The Art of the Iranian Revolution

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:52

    Of course, in many ways successful revolutions are harder on their revolutionary leaders than failed ones. Failed revolutions produce good myths and martyrs, and prove the ardency of core believers. Successful ones put those faithful followers in the uncomfortable position of becoming a political oxymoron: revolutionary bureaucrats. And it is axiomatic that the next revolution begins the instant this one succeeds?that every successful revolution comes into power carrying the seeds of its own counterrevolution.

    The Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic revolution was one of the most startlingly successful ones of the later 20th century. Maintaining his rigid Shiite theocracy proved more difficult after his death. In retrospect, the astonishing outpouring of grief at his funeral in 1989 may have been the last mass demonstration of his revolution. His successor Ali Khameini instantly began quiet and very gradual reforms. Iranians have been voting the mullahs out of Parliament ever since. The 1997 election of moderate Muhammad Khatami as president (second in power to the supreme religious-and-political leadership of Khameini) laid the groundwork for this weekend's reformist victory at the polls. Iran still doesn't sound like anywhere I'd want to live?dissenting journalists still have a bad way of vanishing?but as the current issue of The Economist puts it with atypical optimism, "Now, three years on, the issue is no longer whether or not there should be reform at all, but how deep-cutting and far-ranging that reform should be."

    How did Khomeini mobilize the Iranian masses to revolutionary and religious fervor in the first place? How did he get the average Iranian to stick with his ultra-rigid regime? A beautiful new book by a pair of New York professors suggests that it was at least partly due to the ingenious use of graphic arts. Staging a Revolution: The Art of Persuasion in the Islamic Republic of Iran (NYU Press) is a bit of an oxymoron itself: a coffee-table book by academics. It's a big, glossy book of gorgeous full-color art, featuring a somewhat overly enthusiastic design that imperfectly recalls the early-90s heydays of MIT Press and Zone Books, when they were producing scholarly books that were as pretty as they were smart. Coauthors Peter Chelkowski (NYU) and Hamid Dabashi (Columbia) have done a great job of assembling a rich cache of images, from revolutionary posters, banners and graffiti to postrevolutionary banknotes, postage stamps and schoolbooks. There's also a chapter on Iranian cinema, but I'll leave that to Godfrey Cheshire.

    Typically in a coffee-table book the text is just something that holds the pictures apart. Chelkowski and Dabashi use the opportunity to try to teach you some things?a lot of things?about Iran and Islam. How unfortunate, then, that they often prove that the only writing duller and stiffer than academic writing is the writing of two academics. They almost force you to treat this like any other big art book?as a book to look at, but not to read. To be fair, the heaviest sledding comes in the beginning, where they're laying down their theoretical and historical foundations. If you persevere, you'll find they lighten up in later chapters.

    And there is a lot to learn here. One grand thesis is that Khomeini et al. were able to rouse to and sustain the passion of the masses at such heights by cleverly adapting existing political and religious traditions: specifically, melding a 20th-century history of anti-imperialist feelings against the Shahs and their Western friends with the much longer, but equally repressed, tradition of massive demonstrations on Shiite holy days. That is, what looked to Americans like just a bunch of ignorant towelhead fanatics had deep cultural and historical roots. "The 'revolution' itself was in effect the ultimate outcome of a series of successfully organized and staged demonstrations," the authors write, that "increasingly assumed the modality and processional power of religious rituals practiced to perfection by generations of Shi'i Iranians."

    It's important to remember that Shiism is in effect the underdog wing of Islam, founded on a mythology of martyrdom and opposition to the Sunni branch. The central story of Shiism is the martyrdom of Hussein on the plain of Karbala at the hands of the evil caliph Yazid on the 10th day of the month of Muharram in the year 680. Every year, Iranian Shiites commemorate the day with massive processions, marked by self-flagellation and symbolized by the imprint of a bloody hand. One gets the sense here that even more than Christians, with their central image of the cross, these are people whose defining myths are all about suffering, death and betrayal.

    The Khomeini revolution commandeered the huge Muharram processions and channeled them into giant political demonstrations against the Shah, the latter-day incarnation of Yazid. The symbol of the bloody hand, appearing in posters, on graffitoed walls, held up by the thousands by the marchers in these procession/demonstrations, easily stood for both religious and revolutionary martyrdom. And of course co-opting the holy act of martyrdom itself, the self-sacrifice that guarantees one a place in paradise, would figure centrally in Iran's sea-of-humanity strategy in its long war with Iraq. ("Those in the vanguard [of demonstrations], who were totally ready for martyrdom, would wear symbolic burial shrouds to show their willingness to sacrifice their lives.")

