The National Frame: Art and State Violence in Turkey and Germany

By Banu Karaca

Banu Karaca, The National Frame: Art and State Violence in Turkey and Germany (New York: Fordham University Press, 2021).

The National Frame emerged out of my long-term interest in art, aesthetics and politics. I have always been fascinated by the dominant notion that art is inherently good, by the many values that are accorded to art – be it that art furthers individual agency and critical faculties, the emancipatory potential of art, or its civilizing impact – and the realities that shape the daily workings of the art world. I experienced these daily workings first-hand when I trained in arts management with performing arts and community arts organizations in New York in the late 1990s. Whilst in graduate school I came across Martin Stokes’ The Arabesk Debate: Music and Musicians in Modern Turkey (1992), a study of the popular arabesk genre, the musicians who pursue it, and the discontents – and, at times, outright moral panic – it created in national cultural policy and politics. Reading this ethnographic study, I was struck not only by the particularities of the politics of art in Turkey but the similarities to cultural policy discourses that I was familiar with from the German context. Having grown up in a semi-rural, semi-suburban setting outside of Frankfurt/Main, I was very much a product of Hilmar Hoffmann’s Kultur für Alle policy, which sought to democratize access to art and its institutions.[1] When I embarked on my research, my initial question was: How do the similarities and divergences in the histories of claiming modern nationhood through art continue to shape the art world in contemporary Turkey and Germany?

What emerged from this research is an ethnography of the art settings of Istanbul and Berlin and its many actors. The National Frame interrogates how artists navigate the art world, the dependencies and power differentials it creates and reproduces, how they speak about their work, and how they contend with cultural policies. It asks how arts patrons and sponsors see their role in society, why they support art, and how they position themselves vis-à-vis the state. It follows the often-unsettling stories of the monies that sustain the art world: More often than not, art capital is rooted in histories of state violence and dispossession. It traces how people make sense of practices of collecting and curating art and probes the modalities of art censorship by focusing on the crisis that censorship inevitably engenders, not least by always having to distinguish art from non-art as part of its operation. And, lastly, it looks at cultural policy, its theory and practice, and at how different policy discussions have been situated at specific political conjunctures in Turkey and Germany and within larger transnational contexts in which art is deemed a tool of “soft power.” In the course of my research, I increasingly came to understand the art world as a terrain of struggle in which the supposed inherent goodness of art that draws on civilizational and civic imaginaries is continually constructed and disrupted. This also means that I see the art world as an assemblage that constantly needs to reconcile the diverging interests and motivations of the many actors that together constitute the art world.

Rather than taking for granted either the expediency of art in nationalist projects or its critical, emancipatory potential, The National Frame looks at the vicissitudes of mobilizing art and aesthetic theories, often for opposing purposes. Despite the strikingly similar struggles in claiming modern nationhood through the arts that Turkey and Germany share, comparative readings of these two contexts have been largely foreclosed by geopolitical imaginations that have construed the world in terms of “East” and “West” and, more recently, “Islam” and “Christianity” as incommensurable entities. In the field of art this has long meant that art from Germany is considered “Art” (with a capital A), whereas art from Turkey has more typically been seen as merging “traditional” and modern motifs, and as expressive of “Turkish culture.”

And yet, Germany and Turkey, just as their imperial formations, share a long and troubling history of cultural encounters and political affiliations that is largely forgotten today. Drawing on Ann Stoler’s argument that the assumption of “incomparability compels forgetting,”[2] I propose that the suppression of the histories and memories of these encounters feeds into the asymmetry through which Germany and Turkey are conceptualized geopolitically—and artistically. To work against this enduring asymmetric perception The National Frame offers a diametrically opposed starting point. It begins with the assumption of familiarity—even intimacy—and hence comparability of Turkey and Germany, and their artistic centers Berlin and Istanbul, as a way to think through a set of interrelated questions regarding the civilizing function accorded to art and the moments when art is seen to cede this function.

This means that I do not conceptualize comparison in the classic anthropological sense pioneered by the structural functionalists, who identified “discrete” cultural or social units that could be compared and contrasted cross-culturally, examined the diffusion of certain artistic styles, or asked if the very notion of art can be transposed from one society to another.[3] I also don’t propose that the artistic heritage and lineages of Turkey and German exhibit the same inherent “qualities,” aesthetically or otherwise, or that preoccupations with different styles and schools of art were the same at all times. Rather The National Frame explores the interrelations and co-constitutions of German and Turkish national cultural policies by taking as its basis a series of historical encounters, such as the ill-fated alliance during World War I and German entanglements in the Armenian genocide, or the two-way stream of political refugees, monies, scholars, artists and ideas that long preceded the “guest worker treaty” of 1961. The foreign arts initiatives in the late Ottoman Empire that were formative for domestic German cultural policy and the role of German architects in designing landmark buildings for the nascent Turkish republic are but another two examples of such encounters. Challenging comparativist approaches that presuppose the separability of compared phenomena, the joint analysis of the Turkish and German cases reveals how art is configured politically and socially; it also reveals the employment of shared vocabularies in reconciling divergent understandings of and interests in art.

