Printer Friendly

The critic as activist: the art review discourse in Iran.

As public discourse, art reviews comprise a complex interplay between aesthetics and politics, particularly in societies that suppress open dissent. In the decade leading up to President Ahmadinejad's reelection in 2009, the art review became (not for the first time in Iran's history) an important form of public engagement. Combining art historical and sociological approaches, this article examines how art criticism became a form of aesthetic and political engagement in Iran in the 2000s. Relying on archived pages of the cultural website, this article argues that the art review comprises a key social discourse in Iran's public sphere.


Iranian artists are often caught between the regulatory regimes of a state that reaches into everyday life and the markets and discourses of the global north that attempt to recruit them or their work into neoliberal geopolitics or neo-Oriental representation. Newsha Tavakolian is a recent case in point. Tavakolian is a photographer who turned down a 50,000-Euro grant from French investment banker Edouard Carmignac because the latter insisted on certain changes to her work that would frame it in neoliberal assumptions about Iran, including a request that she change the title of her collection of photojournalistic representations of contemporary Iran to "The Lost Generation" to meet expectations of audiences who have come to see Iran in the light of simple, and inaccurate, dichotomies (see Gonzalez). Within Iran, Tavakolian and her peers and colleagues work within a set of regulatory apparatuses, including the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance which has direct oversight in matters of art in the public sphere. Moreover, Iranian artists produce for a public for whom art has become increasingly important, with the number of galleries increasing exponentially over the past fifteen years or so. But these galleries and spaces of art occupy interstitial spaces of Iranian society. How can we understand this set of pressures on Iranian artists? One way to do so is to look at Iranian art reviews and commentary. As a number of cultural studies scholars, sociologists, and art historians have suggested, the work of artists as well as critics in the public sphere can help explain the ideological stakes in how art and politics interpenetrate, and how they form sites of control and resistance.

In his contribution to The Phantom Public Sphere, which aimed to reframe Jurgen Habermas's important concept, Andrew Ross uses the term "regulation" in a way that can be useful in looking at the place of Iranian artists between the regulatory regimes of the Iranian state and the discursive and ideological imperatives of global neo-liberalism. In "The Fine Art of Regulation," written during the high water mark of conservative attacks on AIDS activist art and the work of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and others in the early 1990s in the US, Ross shifts the discussion of "critical art" (259) away from libertarian conceptions of "free speech," towards a notion of "cultural economy" according to which "regulation" attempts to balance the "economic demands" of the market with moral defense of the "public interest" (264). Rather than seeing "the social dialogue between art and politics" as "ideally ... a polite, risk-free (and, perhaps, one-way) conversation" (260), Ross suggests that a crusade like Republican Senator Jessie Helms's attack on Mapplethorpe is part of a "generalized regulation of the body that is the primary vehicle for ... [cultural] prohibitions" (266). This "regulation," according to Ross, "has provided new authoritarian opportunities for controlling what our bodies produce and consume, ensuring a greater degree of predictive stability for the economy" (266). While at certain times Iran's regulatory system is, of course, more censorship than regulation, I would argue that this regulatory regime is not diametrically opposed to "free speech" in the West, but is another version of similar processes. In the US, the "new repression" might "masquerade," as Ross puts it, in the guise of "public interest" or other forms, and, similarly, in Iran it might masquerade as nationalism or sacred devotion (266).

Using Ross's term, I would argue that Iranian artists negotiate regulatory regimes of various kinds--be they forms of neoliberal regulation that champion "free" speech and free markets, or ideologically revolutionary forms of regulation established early on after the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and sustained through its ministries and governmental agencies; both are regulatory in Ross's sense of the word. In Iran, the state, in fact, intervenes directly in cultural guidance. As art historian Hamid Keshmirshekan has shown (see "Modern and Contemporary"; Contemporary Iranian Art), the Iranian state has been directly involved in guiding and directing artistic production, and its approach shifted historically in the period of time with which this article is concerned (2002-2011). At the same time, the markets and geopolitics of North America, Europe, and the global financial and institutional presence in the Gulf States (particularly Dubai's art market) regulate through discourse, global capital, and political sanctions, at least indirectly. In fact, many Iranian artists see clearly the ways in which their art practice is perhaps as much at risk of being co-opted and consumed by neoliberal concepts of culture and identity (where events like the Green Movement of 2009 are folded into wider discourses about "freedom" and "terrorism") as by codes for sanctioned artistic expression within Iran. Amidst these different regulatory formations, Iranian artists and art critics must navigate through critical aesthetic and ideological terrain.

To appreciate what Ross's speculations about the power of regulation might mean in specific social and cultural contexts, we can turn to the work of sociologists of art, and more specifically historians of art, in Iran to grasp the ways in which such regulatory regimes are played out. In Workers of the World: Enjoy!, sociologist Kenneth Tucker, Jr. posits the notion of "the aesthetic sphere" as a context-specific reworking of the concept of the public sphere. For Tucker, there is a long history, dating back to the French Revolution, of workers, revolutionaries, and artists deploying aesthetic work in the service of political self-realization and action. (1) This sociological view of how art and culture more broadly enter into the public sphere can be seen in Iran's cultural and art history in detail. As theater scholar Saeed Talajooy has observed:
   In twentieth century Iran on three occasions--the constitutional
   revolution (1906-09), the post-occupation conflicts
   (1946-53) and the 1979 revolution (1977-81)--the
   pedagogical conceptions of nationhood came into conflict
   with the reality of the people, who endeavored to become
   the subject of their destiny while functioning as objects of
   alternative nationalist or nativist pedagogies. (689)

Talajooy argues that in order to understand Iranian culture fully (and the work of filmmaker Bahram Beyzaie specifically in Talajooy's study), it is necessary to look closely at what he describes as resistance "through cultural and political activism" (689).

