History, art and power
I don't think we'd be fair if we expect works of literature, cinema or other arts to strive for full loyalty with historical developments or figures given the fact that these disciplines tend to sway between reality and fiction and further taking into consideration that even history's definition as an academic discipline draws attention to the very obvious fact that historical endeavors are largely marred by subjectivity. Of course, we may expect people to entertain greater caution and respect when dealing with the popular historical figures in works of art. Still, if artistic capabilities literature, cinema or other disciplines are used to disturb society's perceptions about certain historical incidents and figures, the proper response is never to ban, discontinue broadcasting or destroy such works of art.
"History means interpretation," writes famed historian Edward Hallet Carr, in his book, "What is History?" in which he also claims: "History is the historian's experience. It is 'made' by nobody save the historian: to write history is the only way of making it. It follows that when we take up a work of history, our first concern should be not with the facts which it contains, but with the historian who wrote it. Study the historian before you begin to study the facts." Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce is of the same opinion as Carr. Croce argues that history consists essentially of seeing the past through the eyes of the present and in the light of its problems. Noting that the main work of the historian is not to record, but to evaluate, Croce asserts that all history is "contemporary history."

With this being the scholarly approach to history as an academic discipline, we should be prepared for artistic disciplines such as literature and cinema to adopt diverse and conflicting fictional approaches to historical facts. Furthermore, it would be a total fallacy to adopt an academic or scholarly perspective in evaluating works of art. This does not mean works of art are free of criticisms. However, it is better if the critics of works of art are from artistic circles, media, academia and even civil society organizations (CSOs) rather than being from those who wield political power.

In this context, I must note, I personally agree with the oft-voiced criticisms about the controversial TV series "Muhteşem Yüzyıl" (Magnificent Century) -- although I haven't watched even a single episode of it -- and I can understand the sentiments of certain social groups about certain historical values. As I said, I haven't watched any of its episodes because I concur with the bad press about the series. However, I don't think Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan did the right thing by implying that this TV series should be banned on the grounds that it does not truthfully portray the historical facts about the time of Süleyman the Magnificent or that it draws the ire of the general public.

In my opinion, it would be better if we ponder on how to improve the quality of history education rather than making authoritarian calls which might lead to the banning of such fictional works of art about certain historical figures or facts. Alternatively, using the facilities and opportunities available to him, the prime minister may opt for sponsoring films or TV series that would be more loyal to historical facts.

On the other hand, if you start treating works of art or cinema as if they are academically prepared documentaries, ignoring their fictional character, you will find yourself in a situation similar to the lesson Pablo Picasso taught to an amateur art lover. This well-known story goes as follows: At one of the famed painter's exhibitions, a visitor stood in front of a chaotically colorful painting beneath which was written, "The Fish." He asked: "Sir, where is the fish in this painting?" Picasso replied, "It is not the fish; it is a painting!" in an effort to make the visitor realize they are not in a fish market.

I don't know if there is any need to emphasize that the popular TV series is neither a historical documentary nor a documentary of another kind, but a work of art. The actor who played the role of Süleyman the Magnificent in that series is neither the real Süleyman nor are the events taking place in it the actual events. Similarly, Abraham Lincoln was not a vampire hunter as was portrayed in the film, "Abraham Lincoln: The Vampire Hunter." Despite the fact that there are numerous tasks that await our attention such as promoting freedoms and demilitarization, improving prosperity and development, we will lose a lot of time and energy if we fail to differentiate between fact and fiction. If we fail to treat works of art with reactions that do not do justice to them, Turkey will continue to be viewed as a country that does not show tolerance to diverse approaches and ideas. In particular, if the government adopts a prohibitionist attitude, it will be impossible to reconcile this with the government's goals to improve the standards of democracy and individual rights and freedoms.

Therefore, what I intend to note is that the Prime Minister Erdoğan's harsh criticisms about the TV series "Muhteşem Yüzyıl" and his call on judicial authorities to take action are not positive developments. Unfortunately, this is one of its kind. Indeed, this remark of Erdoğan can be likened to his efforts to close the preparatory course which has been opened to eliminate problems arising from the education system -- such as its 50,800 graduates scoring zero in the university entrance exam -- instead of formulating solutions for these problems.

It is impossible to justify his call on prosecutors to ban a work of art which is being aired in 43 countries and watched by 150 million people. As I noted above, artistic circles, historians, media, and CSOs may voice their criticisms or appraisals of such works of art or cinema. Nevertheless, it is essential that the people who wield public or political power should act with extreme caution in dealing with such matters and refrain from making the general public perceive them as prohibitionist.

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Last Modified: 2012-11-28 10:00:01
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