Gezi Park and the Transformative Power of Art

  • January 8, 2014

Culture & Critique

Through the transformative power of aesthetics and creative narrative, the çapulcu managed to keep ahead of the forces that would deny them their freedom.

The transformative power of creative narrative is the power to give meaning to life’s activity by keeping ahead of forces that would deny it. This transformative power, articulated in Nietzsche’s theory of transvaluation, is a fundamental dynamic of the resistance movement that sprang from the Gezi Park sit-ins. The movement erupted with an aesthetic intensity that surprised detractors as well as supporters, employing aesthetic creativity in a way that sets it apart from other protests in Turkey and the Arab world. On several levels, the young movement has become a form of artistic protest.

Striking parallels are found between Nietzsche’s account of narrative transformation and the dynamic action of the people in Turkey who resist what they feel is an encroachment on their democratic rights and their way of life. Beyond illustrating these parallels, the aim of this essay is to examine how aesthetic imagination plays a role in forming a narrative that conjures meaning solely through creative fiat, showing how the power of transvaluation is manifested in the Gezi Park resistance through aesthetic displacement. These parallels exist because political violence and political art share a common set of background presuppositions insofar as each is reacting to the cultural, religious, economic and political realities in which they are enmeshed. Thus, power and art are often closely intermingled as new values are created and old ones are displaced.

The Creative Power of Art

As Nietzsche understands it, in a metaphysically impoverished existence, which has witnessed the ‘death of God,’ value can exist nowhere outside of the plane of our material experience. This pushes the aesthetic realm of value, traditionally the realm of metaphysics or the transcendent, into the realm of nature. But to bring value into the earthly realm means to embrace actuality as ‘false, cruel, contradictory, seductive, [and] without meaning,’ Nietzsche writes in Will to Power. To achieve this, the creative power of art is needed to transfigure the world of ugliness into the world of beauty. In some senses, it is as if, in Kantian terms, Nietzsche flattens Verstand into Vernunft, the cognitive ability to understand the laws of nature with the regulative ability to guide our actions according to a higher value.

The cost of flattening understanding into reason is to lose the capacity to clearly perceive the categories of natural causality, which rule the realm of the everyday. By upsetting these categories, the sense of self and individuation are lost. The disruption of one sphere of existence, however, leads to the opening of another. With our understanding of nature in question, we are open to aesthetic illusion. Without being able to cognize what lies beneath the truth of aesthetic illusion, Nietzsche argues we can only build on it with more creativity, artistically forging our own interpretation of reality. The distortion of the categories and the sense of self enables a form of displacement that allows art to be effective as part of a political ‘dialogue’.

In On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche discusses the power to name. The ‘right to create values and give these values names’ was claimed by the high-minded, the noble and the mighty. There is undeniable aristocratic leaning in Nietzsche’s writings. Arguably though, the main point of Genealogy’s first essay is to demonstrate that transvaluation does occur. Briefly, his claim is this: modern notions of goodness as altruistic acts are not natural, as some “English psychologists” claimed. The notion of the useful as good-for-something was co-opted into the belief that usefulness was good-in-itself. For Nietzsche, naming the altruisitc act good was problematic. For the Romans, to be good was to be powerful, healthy, happy and beautiful; it was noble. Badness was merely defined as not having these attributes; it was being despicable.

Christianity reversed this, convincing the people of the ancient world that the ‘first shall be last and the last shall be first.’ What was valued as ‘good’ became ‘evil’. But the ‘new good’ defined itself in terms of not being ‘evil,’ or the ‘old good’. In this was the seed of ressentiment, and for Nietzsche, this outward-looking ethos could never justify its own claims to goodness. Thus, forms of transvaluation manifested by the reversal of good and bad, equating the self-supporting notion of good with evil, were world-renouncing. Values created out of the will to say ‘Yes’ to life, no matter what the conditions, are for Nietzsche the justification for existence, representing the highest achievement of the human will. Valuation lacking inward-looking justification, which says ‘No’ to life, is all that is wrong with modern culture.

