Karagöz on Smith, 'Metrics of Modernity: Art and Development in Postwar Turkey'

Sarah-Neel Smith
Özge Karagöz

Sarah-Neel Smith. Metrics of Modernity: Art and Development in Postwar Turkey. Oakland: University of California Press, 2022. ix + 216 pp. $50.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-520-38341-8

Reviewed by Özge Karagöz (Northwestern University; Leonard A. Lauder Research Center for Modern Art) Published on H-AMCA (March, 2023) Commissioned by Alessandra Amin (Columbia University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=58493

While art historical debates over the methods of global modernism are far from settled, many scholars have insisted upon recovering local meanings of the aesthetic. This approach has provided the field with a tactic for avoiding the projection of Euro-American analytical frameworks onto works produced outside their geographical purview. Yet, this method too can backfire, if the art historian casts these local meanings as exceptions that are entirely isolated from art elsewhere: doing so leaves those dominant Euro-American frameworks intact and modernism’s historiography same-as-before. For art history to rewrite modernism’s history as the global phenomenon that it was, the new, geographically inclusive body of evidence must also transform our understanding of modernism’s foundational forms, concepts, and institutions. Sarah-Neel Smith’s Metrics of Modernity: Art and Development in Postwar Turkey joins a spate of important recent scholarship that does just that, prompting us to recalibrate our understanding of abstraction and the private art gallery through their Turkish histories in the early years of the Cold War. The book meticulously retrieves the social, political, and economic functions Turkish actors attributed to them, while at the same time connecting these functions to internationally circulating discourses of art that developed in tandem with the emergent Cold War battlegrounds, such as the one famously drawn by the Western camp between democracy and totalitarianism.

When nations were increasingly forced to side either with the capitalist Western world or the Soviet socialist bloc early in the Cold War, Turkey began to move swiftly into the orbit of the former, turning away from the Soviet socialist model of modernization that the country had selectively embraced since the 1920s. Focusing on ten transformational years of this period, bookended by the country’s foray into liberal capitalism in 1950 under the recently implemented multiparty system and the 1960 coup d’état that abruptly returned the economy to its previous, state-controlled form, Metrics of Modernity argues that Turkey’s artists, critics, and freshly minted gallerists tied the development of modern art to that of the nation in explicitly economic terms. Smith makes this argument by mapping the structural changes, both institutional and discursive, that began to take to place in the Turkish art world in relation to capitalist metrics of national economic development formulated by international programs and organizations after WWII. Her analysis shows how individuals brought the economic metrics that were becoming pervasive in Turkey—individual consumption, privatization of art production, and integration into global economic markets—to bear on Turkish art discourse. The evidence for the book’s claims comes from a diverse range of primary sources, including contemporary art criticism and political commentary, newspaper reports, epistolary correspondence, documentary photographs, and, more unusually, fellowship applications and gossip columns. Through close readings of these sources, the book captures increasing calls for individual consumption of art in private galleries rather than collective viewing in large state-organized exhibitions, for abstraction rather than figuration to engage larger publics, and for private funding for artistic production rather than the existing state-supported model. In so doing, Smith shows the unexpected collectivist functions that the gallery and abstraction assumed in contributing to Turkey’s ongoing efforts to develop into a democratic nation with an internationally integrated economy and cultured citizenry.

The book’s analytical criteria, supplied from Western economic discourses, prove useful in crystalizing the institutional, discursive, and artistic sea change in Turkey. Smith maps this larger transformation admirably, without losing sight of the agency of individuals in navigating and shaping it. Chronologically ordered, each of the book’s four chapters unfolds around one or two protagonists, and their stories guide Smith’s account of this transformation. At the same time, her account remains grounded in close readings of artworks, which either generate or illustrate the relevant public discourse the book reconstructs.