It is the cultural side of this equation that has become meaningful again today. The historical periods Talajooy identifies, particularly the "post occupation conflicts" of the late 1940s and early 1950s, are especially resonant for us today. The contemporary significance of online art reviews, as exemplified in the "Exhibition" section of the Tehran Avenue website, echoes the increased publication of art commentary in the post-World War II period. In that period, it was the development of art periodicals and modernist manifestos that brought a self-aware discourse of aesthetics and politics into the public sphere,

just as today the explosion in the number of galleries in Tehran and the access inside and outside Iran to online reviews and criticism of art has brought an aesthetic politics noticeably into the public sphere (see Balaghi and Daftari). As sociologists Annabelle Sreberny-Mohammadi and Ali Mohammadi put it: "Suddenly in the summer of 1988 a new cultural atmosphere developed in Iran" (181). A significant element of this new cultural atmosphere was the growth in number and visibility of art galleries. Writing in 1994, they observe:
   For those who search, however, pockets of "postmodern"
   cosmopolitan culture can be found in Iran. Many are trying
   tentatively to reclaim a creative space inside the Islamic
   Republic. New art galleries have opened, cassettes of
   Western classical and global music as well as Iranian
   music are plentiful, a considerable amount of fiction is
   being published, and, behind closed doors, new dowreh
   [phase] of poetry and politics develop. (185; italics mine)

Since the late 1990s, a similar resurgence of activity around art and culture has manifested itself, and the aftermath of the 2009 re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has brought these cultural forms of activism into direct contact with political events and activities. Keshmirshekan has pointed out that between the end of the 1990s and the middle of the 2000s, Iran saw not only an increase in the number of galleries, but also in the number of artists, many of them women (Contemporary Iranian Art 233). He goes on to say that during this time, too, "institutions supporting artistic activities [including schools, publications, museums, and non-governmental groups] were established or expanded," and that these developments in the art world were aided by the full arrival of the information age into Iran's social and political milieu (234). The sheer number of art galleries as well as their negotiation of modern and contemporary art movements suggest a complex and rich art culture within Tehran. Art critic and author Siamak Delzendeh has written on the importance of art gallery culture within Tehran, suggesting that the spatial locations and temporal occasions of art galleries and exhibits respectively characterize the Tehran art scene, and that reviews of and commentary on art can have an important affect on the artists themselves (4-5).

Keshmirshekan, for example, has shown that in that period, Iranian art galleries saw Khatami's government repeal of the process that required the Ministry of Islamic Guidance and Culture to review exhibitions before they were allowed to open, and Ahmadinejad's reestablishment of that process in 2005 (Contemporary Iranian Art 234). In what follows, I particularly explore how self-aware contemporary Iranian artists and their audiences are of their place in a complex set of social relations--globally as well as locally. To do so, I focus on the role and function of art criticism within Tehran through the lens of the website Tehran Avenue (henceforth TA). The website is interesting because its lifespan (roughly from 2000 to 2011) marks a period in the politics of Iranian art when state policy retreated from the cultural reforms of Mohammad Khatami's presidency (1997-2005) towards the more restrictive approach of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's two terms (2005-2013) (Keshmirshekan, "Modern and Contemporary" 33). The website, which described itself as a city magazine, had a section devoted to art, art galleries, exhibits, and art openings. TA ceased any new activity in 2011. Between then and the writing of this article, the website existed as an archive at However, as of December 2014, the website was no longer accessible at its original URLs. It is now only accessible through the Internet Archive ( Given its recent disappearance from the web, it is all the more important to document and discuss this website's contribution to Iran's art discourse precisely because it constitutes a historical archive spanning a crucial period. During TA's lifetime, the potential for cultural (if not political) reform gave way to the resurgence of revolutionary ideology and restrictions of the relative freedoms gained in the Khatami period.

Looking at this material through the lens of Tucker's notion of the aesthetic sphere and Ross's concept of regulation, we can examine the ways in which discourse on art in Tehran embodied a form of indirect activism. In this context, the art critic became not only a social, but at times even political, activist. The TA website serves as an important body of material for understanding these relations between art and politics. Combined with interviews conducted with its two founders and four of its contributors, this article focuses on a particular section of TA: its ongoing coverage of galleries, exhibition openings, and the Tehran art scene in general.

Tehran Avenue

Studies on the internet in Iran by sociologists and legal scholars show that while the State has the power to censor, control, and guide discourse on the web, this power is itself "dynamic and contested" (Akhavan 15). This and similar observations about the complex and conflicted ways in which the Iranian state is both the provider of online access and the controller of various forms of access to the net (such as allowing cafes to remain open or closing them, limiting speed, filtering or banning, and even arresting web users) complicate journalistic descriptions of Iran as a place of monolithic censorship or restriction (Srebemy and Khiabany 6667). Often, state guidance, control, or restriction of the internet shift "depending on the moment" (Srebemy and Khiabany 67). According to Asghar Farhadi, director of Oscar-winning film A Separation, "The restrictions and censorship in Iran are a bit like the British weather: one day it's sunny, the next it's raining. You just have to hope you walk out into the sunshine" (qtd. in Srebemy 4). It is clear that when TA was established in 1999, the sun was shining, or at least there was enough of a break in the clouds for a website that was devoted to culture, though it did not avoid politics through the analysis of culture, to be tolerated.

