By Liz Taddonio
“Art is always and everywhere the secret confession, and at the same time the immortal movement of its time.” – Karl Marx
It’s the end of September in Kati Lustyik’s Global Flow of Information class, and none of her students have anticipated playing a silent game of word association with themselves. Yet as Professor Farshad Aminian sits at the front of the room — his demeanor friendly though not overtly in-your-face—he has, whether he meant to or not, challenged them to do exactly that.
A week prior to the class, the students were asked to read multiple reports on both Iranian President Ahmadinejad and United States President Bush’s addresses to the United Nations. As they turned in their papers, Lustyik announces that Aminian would take the floor as the guest speaker.
The professor approaches the class with a good sense of humor, handing out outlines of his topic and introducing himself with his credentials. Aminian is in his first semester teaching cinema and photography at Ithaca College. Previously, he graduated from the Southern Illinois University Carbondale and lived in both Utah and Illinois.
He smiles and tells the students, first of all, that he is laid back. He tells them he probably likes some of the same music as they do and said if he weren’t in the classroom setting he’d probably offer to buy them a drink before starting a conversation.
Aminian is from Iran, and has lived in the United States for the last 10 years. His topic is the United States’s influence on the cultural consumption in Iran. His paper consists of lists of popular Western artists there. He tells stories of his nieces and nephews asking him to bring Western media to them. Names like Norah Jones, Jennifer Lopez, Julia Roberts, Arnold Schwartzenegger and Madonna are on the page. Here is where students begin the word association game.
Iran. Muslim. Nuclear testing. Ayatollah. Head scarves.
Pop culture. Television. MTV. Madonna. Hollywood. Celebrity.
It’s a stretch, however, to combine the two concepts. Iran. Madonna. Not what we expect. But why?
I was a student in this class, forced to reflect on what this professor was putting in front of me. The people of a country whose leader was in direct opposition to my own – I had just written how President Ahmadinejad believed certain Western nations dominated the U.N – actually was willing to listen to pop music? I could go to Iran and listen to Madonna? The exercise had exposed the underlying ignorance in the thought process – it was shocking to realize that a country of millions each held individual beliefs, some in opposition to that of the government. It was also fascinating to note just how much power pop culture has.
Pop culture creates a sphere of enjoyment. It is meant to be consumed; it’s created with mass appeal in mind. Therefore, it should not come as a shock that it has the potential to cross cultures. Whether you’re a fan of Madonna or not is irrelevant in this context – it’s not a matter of taste, but a matter of cultural exchange.
Aminian is the first to caution against downplaying the power of music, art and film as it crosses cultural boundaries. Though his nieces and nephews may not be interested in the most rebellious artists, they have a definite interest in another culture.
“Any forms of music could be helpful to bring the cultural gaps closer and if used toward mutual understanding and humanization,” he said.
Madonna, thus, provides a link between two people who, in regards to politics, have learned that the other is the enemy. It is a definite problem, however, when this cultural exchange is not a two way street.
Dr. Lucian Stone, a professor of philosophy with a concentration in Islamic and Persian studies at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, corresponded with myself and Aminian via e-mail in order to create a dialogue on the subject of popular culture in Iran. Stone said that this humanization of those who are already human overlooks many facts about diversity and in essence tends to counteract its good intentions.
“It has become cliché in the Western media to portray Iran as neatly divided between the government and Iranian youths who are desperate to adopt the Western model of democratic freedom,” Stone said. “The media’s ‘good intentions’ of providing demonstrative proof to Western/American audiences that Iranians are not pure evil amounts to showing that ‘they are just like us.’”
Stone pointed out that it’s tempting to believe that difference creates the boundary of good vs. bad. In fact, the class was challenged with the simple question of whether Westernization of Iran youth – the spread of pop culture, Madonna, and Norah Jones – was good or bad. It’s not as simple as it seems.
“I think the first step we all need to take toward true understanding is the avoidance of such bifurcations,” Stone said. “In forcing human reality, which is a complex and multifarious, into our pre-conceived epistemic devices, we risk doing violence to actual people for the sake of our own convenience.”