It is through the side by side reading of these locations and their interrelations that The National Frame details how art is given to stakes of memory and erasure, resistance and restoration, and why art has been at once vital as well as unwieldy for national projects. One of the book’s main arguments is that artistic practices, arts patronage and sponsorship, collecting and curating art, and the modalities of censorship, just like cultural policies, continue to be refracted through the conceptual lens of the nation-state – despite the intensified and much-studied globalization of the arts. As such, The National Frame examines the darker, much neglected side of art, through a study anchored in two cities in which the history of art and its institutions have been intertwined with genocidal violence and symbolic and material dispossession. The parallel considerations of the art world in Istanbul and Berlin include the reverberations of twentieth century political initiatives by German and Turkish governments to purge (and, in the German case, later reacquire) artworks of art movements under political challenge. They also include state censorship of the 2005 exhibitions Regarding Terror (Berlin) and Freekick (Istanbul), and how the biennials that Istanbul and Berlin host have inadvertently worked to obscure difficult pasts, particularly the legacy of the 1980 coup d’état in Turkey and the specter of Nazism in a reunited Germany.

By focusing on the role of art in state governance, my book reveals the histories of violence on which the production, circulation and presentation – and indeed the very understanding – of art as a civilizing force are predicated. The disavowal of these histories of violence continues to shape art worlds and to call them back into the national frame. As art has been and is called upon to engage the past and imagine different futures, my hope is that The National Frame will contribute to critiques and movements that seek to (re)claim the emancipatory potential of art.


[1] Hoffmann’s initiatives were rooted in the policy debates of the 1970s around the notion of Soziokultur. This notion sought to re-envision the relationship between art and society by extending the concept of culture to the everyday, and to reclaim aesthetics from exclusionary notions of “high” art and thus unlock its potential for political critique. The emphasis on equal opportunity, access, and participation in cultural life was understood as a conscious departure from the political instrumentalization of art during the Third Reich. While many of the approaches developed in the Soziokultur debates were dismantled and redirected from the 1980s onwards – not least due to neoliberal cutbacks of public spending – they were nonetheless vital in establishing Germany’s comparatively broad cultural infrastructure.

[2] Ann Stoler, Haunted by Empire: Geographies of the Intimate in North American History (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 6.

[3] See, for example, Franz Boas, Primitive Art (New York: Dover, 1955); Richard L. Anderson, “Do Other Cultures Have ‘Art’?” American Anthropologist 94/4(1992): 926–29; and Howard Morphy and Morgan Perkins (eds.), The Anthropology of Art: A Reader (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006) for general overviews of the history of the anthropology of art.

Banu Karaca works at the intersection of political anthropology and critical theory, art, aesthetics, and cultural policy, museums and feminist memory studies. She holds a PhD from the Graduate Center, CUNY. Her publications interrogate the freedom of expression in the arts, the visualization of gendered memories of war and political violence, visual literacy, and arts restitution. She is co-editor of Women Mobilizing Memory (Columbia University Press, 2019) and author of The National Frame: Art and State Violence in Turkey and Germany (Fordham University Press, 2021).  Banu is the co-founder of Siyah Bant, a research platform that documents censorship in the arts in Turkey. She has been Visiting Assistant Professor of Cultural Studies at Sabanci University and Faculty Fellow at Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Social Difference. Banu held fellowships in the Art Histories and Aesthetics and the Europe in the Middle East – The Middle East in Europe (EUME) research programs at the Forum Transregionale Studien Berlin in the academic years 2015/16 and 2016/17, in conjecture with affiliated fellowships at the ICI – Institute for Cultural Inquiry and the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Politics at the Otto Suhr Institute of Political Science, Free University, respectively. Between 2019 and 2021, Banu was a EUME Fellow of the VolkswagenStiftung through its funding initiative “Original – isn’t it? New Options for the Humanities and Cultural Studies”. She continues her research on how looted and dispossessed art has shaped the legal and scholarly knowledge production on art in Turkey and the wider European context.

Citation: Banu Karaca, “The National Frame: Art and State Violence in Turkey and Germany” in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 12.04.2021,

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Forum Transregionale Studien (2021, 12. April). The National Frame: Art and State Violence in Turkey and Germany. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 20. Mai 2024, von

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The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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