TA was the brainchild of two cousins, Sohrab Mahdavi and Farhad Arianpour, who wanted to create "a Tehran 'city portal,' a magazine of art, culture, and society" (Mahdavi, "Re: History" n. pag.). Though never highly popular like Tehran's more prominent internet thoroughfares dedicated to sports or religion, the website had its own counter-public during its lifespan between 2000 and 2011. This counter-public was a community of artists and writers (both contributors and readers) for whom the website was an extension and a reflection of peripheral comers of Tehran's urban and cultural landscape as it developed in the Khatami and postKhatami periods. As evidenced in the website's review of gallery openings and its sponsorship of an underground music festival, the website was an extension of offline worlds which had their own element of virtualness, even in the material world of the city itself. The website included an Editor's Corner with feature stories and editorials; an Arts section with Drama, Exhibits, Film, Literature, and Music; and an Around Town section with cafe reviews and subsections of Fiction, Society, the Outdoors, and a City log which introduced new articles on Tehran itself. The website's Archive included material dating back to 2001, and continues to be accessible despite the suspension of any new activities since 2011.

TA also represents what cultural studies scholar Michael Warner describes as counter-publics. For Warner, a counter-public "must be organized by something other than the state" (68). Furthermore, publics and counter-publics, alike, "do not exist apart from the discourse that addresses them"; they "exist by virtue of their address" not as a pre-existing entity (72-73). TA, according to Mahdavi, was partly an endeavor to expand the surface area (or "surface of contact," as Mahdavi puts it) of Iran's civil society (Mahdavi, "Re: History" n. pag.). In this sense, the term "address" in Warner's definition of counter-publics takes on its full suggestiveness, including both the notion of voice (the speaking voice addressing an interlocutor), and place (the physical, geographical, and, in this case, urban and transnational address to which the message is sent). Through the very act of articulating online discourse addressed to a particular audience, TA established itself not only as a website but as a counter-public, and through its links to the urban location of Tehran, and more specifically to the places and spaces of art galleries (and restaurants in food reviews, and other sites of civil society), TA created a web of interlocutors concerned with cultural questions in Tehran.

State Institutions and Private Galleries

One way to understand the Iranian state's regulatory practices, and how Iranian artists and art critics respond to this control, is to contrast the response of TA's art critics to two very different exhibition openings. Both of these exhibits occurred early on in TA's existence, and both point to important aspects of Iranian cultural politics. One was sponsored by the state and held in Iran's most important public art institution--the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMoCA) which was established under the leadership of Queen Farah Diba Pahlavi in 1977. The second was held in Seyhoun Gallery, an art space established even before TMoCA in 1966, by Masoumeh Seyhoun, a female artist who even in her early twenties was supporting the work of her peers, many of whom became key names in Iran's art scene throughout its modern development. Without official state support, the gallery remained open through the 1979 revolution (after a brief closure), and weathered the Iran-Iraq war, and continued to remain open after Masoumeh Seyhoun's death in 2011 (Anonymous n. pag.). Contrasting these two events through the reviews can help us chart out the space of Tehran's aesthetic sphere at this key moment in the history of TA and in the recent history of Iran's aesthetic sphere itself.

As Keshmirkshekan has observed (Contemporary Iranian Art 234-35), the TMoCA is an important institution in the state's attempts to guide artistic production in Iran. Overseen by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, TMoCA has hosted biennials since the late 1990s. In 2002, the museum opened an exhibit initially titled "Conceptual Art Exhibition" and renamed "The New Art Exhibit." In a brief preview, painter and art student Behrang Samadzadegan noted the change in title and pondered the meaning of the word "new":
   Out is the Conceptual Art Exhibition and in is the New Art
   Exhibit. Why? Perhaps because many objected to works
   presented at last year's exhibit, saying that they hardly
   qualified as that under which they were presented. But it
   is not clear what the new appellation signifies, (n. pag.)

I would argue that Samadzadegan is not just critiquing the exhibit, but the way in which an official institution like TMoCA attempts to inoculate conceptions of newness and contemporaneity in Tehran's art scene.

The critical perspective on the adoption of the notion of "newness" persists, with an even sharper satirical edge, when artist and critic Rockny Haeri takes up the question in November, and skewers both the artists and the exhibit for a generalized pretentiousness. Most of the essay is written in the second person, addressing the artist (not necessarily old but certainly jaded) who has a piece in, or is simply attending, the TMoCA exhibit on New Art. The second-person subject/object of this address is someone who has given up paint and canvas as coming from "the Paleolithic age of art," and replaced them with "mirrors and photographs just like Marcel Duchamp," or with documentary footage from nomads or "the backcountry" incorporated into an installation that includes tapestry (n. pag.). The sardonic tone only sharpens, placing this young artist/interlocutor much more squarely in a hedonistic social milieu whose interest in art is completely superficial: "So, let's call up the gang. You can even convince S. to cancel her Shemshak party so that everybody can go to the Conceptual (or the New)" (n. pag.).

I quote this review at length because interestingly it is reminiscent of cultural critiques of Iranian "Weststruckness" that were a key component of debates within Iran's public sphere in the 1960s and 1970s. The echo of that cultural critique rings quite recognizably in Haeri's article as he goes on to mock the Iranian art-hipster's pretensions around post-modernism and continental philosophy--what he sees as a vapid mimicry of the West:
   You know Foucault, Derrida, and Baudrillard. You have
   read Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition, and you are
   one of the fans of Babak Ahmadi, and you recognize
   Zamiran's radicalism. You can leaf through Thus Spoke
   Zarathustra for hours on end. You like books and films,
   directors like Jim Jarmush, David Lynch, Fellini, and Hal
   Hartley. You come down hard on Kiarostami and like to
   give it to him after seeing his flick, (n. pag.)

