Published on Tuesday 14 July 2020

“If art is an act of utterance to an imagined audience, does speaking the truth matter if no one will ever hear you?” asks provocatively artist/academic Hakan Topal, while scrutinising what is termed as the Turkish cultural-political scene.

This refers to acts of political resistance through artistic practice, which sometimes can be thought of as grand radical gestures that dramatise identities and events. I wish to take this lens to briefly reflect on the malleability of this ‘imagined audience’ as it manifests in the interrelationships between policymakers and artists, through even the most unnoticeable of political acts1.

The debate over the dissonances between public policies and local communities rages on both transnationally and trans-sectorally. The tendency from the academic, artistic and journalistic perspective is to assume that a potential deficit lies solely in how policymakers imagine local spaces of social practice that might constitute an artistic community. This is of course understandable, given the dissimilar social expectations from each of these groups, where one is viewed as the entity holding some form of fixed power while the artistic community may be perceived as restricted to act in accordance to laws and dominant narratives that are set. As these depictions are embedded into how authorities are imagined as an ‘audience’ by artists and vice-versa, the messy elements of this inevitable relationship may be glossed over in favour of absolute categorisations that possibly make up for the incomplete foundations of the relational structure.

Widespread critique directed towards cultural and creative policy agendas has been on how the prevalence of economic development resulted in an arguably narrow conception of artistic practice. In turn the artist may be portrayed as a worker, a resource for innovation or an entrepreneur, understating independent and grassroots activity which may be implicitly considered to not fit within what is deemed as ‘professional’ and thereby economically viable. Similarly, a dichotomous categorisation of artists as either being supportive or opponents of policies, limits more nuanced understandings. Thus, it could be useful to policymakers to reassess their portrayals of artists shifting attention to the everyday practices thereby recognising less economically visible roles while seeking to involve them in governing processes. This could indeed be what is being aimed for by the artists imagined as being outright ‘resistant’. Policies are outcomes of multiple interests that can be conflicting, which is why it would still be reductive to imply that one underlying imaginary determines all levels of governance.

Artists, on the other hand, may imagine policy institutions as being homogeneous entities without differentiated understandings of creativity, for instance. It could be that only the policy rhetoric and documents are taken as the ultimate indicator of how policy understands artistic practice, which are only components of how policy is manifested. Thus, different departments, scales and actors may entail different understandings, with more nuanced conceptualisations of the value of artistic practice, than might be assumed. Given the multiplicity of voices involved, it is more likely that a range of rationales are maybe unwittingly drawn upon rather than a single story. In this sense, artists may seek ways in which they can create new spaces which if need be, involve policymakers which would be able to grasp better their aspirations and ways of doing things. This calls for close observations from the artistic community which might consider policymakers, as part of their ‘audience’, improving negotiation possibilities which, for better or worse, would not hurt.

It is then a reciprocal translation of assumptions and concerns that could take place in between these perceived gaps within spaces of cultural governance. Bridging this gap may enable an orientation, though not necessarily in a totality, towards shared understandings that might result in better tailored policies or more effective lobbying, increasing the possibility of being heard by the imagined audience, to return to the introductory question. While this might sound like an idealistic musing divorced from the cold hard truths that might inspire artistic acts of resistance, a closer look might indicate that what has been argued is indeed for a more empirical approach rather than reliance on preconceived notions. A word of caution though, narrowing this gap does not necessarily equate with coerced universal consensus as the objective, but rather taking sites of conflict as productive while acknowledging the common desirable futures. 

See Hakan Topal (2017) ‘A Stage for Resistance: The Cultural Scene in Turkey’, in P. Dietachmair & P. Gielen (eds.) The Art of Civil Action: Political Space and Cultural Dissent. Valiz: Amsterdam. 

Photo credit: Renata Apanaviciene. 

Words by Adrian DeBattista, Head of Strategy at Arts Council Malta.