Aminian suggested that the Iranian interest in American popular culture, music, art and film stemmed from the freedoms many Western artists exert in their work. He quoted the song “Anthem for the Year 2000” by SilverChair; “We are the youth/we’ll take your fascism away.”
“This is the true spirit of true music, where borders are non-existent and the language is similar to the people around the globe whether it be Iranians, Americans, Indians or Africans,” he said.
Aminian explained that in the traditional culture of Iran, much of the art, music and film is rooted in the country’s conservatism. It is dissimilar to Western culture in that it is not revealing of bodies or rebellious ideas, but reflects the depression of the country throughout history.
“We grew up in a culture rooted in hidden layers of sadness. After we converted to Islam, our culture is rooted in concealing,” Aminian said. “Western culture is different – when you grow up in such a culture of oppression and restriction, you will be attracted to a culture that is based on revelation (for example compare the Greek art and Safavid dynasty art.”
The United States acts as the Other – the fast paced dance and rhythmic, catchy music is hard to ignore and interesting to those not normally exposed to it.
In effect, this is why the question of difference being good or bad is an arbitrary one. Madonna pushes boundaries that Americans take for granted. As this dialogue continued, it became the opportunity to reflect not only on the United States’ lack of imported culture, but also on the culture we are allowing to be exported. The kind of dialogue encouraged is that of sex, violence, biases and governmental distrust.
One man’s pop cultural jargon is another man’s opportunity to experience something new, exciting and different.
There is no problem in the actual act of cultural exchange, other than the fact that it’s so obviously one-sided. The ignorance of the United States to the opinions and culture of a nation they’ve been cautioned to distrust cannot be blamed simply on fear. Iranians have their own culture but are also open to experiencing ours despite President Ahmadinejad’s obvious distrust of President Bush and the United States’ foreign policy. They have learned to make room and take it in. The blame falls on the eyes and ears of those who are not willing to learn. It falls on that notion of good vs. bad and the assumption that in a global cultural exchange there is a right and wrong.
“Anecdotal evidence of individual Iranians admiring U.S. pop culture, for example, is frequently understood as a sign of hope that there are some Iranians who are not so distant, strange or other, and, perhaps, this fact could be a springboard to further cultural exchange,” Stone said. “I suppose I am less optimistic in this regard for many reasons. Most notably among these reasons is the sheer fact that there is no true exchange taking place. Where are the equivalent examples of Americans brandishing icons of Iranian culture, for example?”
This is true. After the Islamic revolution of 1979, Iranian cinema has developed a strong reputation in film schools as one of the most important new movements in cinema. Iranians can see it as “a form of cultural hybridity,” writes William Over in a 2001 article published in “Passages: Interdisciplinary Journal of Global Studies.” Iran hosts the Fajr International Film Festival every year in the city of Tehran. From the festival’s Web site, fajrfestibal.ir: “Organized since 1982 by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance in February every year, on the anniversary of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, Fajr International Film Festival is the most important film event in the country and presents not only the cream of the local cinematic productions but also offers a representative selection of films from all over the world. In fact Fajr Festival functions as a bridge between film communities from the East and West.” There are a plethora of innovative filmmakers in Iran, yet why hasn’t American culture taken an interest in them?
Aminian, who will teach a class in New Iranian Cinema next semester, found this inequality in cultural power to be the foremost problem in globalization.
“Domination of one kind over another without equal opportunity/understanding due to the capital/power advantages in a form of cultural hegemony is what needs to be addressed while debating this particular discourse,” he said.
In the end, the silent games of word associations revealed to me, one particular student of many, how little I knew. Stone noted Edward Said, a professor at Columbia University, who argued that the representations of the Orient are far more revealing about those doing the representations than those being represented.
What does the lack of imported culture reveal about us?
Liz Taddonio is a junior culture and communication major who loves Iranian trance rock. Email here at etaddon1[at]ithaca.edu.