This rhetorical and fictitious addressee is clearly the type who himself participates in the very discourse he is critiquing. This is not so much a postmodern narrative "you" (like the playfully self-conscious narrator of Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler) as it is a straw man set up to take the satirical blows of Haeri's thinly veiled humiliating invective.

The article even attacks the cyber-intellectual and the digital artist for whom the computational has replaced direct interaction: "You now live in the Information Age, Dialogue Amongst Civilizations, the Net, and you can afford to make your coffee at home, light up a cigarette, and hunt for images on your monitor" (n. pag.). Interestingly, the author is clearly also familiar with some of the milestones of Iranian modern art, particularly the manifestos of the late 1940s and 1950s. In one passage, he even inserts a sly reference to Khorus Jangi, 1949-1950 (Fighting Cock), the art collective and magazine that took its name and disseminated manifestos and ideas on modernism and challenged existing realist approaches to modernizing Iranian art:
   It is simply delightful to take pictures of your gorgeous
   friend, not in tattered jeans and short manteau but in traditional
   dress wearing the latest model sunglasses and
   drinking Coca Cola. And it is important when you see a
   documentary on cockfighting, and when you decide to set
   bronze cock statues next to TV sets, to remember to call
   your work Fighting Cock. (n. pag.)

Again, empty deployment of post-modern methods becomes the target of Haeri's most vehement attacks. The superficial artist's deployment of the Fighting Cock underscores the pretentiousness of the entire exercise by presenting a castrated and domesticated version of the emblem of artistic experimentation and radicalism in the manifestos of the 1940s.

Once Haeri shifts from the second-person pronoun to first-person plural, his political position becomes clear. And, in fact, that political position, despite some of the potentially radical statements he makes in this piece, is not far afield of how the Islamic Republic's government, informed by conceptions of Weststruckness, might itself react to the very exhibit it has sanctioned:
   We artists, estranged from culture, society, and the arts,
   are searching for something we don't know. And just as
   our state of Painting is now in shambles, this circus of a
   museum is boring even its organizers. We are the clowns
   of this circus but call ourselves conceptual artists.... We
   can become choreographers in the museum because we
   don't know how to dance, but we don't know how to live
   in an apartment with a coffee machine either. We hit the
   town with strange clothes and cars stop to honk--or
   sometimes wink--at us. (n. pag.)

Where, precisely, is Haeri placing his political loyalties? And what does this mean for the aesthetic sphere he participates in and the aesthetic politics he enacts? I would argue that partly why TA had some longevity in the 2000s, and why the Iranian government did not shut it, is that TA and the Iranian government were themselves performing a sort of dance, what Ross calls the "fine art of regulation." TA could offer certain critiques of Iran, as long as its overall politics resonated with the Islamic Republic's ideological inheritance, i.e., the inheritance of critiques of the West, and of the West's infectious superficiality. The Islamic Republic could sponsor something like the New Art exhibit, and even encourage critical response to it, if such an event permitted renewed ways of pointing to the superficiality and emptiness of the West in contrast to Iran's national pride. This set of negotiations could much more easily be conducted in an aesthetic sphere than in civil or political contexts.

By contrast, another early exhibition review focuses on a very different kind of institution and a very different sort of exhibition. This second review focuses on the aforementioned Seyhoun Gallery. In her review of "Visions of Islam," Media Farzin lauded the work of three British artists whose tour of Tehran, Qom, Esfahan, and Yazd had resulted in a series of photographs exhibited at Seyhoun Gallery. (2) This gallery makes for an interesting contrast to TMoCA because it may well be the oldest gallery in Tehran, but one that has fallen under neither the control nor guidance of the Ministry of Islamic Guidance and Culture.

The paradoxes and nuances of Farzin's review are interesting when viewed in the context of Iranian political discourses about Iranian cultural identity, the West, and the aesthetic sphere. Farzin saw this exhibit as unusually faithful to how many Iranians saw themselves. Once again, place becomes a key component of the critical perspective. The local, the particular, the specific all become the measure of artistic achievement: "These artists are making their own contribution to the much-needed exchange of understanding through their art, specifically, by making art in situ, what Braithwaite refers to as "context-obsessed spontaneous expression" ("The Quest for Visions" n. pag.).

The importance of "art in situ" and the reference to Braithwaite's notion of contextual and unrehearsed expression repeat the emphasis on place. This is in stark contrast to the sort of dislocation and discursive impasse which might describe the sort of breakdown of discourse Haeri explores in his review of the TMoCA exhibition of new and conceptual art. Ironically, the TA reviewer finds the work of non-Iranians to be more attuned to Iranian cultural identity than that of the Iranian artists exhibited at the state-sanctioned institution that aims to represent the most cutting-edge artistic productions on Iran's contemporary art scene. The contrast between these two exhibition reviews also underscores the ways in which TA intervened in the aesthetic sphere and helped establish a discursive space focused on art as a social space of contestation.

Fereydoun Ave and the Discourse of Courage

In the period that TA and its contributors were active, one key debate emerged in the Exhibition section towards the end of the reform period. This debate focused on the concept of courage, but the term itself was challenged both within TA itself as well as on other websites focusing on art in Iran and the Middle East. It showed that within the aesthetic sphere in Tehran, state regulation was complicated by self-regulation and inter-generational regulation between artists. The word courage became a linchpin of these self-regulatory discussions. Moreover, this debate underscored the contrast between artists working within Iran and those within the diaspora, some of whom, according to at least one contributor to TA, were taking full advantage of, and thus being stripped of, their identity by the global market for "Iranian" art.

