The Turks and the Gorky Exhibition

Avedis Kevorkian, Phildelphia, 28 august 2010

Now, let us pause in our activities and give a thought to the difficult task of the Turkish Minister In Charge of Exporting Article 301.

Laugh not, mock not, ye who have no idea of what odds one must counter to achieve success in such an endeavor.

Avedis Kevorkian, Phildelphia, 28 august 2010

Now, let us pause in our activities and give a thought to the difficult task of the Turkish Minister In Charge of Exporting Article 301.

Laugh not, mock not, ye who have no idea of what odds one must counter to achieve success in such an endeavor.

He must be awake 25 hours a day, eight days a week; he must have such a thin skin that it is easy to count the red and the white corpuscles as they flow through his trembling body as he encounters yet another affront to Turkishness.

He must read history books and news reports with spectacles made with thick lenses so as to discern the affront to Turkey. And, finally, he must take up his pen–or his telephone–to contact the offending party who dares to suggest that Turkey and its history are not the envy of the world.

It’s a tough life, if he doesn’t weaken.

As most people know, Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code makes it a felony to "denigrate Turkishness." As far as I know, there is no list of what words (and, I assume, deeds) constitute "denigrating," but from my observations, it is not unfair to say that “uttering the Truth" certainly qualifies.

What brought about this paean to a the holder of a job that must prompt ridicule in most countries in the world? The Archile Gorky Retrospective, now in Los Angles, California (which is well worth the visit no matter one’s view of twentieth-century art).

This outstanding Retrospective of the work of the now-recognized father of Abstract Expressionism began life in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA), then went on to The Tate, in London, before it settled in Los Angles, until September.

In the magnificent (an inadequate word) Catalogue (another inadequate word) for the Retrospective and on many of the panels and labels for the collection, and in some of the text on the audio about some of the art, there are many references to the Armenian Genocide–which played so large a role in Gorky’s life, and art.

The red lights must have blazed and the alarm bells must have rung in the home and office of the Minister in Charge of Exporting Article 301. "What, another one?" he must have exclaimed. "Why won’t the world learn to consult with me before it does anything?" The messages must have vied with each other to reach him.

"The Philadelphia Museum of Art has put together a retrospective of the Art of Archile Gorky," the messages said, "and the Curator and his staff have dared to refer to the Armenian Genocide." The Turkish groups were alerted and off went the standard letters informing Dr. Martin Taylor, the Curator of Modern Art, telling him that there has never been a Genocide of the Armenians in Turkey. To put it briefly and politely, the protests "from Turkish groups" were ignored.

The same held at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), in Los Angeles.

No doubt, were it up to the White House or the State Department, the words "Armenian Genocide" would have been expunged from the Catalogue, the panels, and the audio. But, it is possible that the attention of the White House and the State Department was diverted by some minor matters in Afghanistan and Iraq. The President and the Secretary of State will no doubt have to explain themselves to the Turkish Government.

However, the Turkish Minister in Charge of Exporting Article 301, had some success in London, which is much more in thrall to Turkey (if that is possible to believe) than is Washington. Therefore, every visitor to The Tate received a "disclaimer" of sorts that must have raised eyebrows with the visitor who, otherwise, might have ignored Gorky’s "Armenian Genocide" experience as he viewed the works on the walls.

It is easy to know what happened. The Minister in Charge of Exporting Article 301 instructed the Turkish Embassy in London to complain to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, which contacted The Tate with the notice of protest from Turkey and with the gentle reminder that The Tate receives money from the British Government and. . . .

For those who want to see what kind of integrity exists in the FCO, which tells all British Governments, of whichever party, what to do vis-à-vis Turkey, permit me to quote from the Tate statement:

"The texts associated with the exhibition are careful to qualify the emotive term ‘genocide’ in relation to the tumultuous experience of Archile Gorky’s early life. We are aware that the British Government has found no pre-meditation and that, therefore, the wartime events of 1915 do not constitute ‘genocide’ in the legal definition. However, we are also aware that other bodies, including the European Parliament, have reached a different conclusion. We recognise that the ways in which the events have been described and the histories written remain contentious, and it was for these reasons that we described them as ‘widely held to be genocide’ in recognition of their differing reception."
When contacted, Dr. Taylor confirmed that The Tate had received protests, as, indeed, had he and the officials at MOCA:


"Our decision to use the word ‘Genocide’ in relation to Gorky’s life and work in the retrospective and cataloguewas made early in the organization of the exhibition. . . . We received a handful of letters of protests from Turkish groups during the retrospective’s run, but, . .we stood by our wording, which we believe is a true and accurate description of the events that took place in 1915.. . [T]he State of Pennsylvania recognizes the Armenian Genocide, as does California, so the PMA and the MOCA’s resolution on this issue has the backing of our local governments. Unfortunately, the British government has not yet formally recognized the Armenian Genocide, although the European Union does, so our colleagues at Tate Modern, . .were in a sightly different position from ours. They also receive significantly more funding from their government than we do."
Like the Ancient Mariner, the Minister in Charge of Exporting Article 301 stopped one in three. No doubt, he may feel his neck is secure for a while longer.

The officials of the PMA and MOCA must be congratulated for their courageous stand against Turkey’s continuing effort to deny history.


  1. Surreal web of Armenian existence
    I see no reason to chalk one up for the Minister in Charge of Exporting Article 301. The exhibition and catalogue are a triumph for both art and history. This is true in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, and especially in London where a genocide disclaimer was required.

    Gorky’s life and work provide vivid testament to an ambitious and creative spirit and the pervasive forces of genocide. Is it merely ironic that Gorky – the Armenian orphan and refugee – was told that he could never make it in the art world as "an Armenian"? The fact that he had to create a Russian identity to gain an American audience for his authentic vision strikes me as fundamentally surreal and quintessentially Armenian. This surreal existence blossomed into an abstract idiom that pre-figured the American abstract expressionist movement–a fact that should be recognized by art and genocide historians and especially Armenians.

    To my mind, the Gorky retrospective was only made more vivid by the Tate’s tacit genocide disclaimer. If not for the pathetic insecurity and arrogance behind Article 301, one might thank the minister for unwittingly providing new evidence and drawing the Tate’s public into the enduring surreal web of Armenian existence.

  2. Words are cheap and easy

    How many Armenians live in London? Tens of thousands of them? Maybe they are very good at jabbing away at their keyboards and posting their diatribes on Armenian forums that nobody reads. However, none of them seem able to get off their backsides to enter the real world and do actual protesting, the sort of thing that requires commitment and courage.

    Why did they not act together to tear down the Tate Modern’s obscene notices? Why did they not do it repeatedy, day after day? Are they all cowards? Or do they just like having something to moan about and so don’t want to do anything that might lead to the cause of the moan to be removed? Also in London, the Imperial War Museum has had on display for decades a huge map that purports to show the Ottoman Empire’s WW1 borders. Yet for its easterm border it has the current (i.e. post 1921) border rather than the WW1 border which would show the unmentionable facts that the territories of Kars, Ardahan, and Igdir were part of the Russian empire and then the wartime republic of Armenia.

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