Saying ‘No’ to life is a concession to powerlessness. It is the power to say ‘Yes’ that provides a life with a meaningful narrative. It is a rank-ordering. If a rank-ordering is made that looks inward to intrinsic value, it fosters the creative power of the will found in the power of naming. The original power of language, Nietzsche argues, entails a privilege of possession. By saying “this is so and so,” the powerful “set their seal on everything and every occurrence with a sound and thereby take possession of it.”

The herd also has power. They create words that equate the inward-looking good with evil and their own good as outwardly opposing the self-affirming good. In this sense, for Nietzsche, the good of the herd manifests a form of illness. Nonetheless, Nietzsche’s focus on the noble is not inherently linked to social aristocracy or the visible manifestations of might. The power of giving value is rooted in the drive to find truthfulness, a character trait, and by and large it is the nobles who associate themselves with the truth. But even if truthfulness is not always related to aristocracy, the position of not being truthful, of being deceitful, is understood to be the opposite of what is noble. To strive for truth is noble, as is the power to name things of value.

The Fluidity of Resistance

The Gezi Park protesters have demonstrated the power to take possession of a word. The one in possession of disproportionate physical force named the protesters marauders and looters — Çapulcu. They took this name and made it theirs. The meaning of Çapulcu, as Erdoğan intended it, implies freeloader, or one who lives off of the work of others. In appropriating the name for themselves, the protesters gave the term new value. The word took on a wide range of meanings in the movement. Gezi Park became Çapulcistan, and adopting the English conjugation, the activity of the protesters was ‘Chapulling’.

The Turkish media, beholden to the power of the ruling AKP, did not broadcast the clashes between resisters and police when they first erupted on May 31. CNN-Turk broadcast a special on penguins instead. Since then, the penguin with a gas mask has become the symbol of the Çapulcu. When the police would not allow protesters a voice, a performance artist stood in Taksim Square without speaking. The silent ‘standing man’ became another symbol of the movement. Driven from Taksim Square, the protesters declared that Taksim was ‘everywhere’ — ‘Her yer Taksim’. The world seemed to unite behind this slogan as Brazilian protesters declared solidarity with the Çapulcu.

These media-savvy moves left the Prime Minister befuddled, and his only reaction was more tear gas and more force. This fluidity, this power of taking words, symbols and space, and claiming them as signifiers of their own, is a power Erdoğan can never possess. Without assessing the reign of Erdoğan as a whole, in this ‘dialogue’ the prime minister seemed to lose his bearing and his words lack power because he looks outward and says ‘No’ — through censorship, legal restrictions and arrests — and not inward, saying ‘Yes’. Whatever he calls them, the resistance needed only to say ‘Yes’ and the meaning, at least in the broader sphere of free speech, became good. This is the power of naming — the power to give value.

The power of political art is a two edged-sword. It can serve justice or injustice, the tyrant or the great leader, the rebel or the freedom fighter. Art has the power to displace what it depicts or refers to. In “The Musicality of Violence,” Lydia Goehr describes how commemorative music can actually mimic the violence it abhors. There is a shared structure in acts of terror or violence and art. They “draw on a common history of aesthetic, political, and religious assumption.” Attempts to mimic violence, even if in protest, tend to bring it back, in the worst case to be reproduced in action, or in some cases to be appropriated by the culture that enacted the violence through its aestheticization. Even if the aim and articulation of each is different, the components that make each succeed are similar.

This can be seen insofar as censorship of art can imply a restriction of action, a constrained culture. Conversely, an artistic world that allows for any kind of art or image may be a society of great, though perhaps at times excessive, freedom. But art can also deflect the violence through displacement. During the Spanish Civil War, Picasso painted a haunting image of the violence. A German soldier observing Guernica asked him, ‘Did you paint this?’ Picasso answered, ‘No, you did.’ The soldier wanted the violence of the war to be displaced by the aesthetic. Picasso would not allow this displacement.

Unity through Art

Analogously, the art of the resistance would not allow the coverage of the events of May 31, 2013 to be displaced by the penguin. The penguin became the symbol of the movement. Using it as a symbol would not allow the displacement of coverage to stand. When Taksim and Gezi were closed, the locations of protests were displaced. Her yer Takism was an aesthetic displacement of the resistance’s center. Shifting the center to everywhere again deflected the restriction. The violence of the police crackdown was, for the most part, countered with images that resisted non-violently. The standing man displaced the violence articulated by the government. The same set of political, religious and cultural background assumptions were in play, but the contemplating figure displaced the force thrown at the resistance. By channeling aggression into art, the standing man became another icon of the movement.