An important aspect of how art and expression have been regulated in Iran is the notion of committed or engage art. This is a concept that predates the revolution--the notion that art is important when it is committed to some cause greater than itself. This was clear certainly in the work of Iranian writers throughout the twentieth century (see Talattof), and was also a key part of challenges to the Pahlavi regime from intellectuals and artists in the 1960s and 1970s. (3) Early on in the establishment of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini attacked the notion of art for art's sake (Keshmirshekan, "Modern and Contemporary" 194). Moreover, the state has not only espoused Islamization of art, but also encouraged a revolutionary or ideological approach to art. The problem that Iranian artists sometimes face is that this view of art as committed sometimes becomes over-determined, and even those who might challenge the state's conception of committed or engaged art might fall into a certain ideological approach nonetheless.

One key name among the contributors to this debate and TA's whole body of art criticism is Fereydoun Ave, an elderly statesman of contemporary Iranian art and someone credited with cultivating and fostering the work of younger artists. (4) A survey of his writing in TA can serve as a case study of how art critics had to negotiate the terms of self-realization and community building together in Tehran's aesthetic sphere in this period. Ave posted a number of articles himself, often commenting on the important work being done, and spoke of artists in terms of courage. This defense of courage suggests the lingering significance of engage art in Iran's aesthetic sphere, and challenges to it suggest that many younger artists are tired of such explicitly ideological positions, and prefer more subtle forms of aesthetic critique that are self-critical and reflexive in nature (Keshmirshekan, "Modern and Contemporary" 256).

The word shahamat appears as a key term in most of Ave's articles. While the term may be translated as "daring," TA usually translated it as "courage." Ave uses the term consciously, with emphasis, stating in one review--dealing with the work of Mehran Mohajer, another contemporary artist--that "courage" or shahamat is "central in this review" ("Tests of Courage" n. pag.). In another review, he states that Jinoos Taghizadeh, an active artist and a fellow contributor to TA, "deserves a medal for courage/bravery" ("Four Gallery Reviews" n. pag.). In fact, in one instance, the word courage is inserted in the English translation when shahamat is only implied in the Persian original. In this review, Ave slams the hugely successful expatriate Iranian artist Farhad Moshiri for his work "Fluffy Friends," an ironic piece using gaudy bright colors depicting stuffed toy animals. Ave not only dismisses this work but contrasts its frivolity with the sacrifices of Iranian artists: "Farhad Moshiri's new work is an insult/abuse against all those Iranians who have risked their own lives for the sake of freedom" ("In Need of Transfusion" n. pag.; my translation). (5) However, the editors at TA insert the term "brave" as a qualifier for the plural known, "Iranians." Moshiri's work becomes an insult to all "brave" Iranians, and they are insulted because of the danger they have put themselves in.

This dichotomy between cowardice and courage demonstrates the difficult line TA often had to walk. On the one hand, Ave addresses the question of freedom. Moshiri's freedom to explore what seems to be a fairly shallow form of expression, albeit ironically, in the relatively safe cultural contexts and market dynamics of European aesthetic spaces is drastically different from the kind of freedom of expression that artists within Iran's aesthetic sphere and vectors of governmental power must face. And yet, upholding a discourse of "courage" in a narrative of self-sacrifice echoes the Islamic Republic's own aesthetics of authority which are so deeply indebted to traditions of sacrifice and the symbolism of pain and suffering. Indeed, Negar Azimi, editor and journalist, begins her own defense of Moshiri in the pages of Bidoun, an online magazine about art in the Middle East, by quoting Ave's critique of Moshiri's work. Ave had argued that Moshiri has "amputated his Iranian heart and replaced it with a cash register" (qtd. in Azimi n. pag.). Azimi, for her part, challenges Moshiri's critics, including Ave, suggesting that his work is a self-consciously ironic critique of phenomena such as the supreme artificiality of a place like Dubai, a place central to global markets for, and marketing of, Iranian art (Azimi n. pag.).

The debate between Ave and Azimi is important because it shows that the "two sides" of this argument cannot be divided easily into notions of the Iranian state's suppression of arts and the West's purported championing of free speech. Rather, we have perhaps a complex debate over questions of authenticity vs. artificiality, questions about the nature of art itself, and a conflict between the critic as artist (Ave as critic upholding standards of the artist) and the artist as critic (Moshiri using art as a form of criticism so that the "beauty" of the piece is secondary to its parodic commentary). TA and its global interlocutors, like Bidoun, explored a complex multiplicity of questions within Iran's aesthetic sphere.

In another review, this time of the works of well-known artists Parastou Forouhar and Hadieh Tehrani, Ave begins grandiosely by stating: "For the past thirty years I have been stressing courage as one of the essential prerequisites for an artist" ("Iran" n. pag.). Again the term shahamat comes up, along with jasur (bold or presumptuous), as ways of designating the courage, boldness, fearlessness, and even generosity of spirit of these two artists. Rather than responding to Iranian artists in terms of playfulness and pleasure, Ave seems to place a great deal of moral responsibility on their shoulders, suggesting that some attain this selfless strength, while others do not. In this sense, while he might champion the notion of freedom in Iran's public sphere, he seems to impose a kind of moral duty on the aesthetic sphere in Tehran itself. Artists and critics, it seems, also participate in the "fine art of regulation" that Andrew Ross associates with the public sphere.

However, Ave's fairly strident position is not entirely reactionary. It is even less an indication of TA's tendency towards anything like a pedagogical or didactic discourse on the role of art in Tehran. What TA seems to have attempted was an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, movement, one that inhabited Tehran as it is, not as it might be imagined. By engaging in politics through art and culture, rather than using art and culture in the service of politics, art reviewers and critics could avoid the worse kinds of utopian fantasy. Thus, a voice like Ave's was always in dialogue with other voices, sometimes directly, but often indirectly. The championing of courage was not left to speak for TA. Not at all. Other voices that we might call performative in contrast to Ave's more pedagogical voice were frequent contributors to the TA discourse. In the final section of this article, I will return to this question of the pedagogical vs. the performative forms that aesthetic politics assumes in Iran's public sphere. For now, it is important to note that the aesthetic politics in which TA emerged were themselves as complex and dynamic as the regulatory regimes they aimed to challenge.

