkish, French, and English-language archives and interviews, the dissertation examines how artists and writers used exhibitions, painting, and art criticism to promote the democratic principles of popular participation, freedom of expression, and dissent. Throughout, it demonstrates that art was shaped by transnational intellectual currents, global organizations like UNESCO, and international exhibitions. This research troubles existing accounts’ portrayal of the West as a generative center from which modernist artistic currents and democratic political ideals radiated outwards, as if transmitted to a series of passive, “peripheral” receivers after World War II. Instead, it demonstrates that Western artistic and political ideologies were simply one component within a complex constellation of forces that shaped the development of modern art worlds across the globe. Furthermore, it argues that it is only by engaging with art worlds like Turkey’s—simultaneously in dialogue with the West and forged through processes of decolonization and nationalization—that we can fully understand the fundamental transformation that ideologies of modernism underwent in the post-war period.

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