A Reflection on Iranian Modern and Contemporary Art
In order to have a proper and exhaustive understanding of what is considered “Iranian contemporary Art,” we must first of all bring it into historical perspective. By adopting this posture we can inquire into the context, origins and roots of what has shaped the phenomenon we see today. Such an inquiry necessarily leads us to seeing this “contemporary art” in light of “modern tendencies.” Thus it seems appropriate to entitle the on-going approaches to art in Iran “Iranian modern and contemporary art.”
In the past few decades Iranian Art broke the ties which connected it to the past, ceasing to repeat its old reoccurring patterns. It has struggled to employ the language of modern art – which was seemingly taking over the artistic scenes from around the world – and to adapt its styles and methods. And with that, although a little late, it took its first steps towards modernization. This change for the new ideal drew the attention of many young people in Iran and inspired them to follow in its footsteps. While the traditional art takes its authenticity from the past and tends to repeat itself through well-established rules and values, the new art defines itself mostly in terms of its relation to the present.1 In order to have a fair and coherent judgment on the historical account of the highlights of one nation’s art, however, we need to maintain a distance. So it should be easier to talk about modern art’s initial states than what is in progress at this particular moment. Nevertheless, this must not hinder us attempting to confront and understand its various manifestations – no matter how challenging it may be.
Now, in this short writing, I would like to see this matter from a particular angle. Therefore I borrow the “logic of discontinuity” or “detachment” idea and by taking a compound view, i.e. a combination of historical and philosophical views, I will try to give a fresh account of “Iranian modern and contemporary art.” Such an approach comprises paying attention to the logic of discontinuity and the unbalanced and inorganic growth of human self-awareness – and, of course, art as one of its essential parts. This viewpoint is rooted in thoughts and ideas of contemporary French philosopher and social theorist Michel Foucault. Soon after the Iranian Revolution in 1979 Foucault made two tours of Iran to see closely and scrupulously what he considered the emerging of a “political spirituality” in the later decades of the twentieth century, and what was to shape the first spiritual revolution in the post-modern world.2 He praised the Iranian revolution as an exemplary manifestation of a “collective will,” which leads to a fundamental change in the nation’s existence, and with emphasizing the spiritual drive of the revolution, endeavors to depict the substantial continuity of spiritual and political aspects of the movement.
According to Foucault, the radical change in a nation’s collective subjectivity, which in this case religion guaranteed its realization, ensues an ontological change in that nation’s foundations, which itself constitutes a shift in their world-view: their relation to the universe and even to god. This profound change must be analyzed in the framework of some sort of a transition or a “paradigm-shift”: re-formulating of patterns and also of epistemological and ontological structures which literally contains all aspects of human existence. Art, in the midst of it all, is one of the most prominent aspects of such an alternation, so much that Foucault in his speculations on the spiritual origins and causes of the Revolution in Iran, doesn’t seem to doubt to attribute an aesthetic quality to it.3
In this regard, the Revolution in Iran can be seen as a fundamental break from the pre-existing paradigm, which consequently altered all the aspects of Iran’s cultural life – a dramatic change in political, sociological and economical spheres. Art was deeply affected, and the dominant modernist movement was replaced by revolutionary and ideological approaches. Art in Iran, after more than three decades, has gone through many ups and downs: ten years of revolution and war with all its specific characteristics, another ten years of transition from ideological art to a kind of revivalism of pre-revolutionary modernism, and finally today, it manifests itself in its current form.
What shapes the current Iranian modern and contemporary art scenes and characterizes them, seems to be a revival of what was cut off by the revolution three decades ago – it is no re-emerging from “cultural globalization” context. Emergence and development of new instruments of expression, opening of new cultural and artistic spheres as a result of political reforms, in addition to ever-increasing communication Medias like the Internet and satellite channels, and all in all more interaction with the “outside world”, are the determining factors as to how these changes come about. Art in Iran is undoubtedly signified by such a cultural – and not to mention economical – globalization.
Here I would like to return to Foucault’s ideas of “discontinuity” or “detachment.” As it is mentioned before, according to Foucault, emerging, shaping and developing of social – and indeed artistic – awareness is never balanced and organic. The current art scenes in Iran, which are experiencing a revivalism of modernist tendencies in new forms and new instruments of expression, can solely be understood in the light of a profound and fundamental “epistemological break.” The course of art and thought in Iran has never been a continuous one and has never followed a chronological and disciplined logic.4 Maybe just one example would suffice. As the Saqqâ-khâneh movement – the most famous of the movements in the 1960’s Iran which was shaped in a response to need for creating a national school with the exploitation of modern expressions – came about with a delay, the manifestations of post-modern aspects of art is now occurring with a delay.
Maybe our juxtaposition and synchronicity with the output of contemporary art – which their sheer number is evidently unprecedented – can affect us in a way that keeps us from judging and evaluating it properly, but it should by no means hold us back from subtlety observing and describing, and realistically categorizing and analyzing it. What is here of determining significance, is being vigilant about two abysses we might tumble into: that of total approval on the one hand, and total rejection on the other. Maintaining a critical eye is of pivotal importance for anyone who has a hand in art.
Maybe Iranian society, according to historian and sociologist Homayoun Kâtouziân, can be described as a “short-term society,” in which the civil institutions – and consequently art as an institution – in various epochs, because of the repeated interruptions, have not been able to last long and have almost constantly been subject to change. Nevertheless, Iranian artists’ inquisitive, submissive, tolerant and enthusiastic nature still attracts attention, and being watched a little closer, one can truly enjoy and appreciate its merits and beauties. This too shall pass and history shall judge.5
- Pâkbâz, Ruyin. “A Local-Universal Dialog.” Exhibition Catalogue.iran.com. Iranian Art Today, 22.10.2006–28.1.2007, Museum für Neue Kunst, Freiburg, Germany, pp. 83–9.
- Downy, Anthony. Inverted Modernities and Contested Traditions: Contemporary Iranian Visual Culture and (In)Authenticity. RES Art World/World Art 4 (2009). pp. 154–63.
- Foucault, Michel. “Iran: The Spirit of a World without Spirit,” originally appeared in Claire BRIÈRE-BLANCHET, “Iran: revolution au nom de Dieu” (Paris: Seuil, 1979), 227-41. English translation by Alan Sheridan, from Michel Foucault, Politics, Philosophy, Culture Interviews and Other Writings, 1977-1984, pp. 211-24.
- Âshoori, Dâriush. Mâ va moderniyat. Tehran: Serât, 1376, p. 291.
- Kâtouziân, Homayoun. Iran, Short-term Society and three other Essays. Tehran: Nashre Nei, 1390, pp. 9-11.