Summer 2009

The victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the elections of 2005 rolled back the (admittedly modest) gains brought by Khatami's reforms over the previous ten years. Among these changes was the re-establishment of the process of state review of art exhibitions prior to their opening, a practice that had been stopped under the presidency of Khatami, himself the former head of the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance (Keshimreshekan, "Modern and Contemporary" 37). Thus, it is all the more surprising that a sculpture exhibit like multi-media artist Siamak Filizadeh's "Sacrificial Lamb or How to Slaughter 300 Cows in One Day" was allowed to open immediately after Ahmadinejad's re-election in 2009, and that Aiyash Fayez's very pointedly political review, "The Illogical Blood of the Victim on the Gallows," could be posted on TA in July of that year. It might be that certain forms of restriction and regulation are eased immediately following an election. Whatever the case, this exhibit and its review mark one of the most pointedly political statements in TA's history.

In his review, Fayez very directly bemoans the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and champions the cause of protesters in Iran's streets. It can be argued that the various negotiations of Iran's aesthetic politics in the decades leading up to this moment allowed for a negotiated space for this type of protest to be voiced. TA would eventually close down voluntarily with the fear of government scrutiny on the minds of its writers and editors. Nevertheless, the way that art reviews had negotiated a politics of art that also intervened in civil society opened up a space for an aesthetic politics critical of both the power structures of the nation, and--as I will show in the final section of this article--the pathways of power carved out by global neoliberalism.

The re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and its aftermath in the summer of 2009 was a moment of trauma for Iranians, and TA became an important locus of discourse in this context, allowing for cultural criticism to step into an aesthetic sphere that TA itself had helped to forge over the preceding decade or so. Looking at art criticism at the time of this traumatic moment gives us some insight into Iran's aesthetic sphere and the dynamics of its aesthetic politics.

In his review, Fayez, himself a photographer and visual artist, suggests that the work drew attention to political violence while allowing for a cathartic release of emotion. The exhibit consisted of a collection of sculptures of sheep and cows made of wood resin and porcelain, each decorated with a variety of calligraphy, illustrations from Persian miniatures, costumes, prostheses, and flags (including the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes). Additionally, the walls of the gallery were covered from floor to ceiling with photographs of a slaughterhouse depicting butchers soaked in blood. Finally, the small pool at the center of the gallery was also filled with a red blood-like liquid, within which a flock of sheep was arranged in perfectly straight rows.

Fayez directly links Filizadeh's exploration of such themes as sacrifice, butchery, and resistance to the recent re-election of Ahmadinejad. He writes:
   In the days following the presidential election, when the
   incumbent decided to remain in office for another 4 years
   and crushed every attempt at questioning this decision,
   dazed as I was over the turn that the course of events had
   taken, works of Siamak Filizadeh were a welcomed
   reflection on the nature of our predicaments, (n. pag.)

Fayez goes on to say that the "election coup aftershocks are still reverberating through the social body" (n. pag.). Fayez's review takes off the gloves, as it were. This is not the traditional approach in Iranian critical or satirical commentary, in which metaphor and allegory are allowed to slip under the radar of regulation. Rather, it is a direct attack on political manipulation, and one that even calls out Filizadeh's more familiarly Iranian allegory.

Within a year of this article being posted, TA would close, reopening only briefly in 2011. It was the expression of this type of political frustration, and eventual nervousness and ultimate silence on the part of TA's writers, that would lead its editors to close the site, but for now, this discourse was allowed to stand. But how? One way to answer this question is with context. Read in the context of the body of work in TA's archived exhibit articles, this review enters an ongoing dialogue. In the foregoing discussion, I have attempted to show how TA's team of writers and rivals charted a dynamic and multifaceted set of rhetorical positions and critical arguments. Just as Iranian regulation of the internet and of art are contested and complex, as we have seen, so, too, are critiques of that regulatory regime dynamic and multifaceted. Much of the discourse on TA centered on the tension between different regulatory regimes, but the articles are wide-ranging in terms of the positions they take and the ultimate claims they advocate. Thus, even Fayez's fairly direct salvo into more direct politics could see the light of day, even after an election that prompted protests. Nevertheless, it was in 2010 that Mahdavi and his colleagues closed the site, citing not so much a fear of regulation as the disheartening silence that had set in with them and among the wider public discourse in late 2009 and early 2010 (Anonymous, "Tehran").

The Flaneur in Tehran

The creators and writers of TA started to feel enough pressure after 2009 that they eventually had to close the site. In interviews with those involved closely with the site, I learned that silence fell on the group of writers in the months following the 2009 election, the protests that ensued, and the floundering of those protests. Rather than wait to be investigated and closed by the Ministry of Culture, Mahdavi and his colleagues decided to close the site themselves. However, the story of TA and its contribution to Iran's aesthetic sphere and political discourse did not end there.

TA was re-opened to facilitate its last update, appearing in May 2011--a full year after its official closure. This final post was a review of photographer Arash Fayez's exhibit, "Ramblings of a Flaneur," a fitting farewell from a digital urban magazine. As an urban magazine, TA had even described itself in terms of the cityscape. Its various sections were alleys and streets, and readers were invited to stroll down these. Walter Benjamin derives his concept of the flanuer from Charles Baudelaire, who locates this social figure somewhere between Edgar Allan Poe's man of the crowd and Adolf Glassbrenner's boy on the corner (173). Similarly, the figure of the artist in Iran occupies a liminal space between acquiescence to the regulatory regimes of the state, and co-optation by global capital flows. As both artist and art critic borrow and reinvent Benjamin/Baudelaire's flaneur for Tehran during a political crisis, both find this figure responding to some of the discursive dilemmas faced by intellectuals in the public and aesthetic spheres in Tehran.

