Body Aesthetics and Protest Art in Contemporary Iran

Inspired by recent events in Iran, this paper looks at the triangulation of political protest with the appreciation of aesthetics and the body. Since the protested election of 2009, echoed in the 2013 presidential election, a new breed of artistic creativity is emerging out of Iranian public discourse that agitates political authority, while articulating a critical attention to the body. Although taking to the street and putting oneself before regimes of power and public spectators continues to be the most recognizable form of dissent, the protest art that emerged from the Iranian Green Movement has ratified the possibility of engagement with politics on local and transnational scales. While visual representations have long been deployed as propaganda in favor of particular politics, the emerging aesthetics of protest art in contemporary Iranian political stage illustrates a shift in social engagement on mass scale. What began as the production of “color-coded” campaigns of recent years in Iran (e.g. the green movement, the purple vote) has simultaneously permeated into an outpouring of artistic innovations for political mobilization, inseparable from the visceral experiences and convictions of the public, thus providing empirical evidence on “how visual forms of artistic expressions create new modes of protest.”
More than a mere banner for a political campaign, the incorporation of “taste” and “beauty”, which dominates contemporary public discourse, brings to light the centrality of human agency as creative, imaginative, and affective subjects on the sociopolitical stage in Iran. Protest art enables political engagement to permeate beyond an opposition to the State. Crossing over boundaries of streets and cyberspace, the Iranian Green art of protest evokes nuances about citizenship and artistic interrogation. The Iranian Green art, not only offers a visual outlet for questioning the legitimacy of the ruling power, it also creates a visual context for the intersection of protest, artistic intrigue and the body, thus challenging normative ideals about the protester as trespassing figure across a geography of the desire for hope and change.
Drawing from ethnographic works of the past four years, this paper sketches the imaginative repertoire of political participation across these artistic productions. Here, I argue that creative forms of political engagement have transformed Iranian cultural vernacular through articulation of body art and body as art.