The first chapter revolves around a private art gallery in Istanbul called Gallery Maya (operational 1950–55), demonstrating the public roles that its founder, Adalet Cimcoz, and her unofficial business partner, Sabahattin Eyüboğlu, assigned to it. To them, the gallery, although private, performed public service by teaching its audience how to cultivate a taste for modern art, especially abstract painting. The specific goal regarding the affluent members of the gallery’s audiences was to mold them into art collectors because Cimcoz and Eyüboğlu believed that individual consumption and private enterprise would foster the development of modern art better than the state patronage of production and display of art. Cimcoz and Eyüboğlu’s self-assigned mission of popular training (halk terbiyesi), argues Smith, was informed by their formative experiences of coming of age during what is commonly referred as the early republican period in Turkey (1923–50), when this mission was the hallmark of the country’s revolutionary desire to transform its largely uneducated population into modern citizens (p. 49). The contradiction of Cimcoz and Eyüboğlu’s proposition lies not simply in the idea that a private enterprise can be driven by public service rather than capitalistic profit—to this reviewer, this idea seems akin to the classic model of American philanthropy—but, more surprisingly, in these actors’ left-leaning politics, as Smith shows. She explains these contradictions through the growing disappointment, especially on Eyüboğlu’s part, in the Turkish state’s willingness and capacity to fulfill the republic’s earlier promise of popular training.

The critic Bülent Ecevit, who would go on to become a prime minister in the 1970s, was one of the proponents of private exhibition spaces. Moving from Istanbul to Ankara, chapter 2 homes in on Ecevit’s art criticism and his involvement in the Helikon Association Gallery (operational 1953–55), an interdisciplinary art space that offered programs ranging from exhibitions of modern art to experimental music concerts and painting classes. The chapter reconstructs the political arguments that Ecevit, educated in Anglophone schools, made about abstract painting in the early 1950s. He believed that viewing abstraction, understood as an expression of the individuality of its maker, would help viewers to grow into democratic citizens by “helping them practice free thought and self-expression” (p. 72). Many readers will already be familiar with how the idea of art as individual expression, a bourgeois idea that dates to the nineteenth century, became newly linked to abstraction early in the Cold War and was internationally promoted as evidence of the freedoms that (capitalist) democracies such as the United States enabled. In Ecevit’s passionate arguments regarding abstract painting, however, the readers might notice the genuine conviction with which he propagated such ideologically motivated American ideas. Ecevit’s arguments, Smith suggests, “must be seen as a direct response to Turkey’s ongoing struggle to enter” the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (p. 87).

The clash between newly popular Western capitalist ideas and existing collectivist conceptions of art becomes most legible in the case at the heart of chapter 3, which focuses on an art competition titled Developing Turkey (Kalkınan Türkiye) that was organized by a private bank in 1954. This chapter reconstructs the heated public debates that broke out when the competition’s foreign jury, comprised of Western European critics, chose a winning painting on “labor and production,” the competition’s theme, that surprised many: a semi-abstract painting by Aliye Berger depicting laboring figures that are barely legible against swirls of brushstrokes running across the entire canvas. While the jury members selected this painting because they prioritized the expression of the artist’s individuality, many established painters had submitted figurative canvases legible (anlaşılan) to broader audiences (p. 108). Concerns with legibility had dominated state art competitions in the previous decades, and the competition’s organizer, Vedat Nedim Tör, informally advised artists to submit works produced in this vein: hence the public outcry of old guard critics and artists who took their cues from Tör. As Smith explains, Tör directed cultural programs of state organizations before moving to the private sector, so he brought his collectivist approach to art to his new role at the private bank. By recounting the debates regarding the jury’s verdict, Smith also exposes the Turkish art world’s patriarchal underpinnings. A major example concerns a male painter and a teacher at the State Art Academy in Istanbul, who claimed that Berger did not deserve the first prize because she was a “frivolous ‘woman’ who had ‘participated in the contest just for fun’” (p. 118).

Focusing on Füreya, an artist who exhibited at Gallery Maya and Helikon, the final chapter engages a different metric­—economic integration—through which she framed her abstractions on ceramic supports in the 1950s. In June 1956, she became the first recipient from the so-called developing world of a fellowship in the visual arts from the Rockefeller Foundation. As Smith shows, Füreya secured this fellowship by deftly framing her project through the discourse of economic integration, which became an internationally pervasive concern in the wake of WWII, especially with the Marshall Plan, a US-bankrolled international program of economic aid devised to help Europe rebuilt its war-devastated economy while at the same time luring countries such as Greece and Turkey away from joining the neighboring communist bloc in Eastern Europe. The artist argued that her Rockefeller-funded research would allow her to modernize the mass production of ceramics in Turkey in order to contribute to the country’s integration into international markets. Through the case of Füreya, Smith importantly demonstrates how a woman artist from Turkey “had learned to speak the international language of development” so as to deploy it to further her own artistic goals (p. 145).