    Khomeini's revolutionaries made genius?if sometimes downright bizarre?use of existing traditions in many other ways. On the weird end, the book reproduces a religious image of the Imam that portrays him exactly as a Renaissance Virgin Mary in heaven, complete with the flowing white robes and cherubs?only also with his famous beard and scowl. And I was surprised to learn that the Arabic writing that appears all over the posters and banknotes and postage stamps reproduced in this book was used purely for its symbolic associations with ancient Islam: Arabic is as indecipherable to most modern Iranians as Latin is to most Americans, and is used for the same sort of e-pluribus-unum incantatory hoodoo effect.

    The images reproduced here argue convincingly on their own that the Khomeini revolution and regime generated some of the most striking and powerful political art of the 20th century. It's a bit hard to say that, since so much of it is directed against Americans, but there you go. The evil stars and stripes appear everywhere?as a viper to be crushed, or draping coffins floating from a sinking U.S. warship, or as an Uncle Sam top hat worn by a skeleton; in one clever drawing, the stripes become hangmen's nooses. Blood is a disturbingly recurrent symbol as well?those bloody palm prints, big drops of it raining from giant bayonets, gushers of it, rivers of it, bloodred skies. I don't know that the art of any other modern revolutionary movement has so glorified its own deadly violence and sheer bloodiness.

    The posterists, political cartoonists and mural painters of Iran made brilliant use of the broadest range of graphic styles. There are crude cartoons, Weimar-style photo-montages, stark stencil images, lush painterly colors, Soviet-style heroic realism, Roman Catholic-style holy card images, children's drawings. Through all the shifting styles, two genres of figures reappear over and over: the Imam himself, saintly, sometimes brooding, sometimes rather blasphemously godlike in his glory; and the revolutionary soldier-martyr, happily tossing himself into the jaws of death. The latter is often wearing somewhere on his person an image of the former, doubling the emotional impact.

    You begin to understand how an entire generation were joyfully slaughtered hurling themselves against Saddam's tanks. These are fascinating images. Maybe in a book like this any text would pale in comparison with such pictures.

    Afterwords As for text having to stand up to striking images?or having to strike out against images that stand up?I'm thinking that the current issue of Gear comes closer than any previously to achieving a mix of beautiful babes, new gadgets and intelligent articles that make it more like a grownup men's magazine of a GQ or Vanity Fair nature than the boys' stuff in Details or Maxim. Not very much more, mind you, but still, it's a minor tragedy that no one is going to notice, because no one is going to get past the controversy over teenage covergirl Jessica Biel and her tits. They're great tits, magnificent tits, and the rest of her's not bad either. Tits is definitely one thing, or is it two things, you look to Gear to provide. But the goofy uproar over whether an Aaron-Spelling-tv-empire nymphette should, legally or morally, appear in her underwear in Gear is, not to get too Freudianly mixed-metaphor here, a mountainous molehill that obscures some pretty good writing in the same issue. (And besides, haven't we been here before? Wasn't it just yesterday that the Sabrina kid pulled the same stunt?) (And when can we look forward to Meadow doing it?) (But losing a few first, please?)

    For instance, there are two pretty good sports stories here. One's on the Rae Carruth murder case, not something I'd usually be interested in, suggesting that the victim wasn't totally an innocent victim, having been a topless dancer and all, and that a drug deal may have been involved. The other's an evergreen and no-brainer, but a likable one: Frank Gannon on the 10 greatest prizefights of the 20th century. It starts with the wild Dempsey-Firpo brawl of 1923, goes up through the thrilla in Manilla and ends, pointedly, in 1981, with Leonard vs. Hearns. Gannon's point being, as the subhed says, "The Lewis-Holyfield debacle confirmed it: boxing is in the toilet."

    More seriously, longtime AIDS contrarian Celia Farber drops another one of her periodic bombshells here, in a feature arguing that the vaulted AIDS "drug cocktail" comprised of protease inhibitors, AZT etc. with which patients have been told to bomb themselves for the last several years may be killing some number of users. The treatment may help AIDS patients who are already far along in their illnesses, the article contends, but it's being foisted on the entire HIV-positive population by the government and, this won't surprise you, drug companies. It's in that larger population that the cocktail is causing fatal strokes, deformities and paralysis. "There is absolutely no question whatsoever that protease inhibitors have helped people," AmFAR cofounder Joseph Sonnabend tells Farber. "But they've probably hurt more people than they've helped." This is not news inside ACT UP circles, but in an overtly het guy's magazine like Gear it's at least as much an eye-opener as Biel's spread. Or should be.