The flaneur's liminality stands in stark contrast to Ave's notion of courage I discussed earlier. Though, of course, he is suggesting that the Iranian artist who challenges the status quo is brave, his discourse is still susceptible to the collective revolutionary identity associated with a more pedagogical (or, as Keshmirshekan puts it, "collective") national identity than the performative identities the young Iranian artists seem to espouse. Quoting Stuart Hall, Homi Bhabha, Michel Foucault, and Judith Butler, Keshmirshekan argues that the "notion of performativity has encouraged many Iranian cultural activists and artists to ponder the constitutive moments and modes of identity more seriously" ("Reclaiming Cultural Space" 149).

In his article, Sohrab Mahdavi, writing under his pseudonym of "Sidewalk," defines the term flaneur as "an urban post-industrial phenomenon," a quintessential urbanite whose "peripatetic exercise" is more important than any outcome or objective (Sidewalk n. pag.). Mahdavi's art criticism moves into socio-political commentary targeting both the state's regulatory regimes (its pastoral power of caring for the Iranian soul), and the late-capitalist power of "markets" (that tend to atomize civil society and the aesthetic sphere). Mahdavi argues that in a hyper-mediated society, "the citizen-subject-consumer is more than ever under the sway of powerful images ... circulated principally by corporate or statist forces, both of which strive to influence him in his isolation" (n. pag.) The duality of statist and corporate forces again suggests that Iranian artists are not just regulated by national strictures but also by transnational markets and culture economies. Their work is the product of tensions. Mahdavi goes on at length: Yet [Fayez's] flaneur is paradoxical--he comes at a time when the middle classes are passionately embracing political activism. Belonging ... to this amorphous social category, the Iranian artist found his true calling with the presidential election of June 2009. Having previously snubbed her nose at the electoral process, she ... came to the streets to claim her dues once the result of the elections was announced. This marked at once a form of reconciliation with the political sphere and a shift away from bourgeois atomism and isolationism. She suddenly realized how vulnerable and precarious her life was as she stood precipitously close to the gaping social divide. He saw that he could only find solace in collective bargaining, that happiness cannot be gained through an immersion in consumer goods. As such, it was after the 2009 elections that she, the Iranian artist and the middle class, tried to reach out to her fellow citizens. (Sidewalk n. pag.)

Mahdavi's brief reopening of the website in 2011 to post this piece underscores the importance of the aesthetic sphere in Iran. Even though it is posted in the Editorial section of the magazine, it is clearly an art review. Thus, Mahdavi felt it important enough to re-enter public debate and the public sphere through aesthetic and art criticism. This also allowed for a discussion of politics by other means. Building its political argument around Fayez's exploration of the flaneur as the figure of Iranian political and cultural identity, Mahdavi's review navigates the competing regulatory regimes that would either limit free artistic expression through the mechanism of the state or co-opt an Orientalized art of the oppressed into "Western" markets and discourses of art. The figure of the aesthetically engaged person walking the streets of the city in 2009 is both political and aesthetic. It is, I would argue, also a playful and performative counterpoint to Ave's portraits of courage discussed above. Unlike Ave's championing of a rigid notion of Iranian identity and courage, Mahdavi's view of the flaneur posits a more dynamic critique. (6) What TA's archive of articles suggests is that the discourse of Iranian art criticism is conscious of a multiplicity of audiences and a set of important discursive and political tensions. The website's writers and creators did not so much aim to resolve these tensions as to irritate them further, thereby encouraging discourse and activity, if not activism, in the public and aesthetic spheres.


(1) Tucker defines "aesthetic politics" in terms of how groups gain political self-realization and common cause through playful, parodic, and even pleasurable forms of artistic activism. According to Tucker, the "aesthetic sphere" is "a counter-rationalizing realm of pleasure, play, and creativity, characterized by influences as diverse as the practices of bohemian artists and Kantian and Nietzschean philosophy" (8). Building on Max Weber and Jurgen Habermas, Tucker argues that "a specific understanding of individual authenticity oriented toward particular experiences emerges" from the aesthetic sphere (8).

(2) Established in 1966 by Masoumeh Seyhoun, the gallery weathered the establishment of the TMoCA in the 1970s, and has remained open through the early revolutionary years and the Reform period of the late 1990s-early 2000s, and remains open today, even after the election of Ahmadinejad and the reestablishment of stricter review processes of gallery exhibitions. The reform period between 1997 and 2005 was particularly good for galleries like Seyhoun because, as Keshimershekan has noted, "Even private commercial galleries operated with more confidence" during this period ("Modern and Contemporary" 240).

(3) Examples of this kind of political allegory include Samad Behrangi's The Little Black Fish and, in film, Dariush Mehrjui's The Cow, which was a broad adaption of Gholam Hossein Saidi's village fiction.

(4) The novelist and short story writer Goli Taraghi even wrote a review of Ave's work for TA in October 2004. Her review of Ave's work gives some indication of the sort of counter-public TA instantiated--one that was culturally complex and included the Iranian diaspora.

(5) Many of TA's writers translated their own articles into English. However, others were translated by Sohrab Mahdavi or one among a key group of writers. This article by Ave was probably translated by Mahdavi and his team.

