“Given how perilously pitched on the abyss of cliche this work already is, the artist would be wise to keep a lower personal profile.”
This damning review of Shirin Neshat’s new exhibition in Washington DC, by Philip Kennicott, the art and architecture critic of Washington Post, marks a decisive break from the usual adulations of her work over the last three decades by a sizable majority of European and North American art critics.
How fair is that assessment?
The occasion for this harsh critical judgement is a major exhibition of Neshat’s work at Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC, which has of course received much more sedate (if not blase) reviews as well.
Kennicott admits: “It’s painful to say that, because Neshat’s early work is so successful.”
The key question, which Kennicott does not address, is in what ways was it “so successful then”, and so “on the abyss of cliche” now?
When history outlives art
Neshat’s rise to global recognition dates back to the early 1990s, when with an uncanny ability she began capturing the spirit of her age with creatively wedding some of the dominant media representations of the revolutionary decades of the 1970s-1980s in her homeland and raising them to magnificent visual and aesthetic abstractions.
From the very beginning of her work, Neshat has been pulled and pushed into two opposite but ultimately corroborating directions by her admirers and detractors. While her admirers have praised her in terms of an artist in exile challenging the masculinist narrative of her homeland, her detractors have denounced her for self-exoticisation, Orientalism, and aesthetically fetishising the use of the veil by some Muslim woman.
Encouraged by her gallerist’s penchant for quick commercial success, she has been instrumental in corroborating the reading of her admirers and ignoring her detractors.
What both her admirers and detractors have missed, however … is the metahistory of her aesthetics placed far beyond these two vacuous readings of her work.
What both her admirers and detractors have missed, however, and I have spent decades articulating, is the metahistory of her aesthetics placed far beyond these two vacuous readings of her work.
The critical task of reading Neshat has been to tease out its aesthetics and metaphysics, bypassing her ferocious commercialisation by her sales handlers.
But the clueless curatorial treatment of her work have either consistently left it at a mute “symbolic” level or else submitted it to the boring and blase commentaries on contemporary Iranian history – and here, alas, Neshat’s own political commentaries have aided in that unfortunate degeneration.
Metaphor of exile
The metaphor of exile, to which Neshat has been fatally attracted, is a double-edged sword. It may make for a commercially profitable market of self-victimisation that in the age of women’s rights being abused at the service of imperial warfare can in fact cater to lucrative markets. But it also paints you into a corner from which you can scarce run away.
The fatal mistake of the current Hirshhorn exhibition is to bring to one final banal summation this misreading of Neshat’s work as “historical”, thus fatally compromising its astounding metahistorical power, a fact milked to exhaustion by her aggressive commodification by her gallerist as well as by cliche-ridden curatorial cluelessness.
When Neshat was taking and exhibiting these photos of veiled women sporting guns and poetry in the 1990s, those women were integral to a massive revolutionary uprising in Iran. Today, similar (but not identical) pictures are splashed all over the media representing the ISIL women warriors, part of a band of mercenary murderers determined to put an end to the rise of Arab and Muslim revolutions.
History can and will be cruel to artists. The question is whether there is anything enduringly redeeming in a work of contemporary art? The thrust of what was miraculously enduring in Neshat’s work was consistently and decidedly sold out to the corporate clientele that her gallerist targeted and to their expectations of Neshat’s work the journalist art critic hurriedly contributed.
Categorically compromised in this midst was the astonishing power of her work to picture a much repressed ocularcentric theology, a metaphysics of sublime visuality.
I have had occasions rightly to compare her to Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keeffe precisely for having, like them, “transcended their time by seeing through and sublating the quintessence of their world”. But the instance she turned to reflect on the Egyptian and Arab revolutions, I have noted how her entrapment within a commodified branding has forced her art outside the metaphysics of its unprecedented power and audacity.
The time and timber of our history are changing fast, and the sense of the contemporary is now entirely precarious. The larger frame of contemporary art is the speedily changing contemporary realities in search of imaginatively transcending themselves.
Contemporary art is, well, contemporary and thus time-sensitive and therefore its continued relevance is entirely contingent on a much deeper sense of sublimity and aesthetics that patron gallerist, careerist curators, and impatient art critics are collectively willing to accommodate in the interest of the abiding commercial success.
If contemporary art does not place itself in the crosscurrents of turbulent times and contribute anything to the creative and critical defiance of the terror of people’s plight, it will produce and consume itself into nullity. Degenerative commodification demanded by the power of the whimsical market is the plague of contemporary art, making it old and outdated the second it is sold to the highest bidder.
From colourful biennales to careerist curators to market-crazed gallerists to fame-hungry artists the widening gyre of contemporary art can thus spin around itself in a closed-circuited practice in nullity.
Between the terror of political repression and censorship that artists like Shirin Neshat ordinarily face in their homeland and the trap and trappings of tyrannous commercialisation in the North American and Western European art market, the power of the latter is in fact infinitely more amorphous and treacherous. The appeal of the commercial success has proved to be positively diabolic and far more sinister than the trickeries of the old Mephistopheles.
Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Study and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.