The row began with an attempt by the İstanbul municipality to wrest artistic control of city theaters from artists themselves, and hand it over to a mixed council that includes bureaucrats and academics, presumably close to the ruling party. Resignations followed as theater practitioners deemed the new regulation an unacceptable political encroachment on their territory, likely to curb free artistic expression since conservative commentators had recently raised concerns that some plays were not in line with “family values.”
Official funding for the arts and how it is allocated is of course always open for debate. The issue isn’t black and white. Theaters should strive to offer a repertoire broad enough to draw in a diverse audience, but it would be unrealistic to expect each play to be liked by all. Nor should theatrical productions be expected to toe a specific political line or state ideology.
A couple of years ago, a friend of mine sent her children to free drama classes organized by one of İstanbul’s district municipalities. The children had a great time and gained in confidence, but creativity was clearly limited as photos of their public performance showed little boys dressed in soldiers’ uniforms involved in a re-enactment of the War of Independence.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s latest statements have contributed to turning an already difficult debate into a heated polemic. Most developed countries offer significant financial support to the arts, while granting theaters autonomy in their artistic direction. Many independent or avant-garde plays could never be performed without this crucial help and theaters would have to focus on populist productions involving big names guaranteed to succeed at the box office. In the UK, for instance, the National Theatre reported that in 2011 the public-funded Arts Council covered 28 percent of its expenditures. Most of its revenues, however, come from tickets since its productions always attract large crowds. In the UK, as in many countries facing austerity drives, cultural budgets are facing cuts.
The prime minister clearly feels that alienating artists and fans of the theater won’t affect core support for his party, since a relatively small segment of society current attends plays regularly. But far from making theatrical productions accessible to a wider audience, privatizing theaters would only make tickets more expensive and place these cultural activities out of reach of ordinary people. Instead, the authorities should encourage the public to attend state and municipal theaters in greater numbers, underlining the enjoyment that people can get from such activities.
A survey recently published by the Ministry of Family and Social Policy, titled “Family Structure in Turkey,” gave a snapshot of Turkish society. Some of the information it contained is particularly relevant to the current debate. It showed for instance that watching TV is the main activity shared by family members (59.4 percent), followed by visiting friends and relatives (25.8 percent), and then shopping (21.9 percent). Only 3.2 percent of over 12,000 households surveyed mentioned going to the theater or the cinema as a shared activity. In fact, 79.6 percent of the families stated that they neither go to the cinema or the theater and 44 percent never read a book.
It is hardly surprising that an older generation of Turks, living in rural areas or having recently migrated to the cities, have limited interest in artistic and cultural activities. But Turkey today has a growing urban middle class with a rising level of education. When free concerts and plays are staged outdoors in the summer, they attract a wide and varied audience which includes many people who may not be regular concert or theater-goers but who clearly enjoy stretching their cultural boundaries. It would be a pity if politics and profit-making stood in their way and prevented more people from discovering the pleasures of a live performance.