Article 2 of the constitution of Islamic Republic of Iran states, “The Islamic Republic is a system based on belief in…cultural independence.” This clause goes on to exalt the “sciences and arts [as] the most advanced results of human experience.” The very next article of the charter calls for “a favorable environment for the growth of moral virtues based on faith and piety and the struggle against all forms of vice and corruption.” Key to this endeavor is the need to raise “public awareness in all areas, through the proper use of the press, mass media and other means” and to strengthen “the spirit of inquiry, investigation and innovation in all areas of science, technology and culture, as well as Islamic studies, by establishing research centers and encouraging researchers.”
The tension between “cultural independence” and “moral virtues” in the Islamic Republic’s founding document has played out in fascinating ways in the three decades since the 1979 revolution. On the one hand, the state put in place organizations and funding for an “Islamic cinema.” While some filmmakers who worked within this system bolstered the government’s views — notably with the “holy defense cinema” of the Iran-Iraq war — others shot high-minded dramas, light comedies or even feature films leveling criticism at the post-revolutionary state itself. Directors worked around and against the system of censorship — sometimes creating anachronistic films, other times focusing on broader humanistic motifs. By the 1990s, Iranian film was hailed as a major ouevre of world cinema — and screenings of Iranian movies migrated from art houses to cineplexes across the United States.
There are divergent “reformist” and “conservative” views of the arts and literature within the state. A former minister of culture and Islamic guidance, President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) took an expansive view: During his tenure, more and more novels, including translations from world literature, appeared in Iranian bookshops. Western film critics and film festival organizers attended the Fajr Film Festival, further encouraging the global distribution of Iranian cinema. The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art mounted major exhibitions and symposia on modern Iranian and Western art. Boosted by the booming art market of Dubai, Iranian art began to fetch high prices. Scholars and curators took note — and museums and galleries throughout Europe and the US have regularly shown Iranian art. Meanwhile, exiled Iranian artists gained access to Tehran’s museums and galleries. Under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the cultural arena is in retrenchment. Government control is manifested through a system of permits. Increasingly, books are simply not permitted to be published; films not permitted to be made or shown. Still, the state continues to be mindful of the international focus on Iranian cultural production. In February 2009, the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art hosted the first Fajr International Visual Arts Festival.
If art is a window upon society, the past three decades of Iranian arts suggest that the state’s efforts to impose a rigidly defined Islam upon society have engendered lively debate rather than complaisant conformity. The degree to which the Islamic Republic respects “independence” or enforces “moral virtues” in the cultural sphere will continue to reflect the contest for political power in Iran.