(6) Mahdavi informed me that Ave had wanted his critique of Moshiri to be expunged from the TA archive. Ave, to his credit, realized that he had, perhaps, overstated his critique of Moshiri. Mahdavi refused to expunge the TA archive of Ave's critique, viewing TA as a historical record (Personal interview).

Works Cited

The URLs provided for reflect web addresses prior to December 2014. Most of these pages cm still be accessed through the Internet Archive at Imps://web.anchive.orglwebl20141219092723lhttp:/ltehrunavenue.coml. This reflects the last web archive "snapshot" available.

Akhavan, Niki. Electronic Iran: The Cultural Politics of an Online Evolution. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2013.

Anonymous [Correspondent]. "The Little Gallery on Shah Avenue." Tehran Bureau. May 26, 2011. < 2011/05/modern-art-iran.html>.

Anonymous. 'Tehran Avenue's Closure." Interview. Skype. July 27, 2011.

Ave, Fereydoun. "Four Gallery Reviews for March 2009." Exhibition. February 2009. <>. Now available at < 20090226223546/http://www.>.

--. "In Need of Transfusion." Exhibition. October 2009. <>.

--. "Iran/Painting/Now." Exhibition. March 2009. <>.

--. 'Tests of Courage." Exhibition. December 2004. Now available at <>.

Azimi, Negar. "Fluffy Farhad," Bidoun 20. < azimi/>.

Balaghi, Shiva. "Iranian Visual Arts in 'The Century of Machinery, Speed, and the Atom': Rethinking Modernity." Picturing Iran: Art Society and Revolution. Ed Shiva Balaghi and Lynn Gumpert. London: I. B. Tauris, 2002. 21-38.

Benjamin, Walter. "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire." Trans. Hany Zohn. Illuminations: Essays end Reflections. Ed Hannah Arendt. NY: Schocken, 1968. 155-200.

Daftari, Fereshteh. "Another Modernism: An Iranian Perspective." Picturing Iran: Art Society and Revolution. Ed Shiva Balaghi and Lynn Gumpert. London: I. B. Tauris, 2002. 39-88.

--. "Redefining Modernism: Pluralist Art Before the 1979 Revolution." Iran Modern. Ed Fereshteh Daftari and Layla S. Diba. New Haven: Asia Society and Yale UP, 2013. 25-44.

Delzendeh, Siamak. "Shahr-e Hezar Galen [City of a Thousand Galleries]." Unpublished essay, January 2011. 1-7.

Farzin, Med a. "The Quest for Visions." Exhibition. December 2002. <>. Now available at < ticle.php?id=c99>.

Fayez, Aiyash. "The Illogical Blood of the Victim on the Gallows." Exhibition. July 2009. <>. Now available at <>.

Gonzalez, David "Keeping True to an Iranian Vision, Minus Big Money." Lms. September 17, 2014. <>.

Haeri, Rockny. "A Post-Historic Playground" Exhibition. November 2002. <>. Now available at < ticle.php?icfc370>.

Keshmirshekan, Hamid Contemporary Iranian Art: New Perspectives. London: Saqi, 2013.

--. "Modern and Contemporary Iranian Art: Developments and Challenges." Different Sames: New Perspectives on Contemporary Iranian Art. Ed Hossein Amirsadeghi. London: Thames and Hudson, 2009. 10-37.

--. "Reclaiming Cultural Space: The Artist's Peformativity vs. the State's Expectations in Contemporary Iran." Performing the Iranian State: Visual Culture and Representations of Iranian Identity. Ed Staci Gem Scheiwiller. London: Anthem P, 2013. 145-56.

Mahdavi, Sohrab. Personal Interview. New York. October 27, 2013.

--. "Re: History and Culture of" E-mail to the author. November 22, 2008.

Ross, Andrew. "The Fine Art of Regulation." The Phantom Public Sphere. Ed Brace Robins. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993. 257-68.

Samazadegan, Behrang. "The Secret of Runes." Exhibition. September 2002. <>. Now available at <>.

Sidewalk. "A Look at Ramblings of a Flaneur." Editorial. May 2011. <>. Now available at < 007>.

Sreberny-Mohammad, Annabelle and Ali Mohammad. Small Media, Big Revolution: Communication, Culture, and the Iranian Revolution. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1994.

Sreberny, Annabelle. "Thirty-Plus Years of the Iranian Revolution: Culture in Contestation." Cultural Revolution in Iran: Contemporary Popular Culture in the Islamic Republic. Eds. Annabelle Sreberny and Torfe Massoumeh. London: I. B. Tauris, 2013. 1-10.

--and Gholam Khiabany. Blogistan: The Internet and Politics in Iran. London: I. B. Tauris, 2010.

Talajooy, Saeed. "Guest Editor's Introduction: Beyzaie's Formation, Forms and Themes." Iranian Studies 46.5 (2013): 689-93.

Talattof, Kamran. The Politics of Writing in Iran. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 2000.

Taraghi, Goli. "Fereydoun Ave at the Silkroad." Exhibition. October 2004. <>. Now available at <>.

Tehran Avenue. <>. Now available at <>.

Tucker, Kenneth H., Jr. Workers of the World, Enjoy!: Aesthetic Politics from Revolutionary Syndicalism to the Global Justice Movement. Philadelphia, PA: Temple UP, 2010.

Warner, Michael. Publics and Counterpublics. Cambridge, MA: Zone Books, 2010.
COPYRIGHT 2015 American University in Cairo
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2015 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Elahi, Babak
Publication:Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:7IRAN
Date:Jan 1, 2015
Previous Article:The receding horizon: Iranian films and the overcoming of the of justice.
Next Article:Mythological Tuareg gods in Ibrahim al-Koni's work.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters