((Un)doing) Art Criticism in Iran

Excerpts from an address delivered at the panel Critics & Criticism: Reflections on Iranian Contemporary Art.


Art criticism in Iran (at least in its modern sense) is tied to a historical lineage of encounters with the outside, namely the (relatively more) liberal outsides of the West. This relationship to the outside can be traced both in the long-standing tradition of translation and also by the early critics who started establishing a verbal engagement with aesthetic practices once their studies abroad were finished. To further tie criticism to the outside, I’d say that critique, after all, is a legacy of Enlightenment and played an integral role in creating the liberal subject in the 18th century. This we know of course from Michel Foucault’s seminal essay “What is Critique?” from 1978. Therefore, art criticism as a companion to modern and contemporary art practice in Iran should be considered as part and parcel of a larger process of so-called modernization.

That is why I’d suggest that an analysis of Iranian contemporary art in general and art criticism in particular needs to register the links that can be drawn between what’s going on inside the country and what we’d refer to as international or global contemporary art. Iranian contemporary art cannot be discussed in isolation and needs to be positioned in relation to Contemporary Art as such, with capital C and capital A and, I’d dare to say, almost entirely irrespectful of local or contextual specificities. This is to, again, emphasize that the so called local and contextual is, as pointed out before, in a constantly inflecting relationship to its greater outdoors. Imagine, if you will, Contemporary Art as such and as itself the context, the global context.

That is what you’d encounter if you visit, for example, contemporaryartdaily.com from wherever in the world you might be based in. This suggestion is also in a way against a particular ideology of Contemporary Art which, I think, claims that there are no overarching rules or protocols that define contemporary art. This ideology insists on indeterminacy and heterogeneity, as if globalization doesn’t come with its own codes of conduct and as if global nodes are connected to each other under equal circumstances. Addressing Iranian contemporary art in relation to global contemporary art would, however, point out many problems, questions and confusions that complicate a sense of smoothly distributed access, a complication that is simultaneously shared internationally and among those who find themselves in some sort of orientation toward the art world, whether as artists, writers, curators or scholars. The art world here is that which is always on the other side, the outside.

[1] One consequence of this attitude is explicitly political. To put it simply, we need to question what it actually means to speak of critique and criticism in the context of a so-called developing country when major neoliberal institutions that used to champion the logics of globalization are now facing their pitfalls, both across Europe and more pointedly in North America? However, what’s important to notice is that this inquiry is simultaneously suspicious of a move to a local scale where matters are discussed exclusively in the sense of a very particular national compound. What is crucial about this particularity in terms of the Iranian condition is its relatively monoracial and  monoethnic setup. Or, more importantly, its denial and non-acknowledgement of its embedded alienness. In other words, the relationship to the outside is both relative (between Iran, for instance, and the liberal West) and internally driven (as it is more consciously in the West). Meaning that the ultimate goal of making some sort of kin or, at least, conscious relationship to the outside is to drag forward the internally alien entity. Whether a national or racial one or not, this entity isn’t to be dropped or done away with while it might not lead to any sort of enablement if addressed initially and in itself… It should therefore be wrestled with as the centerpiece of a larger process of figuring out how to navigate across the different inflections of making relationships with the outside. The internal matter might feel prior. But this priority is in fact an inflection of a sense of lagging behind, that is, coming before… But if it follows the outside, the latter phase, it means that we’re doing something political with time, we’re making it possible for a situation where “the last word… comes first,” as Deleuze put it once. Instead of getting locked up in the retroactive embodiment of an introverted entity which comes late and is left behind and is only sublated to a state of priority in an ultimately conservative concentration on ethnonationalism, for instance, we should look forward to bringing about a historical short-circuiting proactively. This is to engage with global politics beyond a sense of geopolitical schemes, and thusly attend to critique in a more actually embedded sense. This can be understood, I’d suggest only in passing, as an ethnofuturist engagement with chronopolitics which, although irrelevant to our discussion here, comes with its own caveats…

[2] This (chrono)political aspect of critical practice makes it clear that this is simultaneously a question of different institutional formations, and this is the second consequence that follows a reorientation of the underlying relationships of criticism. Institutional settings, of course, produce their corresponding institutional figures. Lacking institutions, then, leave a gap unfulfilled by its demanding figures. In a short essay from some five years ago, the art critic and regular contributor to frieze magazine Sam Thorne pointed out the almost always “hyphenated” figure of the art critic: the artist-critic, curator-critic, gallerist-critic, theorist-critic, scholar-critic, historian-critic and so forth. So who is the critic? What are the institutional intersections that enable criticality by letting the figure of the critic basically make a living off practicing criticism? Speaking of institutional relations, we should remember that for quite a long time, there has been a wide gap between private commercial galleries and state-funded public institutions in Iran. But this gap is being bridged these days by a handful of emerging non-profit institutions that are founded in often large scales on the grounds of the private sector. (An example would be the Pejman Foundation that after almost two years of securing its presence in the art scene by some sort of parasitic strategy of branding, finally opened its own major exhibition space in last December in the building of an abandoned beer factory from the pre-1979 years. The inaugurating exhibition was also a solo show by the French-Algerian artist Neil Beloufa who was also commissioned to produce new works for his exhibition at Pejman Foundation.) So, at the more recent end of the ongoing process of establishing relationships to the outside, a more viable ingredient of the Iranian art scene seems to allude to potentials for a range of institutional practice rather than to a critique of institutions or their productions.

On this note, I’d like to evoke a 2005 essay by the theorist and artist Andrea Fraser where she argued for a move from institutional critique, or a critique of institutions, to an institution of critique, to settings that enable and hold together discourses of criticality. I think, the more important task, then, which is a task of the future and its changing sociopolitical and cultural climates, is to situate criticism in a larger landscape and to ask how can we nourish and foster forums, platforms and ultimately institutions that can somehow provide the “conditions of possibility” for critical discourse?