Prof. Tomor Atagok (Professor and Dean of Art and Design Faculty, Yildiz Technical University; Turkey)

19.02.2011 - Interview conducted by Ashley Fitzpatrick & Moushumi Bhadra

Q: In what ways, if any, do you see the arts and music as possibly empowering marginalized women, particularly in the Middle East?

It is an interesting question, we have a Persian artist, Sherin Ishard, who is very famous and she makes video art. She is also a very beautiful woman, and she uses writing in her art and some of the words are very effective. So there are people among us who are very well-known in the area. Of course, it is not only because [Ishard} is beautiful and very talented, but it is also due to what has happened in Iran which caused her to leave Iran and go abroad. There are other instances like this in the Middle East. In turkey, I know of several female artists who started about the same time I did. Additionally, other female Turkish artists come and go, and make projects in other countries. So, the more the issue of the Feminist artists crops up, the more developments will be pushed. Actually in Turkey, there are more female artists involved with social issues than male, and this is important.

Q: How might multiculturalism, and a plurality of identities be advanced through the arts?

Well, art and music are two languages, two more languages, that can contribute to the dialogue, so they will surely contribute somehow. I think that music is much more effective than visual arts. In the visual arts, video arts and performance are more attractive to people than two or three dimensional work. In recent years, quite often the installations have been quite fun to view, but they do not always have a very artistic affect on the people. So, I think these big, bright installations, or active video art will contribute to the arts, but the other hand, some of the very serious works are somewhat closed within the artist’s work and do not always convey a message. Thus, I hope there will be more museum associates in transit opening up new exhibitions. Seeing is very important, and how to see is related to how to look. So the problem is that we have to teach the younger generation how to see and how to look, and what to catch, and this is not easy to teach. Especially since the elementary and high schools require students to draw, and tend to focus on the accuracy of drawings, but that is not the important thing. What is important is the kind of message you want to send, and so the children never really learn really to decode the art. Truly the problem is the lack of education, however, the museums ought to be able to help.

Q. Do you perceive the arts and music as divided as to “high” and “low” culture in terms of the audience? Would you say the arts are directed to everyone, or rather that these distinctions old-fashioned? In general, or particularly in Turkey?

Because of cost of tickets, whether it is popular art or classical music, kids and the younger generation have a hard time collecting the money to attend. For people like me, it can be better to stay at home and watch concerts on television, since I do not want to stand the whole evening. So I do not even mind watching the Grammys for example late at night to see who gets the awards, even three or four in the morning. But generally there is a financial obstacle for the general public. And who is it that really wants to attend concerts - it is the young generation, and the wealthier people who can afford it. Yet it is growing harder for young people to obtain the money to go to concerts. So what is happening is that classical music is suffering in terms of the audience, particularly in Turkey as well. Recently in Turkey a new hall was opened and my sister’s son was there with his father. It was classical music and the hall seats about five hundred, yet the hall was only about half full. They only have concerts once a week not everyday, and usually on Fridays or Saturdays, so you expect it to be full. There is indeed a problem.

Q. During one of your panel discussions you talked about one of Ataturk’s legacies being changing the Hagia Sophia into a museum and thereby ending the centuries old debate over what kind of religious institution it should be, and also of course his legacy of ensuring that modern Turkey is a secular republic - I would like to ask you whether you think that the fact that Turkey is a secular state has contributed towards the protection of the arts and allowing the arts to flourish in comparison to Arab states that are not secular.

I am certain, were it not for Ataturk, if there had been a completely different founding father we would not be so strict with secularism. Ataturk was very smart to have not taken a Christian church and turned it into a Muslim mosque. It may be that today Saint Sophia is used during religious holidays, but, this is one step in the direction of turning Saint Sophia into a mosque, and we have to be very careful. We have to show our respect. When I consider museums and historical cites in Istanbul, there are several mosques that were originally Christian churches and this is a mistake. Recently there was an interesting exhibition by Armenian architects in Istanbul. We realized that important buildings of the eighteenth and nineteenth century were built by these architects, including one of the last palaces. The next show will be Greek architects in Istanbul, so this is a move in the direction of the NGOs rather than the state. We also have a lot of Italian architects that came and lived in Turkey and built a lot of buildings as well. Turkey is a very interesting country because we have all different origins of religion and ethic groups. My great-grandfather, on my maternal side, was a Pasha, and he fought in one Russian war, and then he taught French at the military school. This was always a question in my family, since he came from Anatolia. In Anatolia they have French and English monastery schools and that is where the languages were taught. At that time, the Ottoman rule was that you were allowed to teach the religion and the language if the child was Christian, not Muslim. So we have always questioned whether I have a great-grandfather who was Christian and not Muslim. Although these days things are changing and people are becoming less worried about that kind of thing.

Thank you for your time.