In recent decades, scholars have produced nuanced analyses of modern architecture and literature in Turkey. Yet, in the adjacent discipline of art history, there is still much work to be done to take stock of modern art’s Turkish histories, which remain largely understudied in both English- and Turkish-language scholarship. Metrics of Modernity constitutes a much-needed undertaking in this direction. At the same time, the book joins recent scholarly and curatorial efforts, mostly monographic, to retrieve women’s agency in Turkey’s longer art histories, by choosing women as roughly half of its protagonists (the gallerist Adalet Cimcoz, the artists Füreya and Aliye Berger). Because, as Smith acknowledges, the book’s protagonists hail from Turkey’s cosmopolitan elite—most of them descendants of old families of cultural, if not economic, capital—another history remains to be told regarding how artists and critics of humble, rural backgrounds responded to the structural changes the book examines and whether they too were able to shape them as did their elite peers. But Metrics of Modernity is well positioned to support future analyses on modernism’s Turkish history, with a focus on a transitional period in art and politics alike, and with an emphasis on broader structural developments in form, institutions, and the art market. The book will effectively help bridge the preceding era of nation building, where art largely followed a collectivist impulse and was supported largely by the state and a small informal art market, with the decades following the 1950s, when contemporary art practices and infrastructures for a private art market began to fully emerge.

The category of “developing country,” employed to describe Turkey since the mid-century by local artistic and political-economic actors alike, is not without problems, and this reviewer wishes that Smith had fully fleshed out the art historical implications of this category’s entry into the Turkish art discourse. As Smith already acknowledges, this categorization is problematic because it partakes in and perpetuates a hierarchical world order devised by the Euro-American powers that have dominated international organizations (such as the World Bank and the United Nations), a world order that classifies nations, per their economic data, in three categories: developed, developing, or underdeveloped. When this category spilled from the discourse of economics into the discourse of art, it also carried this world order’s underlying hierarchies to the ways in which local artists, gallerists, and critics understood modern art in Turkey, as Smith also notes. Yet, there is more to be made of this economic metric’s artistic life in the mid-century because it offers a valuable object lesson for the ongoing methodological pursuits of global modernism. This economic metric’s infiltration into the modernism’s Turkish understandings shows just how politically messy the entanglement of Euro-American frameworks with local meanings of the aesthetic can be. Even if local artistic actors engaged with this classification in order to increase the value of modern art within the nation—that is, to render modern art more socially relevant—the resulting art discourse also inadvertently introduced the implicit idea that modern art in Turkey, like the nation itself, is in need of development to catch up with the levels found in developed nations. The lesson here is namely that local aesthetic meanings can always already be informed by dominant Euro-American frameworks and their self-benefiting hierarchies, and the latter is precisely what new accounts of global modernism would want to dismantle.

By importantly drawing art historical attention to how this Western classification of nations became internationally pervasive, Metrics of Modernity will prompt new, productive methodological approaches in the field. Notably, art historians might retool the same categories to form a shared ground of comparison that cuts across established regional and cultural boundaries in current art historical scholarship. One may compare art in Turkey with, say, art in India or Brazil, other countries deemed “developing” in the 1950s. Such new groupings would begin to undermine this classification’s hierarchies by establishing new, interregional, world-bridging analytical comparisons that importantly bypass the Euro-American centers and allow us to connect modernism’s histories under new, decentered constellations. For such future inquiries and others, Smith’s interstitial case of Turkey, “as neither fully European, nor postcolonial, nor nonaligned” (p. 33), will provide a productive counterexample in thinking about modern art in postcolonial and nonaligned nations, as well as for drawing broader conclusions regarding the global formulation of abstraction and the art gallery.

Citation: Özge Karagöz. Review of Smith, Sarah-Neel, Metrics of Modernity: Art and Development in Postwar Turkey. H-AMCA, H-Net Reviews. March, 2023. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58493

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