Arthur C. Danto
My first serious encounter with the work of Shirin Neshat was in Chicago, in the late spring of 1999. At the time, I was thinking a great deal about the concept of the masterpiece, not in the craft guild sense of the term, where a candidate for the rank of master produces a piece of work demonstrating command of the skills and secrets of a métier, but in some larger sense that transcends that whole system, applying to work that, in Hegel’s words, expresses “the deepest interests of mankind, and the most comprehensive truths of the spirit.” When it does that, Hegel writes, it has placed itself in the same sphere as religion and philosophy. We were, and perhaps still are, in a period of cynicism and deconstruction, and so exalted an idea of art, or for the matter religion and philosophy, evoke an older system of values. Nevertheless, I thought there was room in our time for work of this rare order, that in some deep way connects with what finally we want of art. I had been invited to deliver a special lecture at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, and I resolved to talk about the possibility of a masterpiece even in our sour time.
At the dinner afterward, I met James Rondeau, recently appointed Curator of Contemporary Art at the Chicago. He offered to walk me through his new exhibition the following morning. There was a darkened room, in which Shirin’s film, Rapture, was showing, and I had the thrilling experience of encountering a masterpiece where I suppose I least expected it. It was like falling in love when one thinks one is no longer susceptible to such powerful passions. There were two facing screens. The men were in one, dressed in white shirts and black pants, engaging in a kind of pointless horseplay behind the parapet of an ancient tower. The women, dressed in black chadors, were on the stony plain beneath the tower, like, I thought, the plain beneath the walls of Troy. It was a kind of dialogue between two choruses, one black and female the other white and male, and in the end the women move to the tattoo of a drum to the edge of the sea, where some of them embark in a boat that cannot differ greatly from the boat that carried Jesus out onto the Sea of Galilee. The single non-collective voice of the singer Sussan Dayim filled the place between the screens. I sat spellbound through three showings – the film is short – and left with the conviction that there still is art that exemplifies Hegel’s high demands. I felt, and continue to feel that Shirin is a great artist, whose work rises to the power of ancient tragedy, and is, however specific it is to her Iranian culture, universal, addressing men and women, God and humankind, everywhere and always.
On the basis of review I published in The Nation soon after this revelation, I was commissioned to interview Shirin for the Bomb magazine, and I have followed her work film by film since, culminating in the powerful episode she recently showed at the Barbara Gladstone gallery called Zarin (Women Without Men). It is adapted from an Iranian novel of the same name by Shahrnush Parsipour, who was arrested for writing it. The novel weaves together several stores about women, oppressed through their bodies. Zarin is a vulnerable and clearly disturbed young prostitute. The issues are timeless and overwhelming. One almost feels that some of the dark scenes are tableaux vivant from Goya’s Caprichos, with the dark hooded older women and the luminous young one in a thin sexy garment, offered as sexual bait, whatever her feelings, to faceless – in Parsipour’s novel headless – men. I am jubilant that Shirin Neshat has been selected for the Lillian and Dorothy Gish Prize for 2006. She brings to it something vastly beyond entertainment through the depth and scale of her vision, and the prize will surely help achieve yet another masterpiece.