Modernism and Tradition in Iran
Bobak Etminani, MFA Thesis, California College of the Arts, 1991
As a painter I am only three years old, and as an artist I am six, for my artistic path began on a grey Tuesday in the winter of ’84 when I saw a luminous beauty in every tree that stood before me. But my birth certificate tells me I am 34, and it classifies me as a member of an Iranian generation who is old enough to have experienced both “before” and “after.” But not too old to have said all that he could say. And not too young to have missed all that has been said. I am a member of an Iranian generation that is desperately seeking an honest identity; because, the-generation-before has retreated into its memories, and the-generation-after is growing up in a re-defined reality, either in Iran or in Exile. I am also a member of an Iranian generation that has borne the most casualties in war and in jail. Thus I write to reach those wandering spirits of a generation with whom I share the same fate.
I am an artist who has been educated in the West, but, his paintings, feelings and thoughts are pointing more and more to the East. This is a tour through my ideas about modernism and tradition in Iran, and along the way I shall pay special attention to the significance of the Islamic Revolution which happened in 1979. I attempt to build up an argument whose bottom line says that modernism in Iran is not to play western tunes; it is but to create an active space between the concept of avant-garde and an Iranian tradition. My vision seeks unity between the two opposites of modernism and tradition. But, which modernism and what tradition? Modernism as a prepackaged and imported western product, like a bottle of diet coke, or as a need to expand into a new space for the sake of growth? And, tradition as a frozen chunk of unchangeable past, or as a rich soil from which to grow into a fruitful future?
What happened to Iran-under-the-Shah was an imposed modernization upon a society whose culture and tradition had been woven differently. It was a vulgar attempt to transplant a foreign part into a domestic body. Naturally, the body reacted; and, it reacted in a peculiar way by dismembering its foreign part with the help of a religious sword. If Europe was reborn into the modern age by rebelling against religion in the early fifteenth century, Iran escaped to Middle Ages from the Shah’s westernization in the late twentieth century. Here lies the historic significance of our strange metamorphosis, of this sudden decapitation of a rotten present in order to revive a glorious past.
It is true that we killed a beast, but it is also true that we gave birth to a heavy and hungry dinosaur who—on the way to his origin—attacked, ripped, and swallowed whatever confronted him, so frantically, as an act of survival, and in the name of God. Thus, we can no longer talk the way we did under the Shah. That space has gone. It was ploughed away by an Islamic revolt. And even when it did exist, it was nothing but a ridiculous mimicry of the commercial West, like a western pollution in the silence of the East. And now that the silence is broken, I should like to say shame on me if I lose myself again, this time as an echo in the deep cave of tradition.
Now is perhaps the most exciting time for us, because, the dinosaur on his backward journey has created two vital circumstances for a true birth: first, he has wounded us deeply—as deep as he could—with a broken piece of a magical mirror in which we can see both the inside and the outside of ourselves. And second, he has ploughed and fertilized a field by crawling across it, a field in which we can plant—for the first time—some seeds with the hope of a peaceful future, even if it were for the sake of our own salvation.
There is indeed a unique situation before us, perhaps the most significant turn in our modern history. Because, we have met the beast in modernism, the mad dog which bit us, and robbed us, and then humiliated us by pissing on our culture and tradition, on our pride and dignity. And, we have re-met the dinosaur in tradition, the cold-blooded reptile from the depth of time and space, from a territory that is so dense and dark that even the sun itself cannot cut through it. And, we have lived the ’80s both in the coffin of the beast and the cradle of the dinosaur. And, we have lived the ’80s in war, jail, and exile. Now what? Now that we are a mixture of the beast and the dinosaur, where can we go to find peace, even if it were for the sake of our own sanity? We have no choice but to find unity within our individual selves between modernism and tradition. Not between the beast and the dinosaur, between a need to expand into a new space in order to grow and a ground to grow from.
There is indeed a unique situation before us. Fate has crystallized its shiny seeds under its own unbearable pressure. But, we can only find them in that magical mirror with which we have been deeply wounded. And, in order to look for them we must first take the pieces of glass out of our wounds and clean them with our bear hands, and it hurts. And the more we clean the more we see, and the more we see the more it hurts. Must birth always pass through a gate of pain?