A displacement of personal identity occurs when the focus of the violence is shifted from an individual to a group, as the individuals were named Çapulcu, and singular acts of aggression are carried out in the name of justice. Such actions represent the destruction of an idea, and are not easily justified if carried out against individuals. The ideas of the resistance represented a coalition of groups that resisted the authority of the AKP. The very idea of resistance needed to be destroyed. So the art of the movement kept the idea of resistance alive. The art upheld an idea of unity. Though sometimes the art was obscene, most often it was created through the playful construction of a community that bound together disparate groups who wanted, among other things, a say in how their world was administered.

As the government displaced the individuals who protested onto a group identity they sought to discredit, the art of the movement reflected the value of a group identity, an idea. By ensuring that no specific groups’ aims were brought to the front, the parochial needs of individual groups were displaced. This allowed an aesthetic articulation of the resistance’s vision. Helped by the power of its art, for several weeks in the early summer of 2013, an ideal that could not be displaced reigned, despite the constricting hand of state power.

A narrative is formed around the story of the Gezi Park Çapulcu. Nietzsche’s philosophical account of creativity articulates the same power of the mind that the resistance used to form the idea of a new identity for the Turkish people. What I suggest is not that these examples are parallel, but that they are one, differing only in application. This will, whether articulated philosophically, through literature and art, or in deciding on a course of action, is what forms human identity, making room for people to participate in shaping who they are and who they become.

The Turkish people stand on a precipice. The Çapulcu and their allies are facing a political system that until now has only resembled a democratic secular state. To fulfill the promise of modernity, to form a society which is not dominated by industry giants, ideologists, and the powers beholden to them requires a feat involving a will to power that pushes beyond boundaries drawn by the competing spheres of economic and political interest. The movement, with the power to name, looks to its own value and says ‘Yes’. If this power can displace the violence, censorship and paternalism that confront it, a new narrative for democracy in Turkey can be imagined.


Reflections on the Gezi Uprising

1. Editorial
Gezi and the Spirit of Revolt

2. Rüzgar Akhat
Gezi: Losing the Fear, Living the Dream

3. Dilan Koese
Revolt of Dignity: Gezi and the Global Legitimation Crisis

4. Burak Kose
The Culmination of Resistance Against Urban Neoliberalism

5. David Selim Sayers
Gezi Spirit: The Possibility of an Impossibility

6. Cagla Aykac
Strong Bodies, Dirty Shoes: An Ode to the Resistance

7. Stephen Snyder
Gezi Park and the Transformative Power of Art

8. ROAR Collective
The Sultan Is Watching: Erdoğan’s Lust for Power

9. Yasemin Acar & Melis Ulug
The Body Politicized: The Visibility of Women at Gezi

10. Elif Genc
At Gezi, a Common Voice Against State Brutality

11. Erkan Gursel
Sarisuluk’s Story: A Family Fighting for Justice

12. Beatrice White
Cracking Down on the Press: Turkish Media after Gezi

13. Matze Kasper
To Survive, the Gezi Movement Will Have to Compromise

14. Mark Bergfeld
Beyond the Hashtags? Gezi and the AKP’s Media Power

15. Emrah Güler
Is Social Media Still the Way to Resist in Turkey?

16. Lou Zucker
Reclaim the Urban Commons: Istanbul’s First Squat

17. Christopher Patz
From Madrid to Istanbul: Occupying Public Space

18. Sinan Eden
The Mayonnaise Effect: International Inspiration from Gezi

19. Mehmet Döşemeci
Superman, Clark Kent, and the Limits of the Gezi Uprising

20. Editorial
Beyond Gezi: What Future for the Movement?


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Stephen Snyder

Stephen Snyder is an assistant professor of philosophy at Fatih University in Istanbul. He specializes in the Philosophy of Art and Social and Political Theory. He has a particular interest in researching the communicative dimension of artistic practice.

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