    If you'd forgotten there for a while that Salon and Slate are still online, Salon's publicity machine has been set on high the last few weeks to remind you?dragging Slate's Michael Kinsley along in his role as straight man and clueless fall guy to Salon's publicity-hounding honcho David Talbot. First Dan Savage handed Salon a nice bounce with that doorknob-licking story a few weeks ago. The press continues, ridiculously, to play it negatively, but what a lot of press it's gotten.

    Then the Sunday Boston Globe (Feb. 13) ran a front-page bj of Salon by Sam Allis, calling David Talbot the Tina Brown of the new decade and not meaning it ironically, and spouting nonsense like: "Talbot's house of buzz has cooked up a daily gumbo of news and opinion, arguably hotter than anything on the Internet. Anchored by outstanding cultural coverage, it presents a sexed, edgy confection that attracts readers like moths to a back porch light." Please.

    It was Salon's claim that it had reached 3.4 million viewers during the month of last December?a giant leap over previous figures?that rekindled the old pissing match with Kinsley, whose monthly figures tend to hover around a million. Kinsley suggested Salon was cooking the numbers; Salon replied he was merely jealous of their "buzz." The New York Post last week quoted Kinsley as snapping back: "That's a lot of crap. We get plenty of buzz without whoring after it." Talbot then went mean?and funny?saying that Kinsley "has always been kept by rich people... He was the house pet of Marty Peretz [owner of The New Republic] and now he's Bill Gates' house pet." (Howie Kurtz picked up on the sniping in this Monday's Washington Post, and got Talbot to admit that maybe he'd been a tad harsh.)

    And then this Sunday's Times Magazine weighs in, giving Talbot yet another spin with an admiring portrait by Helen Thorpe. (Talbot's sister Margaret writes for the magazine, which may explain something, and wrote for The New Republic under Kinsley, which may explain something else.) Although there's nothing much new in it, Talbot manages to sound even more the despicable hippie philistine here than he has before, expanding on his last year's riff?it's not an online magazine, it's a portal, blah blah?so that now the new sales mantra is it's not an online magazine, it's a global multimedia empire. That empire includes a dreadful-sounding Salon tv show that will start up on the sleepy Bravo channel this fall. Cameras will follow Salon reporters around, there'll be interviews with...zzzzz. There's also a PBS-style t-shirt and ballpoint concession that Thorpe makes sound like a second eBay.

    The subtext I read to all the bluster is that a year after Salon's unimpressive IPO, Talbot is still treading water, throwing out a lot of hype but no solid improvements, still losing money, with stock that hasn't budged since it dropped to half its initial worth. Even Thorpe suggests he may simply be trying to hold on until he can be bought out by a larger online entity.

    Here's to all My Friiiieeends: Both J.T. (Terminator) Leroy and William Monahan have first novels coming out, and I've been busting my buttons reading the galleys. Terminator's Sarah (St. Martin's Press), due out in April, is a sad-sweet story about, not surprisingly, a cute girly-boy hustler at a West Virginia truck stop. It's an amazing job of work from a kid who was, what, 17 or 18 when he was writing it. Monahan's Light House, due out in June from Riverhead, is an antic caper about, also not surprisingly, a New Englander who thinks he's a genius. It's cracking me up.

    The New York Observer continued to try to jump-start the Dave Eggers backlash last week, with Gabriel Snyder in effect calling him this year's Liz Wurtzel. I don't doubt that there's an army of 30-year-old bad novelists orbiting the Observer townhouse in a sizzle of Gen-X envy, or that an Eggers backlash is inevitable?the mofo has just gotten too much fawning press?but at this stage I think the Weekly Alzheimer's Klepto Report is too small an engine to pull that caboose up the mountain. What Eggers' book is mostly getting is deep, long, loving bj's like the one in this Sunday's New York Times Book Review, compounding the one he already got from (as someone called her) "Meshugge Cockamaimie" in the weekday Times a couple weeks ago.

    And not to bore you with Rall v. Hellman, but I saw that Ted Rall had an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal last week. Wouldn't that seem to undermine his argument that Hellman's prank of last summer impaired Rall's credibility with editorial page editors?