Banu Karaca – The National Frame

Describe your book

At the center of The National Frame is an ethnography of the art worlds of Istanbul and Berlin and its many actors. One of the book’s mains 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. By focusing on the role of art in state governance, my book reveals the histories of violence on which the production, circulation and presentation – indeed the very understanding – of art as a civilizing force are predicated. The disavowal of these histories of violence continues to shape art worlds. 

As I show, Turkey and Germany share strikingly similar struggles in claiming modern nationhood through the arts. And yet, comparative readings of Turkey and Germany have been largely foreclosed by geopolitical and civilizational imaginations that have construed the world in terms of “East” and “West,” and, more recently, “Islam” and “Christianity.” It is through the joint analysis of these two cases 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 and unwieldy for national projects. 

Why did you decide to publish it with a university press?

University Presses are uniquely positioned to engage both scholars who think about, with and alongside art and artistic practices, and practitioners in the art world, be they cultural policy makers, curators or museum workers. I also wanted the book to be accessible for students. Beyond the national and regional particularities that The National Frame works through, the book is very much conceived as a primer for studying local formations of the global art world, that is as a source to develop comprehensive approaches to the art world and its varied institutional landscape. 

I not only gravitated to Fordham University Press’s carefully curated anthropology list but also to the way in which critical theory, including questions of aesthetics, is weaved throughout their entire catalogue. The simultaneous intimacy and broad scope of Fordham’s publishing program is the perfect home for my book. 

Do you enjoy the writing process?

I have to admit that some phases of writing this book were quite agonizing, at least initially; it was hard to let go of this long-term research the bulk of which was conducted between 2005-2011. Having said that, I very much enjoy writing as a process that generates new insights, as a way to learn and to tell thus far untold stories. The dual aspect of writing as exploration and as a path to engage in and foster different conversations, and thus connect with readers as intellectual interlocutors is incredibly exciting. 

What is the last thing you read?

One of the last things I read is Theodor W. Adorno’s Aspekte des neuen Rechtsradikalismus which was published for the first time in 2019 (it is now also available in an English translation, under the title Aspects of the New Right-Wing Extremism). The stand-alone essay is based on a talk from 1967 in which Adorno analyzes the electoral success of the then newly founded far right National Democratic Party of Germany. Historically speaking, it forcefully outlines how little the Nazi past has been faced in post-war Germany, contrary to common assumptions. It also shows how the social and political conditions for fascism continue to exist, and hence speaks very much to the threat of transnationally connected, white supremacist, nationalist movements today. The last novel I read was Deniz Utlu’s Gegen Morgen, a moving and at times harrowing contemplation of the difference between staying alive and living, the metrics with which what counts as a “good life” is so often and so inadequately described, and what it means to search for a place in a world that denies safe harbor and dignity for so many. 

What is the best piece of advice anyone has ever given to you?

Don’t compare yourself to other people. 

Who inspires you?

Despite the cruelty that the ongoing pandemic has unleashed and deepened, I continue to be inspired by scholars, activists and organizers who undeterredly imagine and work towards more just futures. Among them are the members of the Truth, Justice and Memory Center. Based in Istanbul this independent human rights organization brings together lawyers, journalists, academics, activists and artists who continue to research and document gross human rights violations, support survivors in their pursuit of justice and explore innovative ways of sharing their stories through memory work. They persist despite all repressions by the Turkish state. One of their founding members, Osman Kavala, has been imprisoned for more than three years, on baseless charges and without conviction.

What’s next?

My current project builds on an aspect that emerged from my work on the National Frame: the constitutive function of dispossession for the art world as we know it. Its point of departure are episodes of state violence against non-Muslims in the late Ottoman Empire and the early Turkish republic, in the course of which artworks were looted, confiscated, or made illegible. One of the questions I pursue in this study is how dispossessed or “lost” artworks have shaped the writing of post-Ottoman art history, including the formation of the field of Islamic art. This has led me to a more general contemplation of the role that imperial and colonial plunder and the experience of the Nazi art loot have played in shaping international heritage regimes, especially in legal terms. An essay on my preliminary research findings regarding the contradictions and blind spots that characterize legal provisions intended to safeguard art in times of armed conflict will be published in book form later this year under the title Art in War – Cultural Heritage and the Legal Codification of Forgetting.

Banu Karaca is EUME Fellow of the Volkswagen Foundation at the Forum Transregionale Studien, Berlin and the author of The National Frame (2021), published by Fordham University Press.