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Art or Insult? Art on Trial

Art on Trial

by MICHAEL DICKINSON

In Kafka’s novel ‘The Trial‘, after months of trial postponement, Joseph K goes to court painter Titorelli to ask for advice. He is told to hope for little. He might get definite acquittal, ostensible acquittal, or indefinite postponement. No one is ever really acquitted, but sometimes cases can be extended indefinitely.

Titorelli You see, in definite acquittal, all the documents are annulled. But with ostensible acquittal, your whole dossier continues to circulate. Up to the higher courts, down to the lower ones, up again, down. These oscillations and peregrinations, you just can’t figure ‘em.

Joseph K. No use in trying either, I suppose.

Titorelli Not a hope. Why, I’ve known cases of an acquitted man coming home from the court and finding the cops waiting there to arrest him all over again. But then, of course, theoretically it’s always possible to get another ostensible acquittal.

Joseph K. The second acquittal wouldn’t be final either.

Titorelli It’s automatically followed by the third arrest. The third acquittal, by the fourth arrest. The fourth–

In September 2006 I was arrested in Istanbul, where I live, and charged with ‘insulting Tayyip Erdogan, the Prime Minister of Turkey in his duty’. Two years later the case has still not been resolved, and on Monday I face my third hearing in court. The maximum penalty, if found guilty, is up to two years in prison.

How did I find myself in this predicament? I’ll try to briefly explain.

In March 2006 a ‘Peace Tent’ organized by the ‘Baris ve Adalet Koalisyon’ ( Peace and Justice Coalition Group) was set up for a week on the local seafront near where I live. It housed bookstalls and displays protesting the American invasion of Iraq. On the day it opened I went along with some of my antiwar collages and was given permission to stick them up on the tent wall next to the entrance. A couple of evenings later I went and added another picture to my collection, one featuring Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan as a prize winning dog in a pet show, the award rosette being pinned to his collar by George W Bush.

The next day when I went to visit, I found all my pictures had been removed. On enquiry, I learned that police had taken exception to the Erdogan image, had taken it down and arrested Erkan Kaya, one of the organizers of the tent, charging him with ‘insulting the Prime Minister’, which carried a possible penalty of 3 years in jail. In order to save poor Kaya, who hadn’t known I’d put up the picture, the peace group asked me to write a letter to the court claiming responsibility, which I did. In the meantime, however, thanks to the efforts of Charles Thompson of the Stuckist Art Movement, of which I am a member, the story had got into several international newspapers. The court, not liking the media attention, said that I was trying to cause trouble, and my letter was rejected. The insult charge against Erkan Kaya, however, was not dropped, and his court case was set for September.

On the appointed day, I went along to his trial to offer myself as a witness, but when it was reported that Kaya was in another city the case was adjourned to a later date. Outside the courthouse several photographers and cameramen were waiting. When I came out of the building I unrolled and displayed a new collage I’d brought with me, one showing Prime Minister Erdogan as a dollar-eating dog on a stars and stripes leash, his tail a fuse missile. Around his middle was a sash, proclaiming: "We Will Not Be Bush’s Dog" in Turkish. The cameras flashed and filmed, and an interviewer stepped forward with an outstretched microphone.

A policeman ran out of the building and asked what I was doing. He grabbed the picture and dragged me back inside. That was the end of my freedom for the next ten days. I was held, tried, handcuffed, and whisked off to Umraniye Prison, where I shared a cell with 12 other prisoners for 3 days before being secretly being moved to another place across town. During the transfer I made a desperate escape attempt, which involved a race through midnight streets, pursuing cop shooting his gun behind me. Caught again, I was held in the guardian’s office of a detention center for foreigners for seven more days, where I witnessed scenes of sadism and brutality. Eventually, after two visits from gentlemen of the British Consulate, I was suddenly set free and told to leave the country by the end of the month, my residence permit not to be renewed. Thereafter I was tailed everywhere by plainclothes cops until I left Istanbul airport for Ireland at the last moment.

I had presumed that the charge was dropped when I left the country, but when I returned as a tourist a few weeks later, it wasn’t long before a policeman rang my doorbell and delivered a summons to court on the same charge. I went, and have been twice since then, and now I have to go again on Monday.

At the hearing last October the judge asked me to explain the image he held up of the American flag-leashed Erdogan with the dog’s body, eating a pile of dollars. I said that an artist who works in visuals should not need to explain in words. It was up to the viewer to interpret. But I said that the fuse missile tail might be a reference to the huge supply of American nuclear weapons allowed by the government to be housed on Turkish soil at the American army base in Diyarbakir.

At the close of the last hearing the judge said he would be consulting some professors of Art from Istanbul universities to get their expert opinions on whether my pictures can be considered as art or insult.

Here’s a definition of ‘Art’ which I like:

"I define it (art) briefly as a human conception made manifest by the use of a medium that could be perceived by the senses of other men–the eye, the ear, the nose, the palate.) ; and if I define good art as a noble (or arresting, or interesting, or valuable) conception made manifest by the skilful use of a medium, I can then have done with definitions." Art critic Eric Newton (1893-1965)

I don’t know about ‘good’ art, but my collage work is definitely ‘arresting’!

At the last court hearing I wanted to draw the judge’s attention to a petition started by Mark Givens, editor of the online art magazine Mungbeing, which calls for charges against me to be dropped, and for freedom of expression for writers and artists in Turkey. My lawyer advised against mentioning the petition, and as there were only about 200 signatures at the time I didn’t think it was worth it. But now the number has risen to over 400, I think I should be able to mention it. There are no juries in Turkish courts. The judge’s decision is final. It would be good to be able to point out to him that even if his chosen art professors condemn my pictures, I have the written support of hundreds of people from all over the world (America, UK, Spain, Indonesia, Estonia, Canada, Hungary, India, Israel, Ireland, Sweden, Australia, Italy, Scotland, to name but a few at random from the petition–including Turkey!), who all agree that an artist should have the right to freedom of speech and expression. Many thanks to all who signed!

I don’t know what to expect from the next hearing on Monday morning. Having already spent the time in custody already, I don’t expect to be thrown into prison, but it’s still possible. A fine is another possibility, but being practically penniless, I wouldn’t be able to pay it, and neither would I, anyway.

Most probably, as in Kafka’s story, the case will be adjourned for another hearing some months away, and after that one moved again to another date, on and on for eternity.

But whatever the outcome of my own trial, I’d prefer it not to be the same fate suffered by Joseph K. at the end of Kafka’s tale. Two men eventually arrive and take him away to a quarry where he is executed, stabbed through the heart, the knife twisted twice.

- "’Like a dog!’ he said (his last words); it seemed as if the shame was to outlive him."

Like a dog.

MICHAEL DICKINSON, whose artwork graces the covers of Dime’s Worth of Difference, Serpents in the Garden and Grand Theft Pentagon, lives in Istanbul. He can be contacted via his website http://yabanji.tripod.com/ or at: michaelyabanji@gmail.com