The Provincialism Problem and the Contemporary Condition


The Provincialism Problem and the Contemporary Condition

Author: Golnar Yarmohammad Touski, PhD Candidate in the History of Art and Architecture

Over the eventful summer of 2020 the isolation we collectively experienced across the globe due to the coronavirus pandemic brought about an opportunity to venture into ideas and projects that I had long been contemplating. The History of Art and Architecture Department at Pitt has always centered pedagogy as an important component of both our future careers and our development as scholars, and that led me to ponder the possibility of a free online school for Iranians in that country. The idea came from many ‘free schools’ that sprung about various academic communities in the United States, as an academic way of circumventing education as business, and instead offering a more democratic, inclusive educational model. Before the pandemic, the exchange of ideas and collaborating across borders were often hindered by various political games of travel bans and the daunting procedures of visa applications. As difficult as our contemporary moment may be, the global pandemic offered a silver lining. The idea of getting together virtually, via online platforms, was now more pervasive than ever.

As I held weekly classes online about global currents of contemporary art, Terry Smith’s 1974 essay ‘The Provincialism Problem’ struck a chord with my students. Everyone shared a common concern about writing an art history for Iran, even while artistic practice in the country was still heavily dictated by the whims of local and regional art markets. Such observations prompted us to think about the ways in which the history of artistic movements in that part of the world could be articulated without having to unequivocally submit to the hegemony of mainstream art world, or what remains of it today. We decided to take this opportunity to introduce the Iranian audiences to Terry’s ideas on writing a history of, and creating art from, a post-provincialist vantage point.

It was interesting how the problematic Terry identified in the Australian art community decades ago continues to speak to artists and educators in Iran today. On September 9, 2020, we gathered with members of Iranian art community from across the country to meet at an online event hosted by the Tehran-based e1 Art Gallery, where more than hundred people, among them art students, college professors and artists, joined us to discuss ‘The Provincialism Problem’, the contemporary condition of producing and writing about art, and Terry’s art history survey text Contemporary Art: World Currents. The book is about to be translated in Farsi/Persian, and so will soon be available to Iranian audiences.

The event, from designing promotional material to locating hosting institutions, resulted from a collective collaboration of my students, in particular Mahyar Bahram-Asl, an MA graduate of art research from my alma mater The Art University of Tehran. In that sense, the event was a chance to expand our conversation trans-geographically and trans-generationally. This seminar was the first in a series of conversations to come with art journalists, art historians and artists from around the world on topics of contemporary art for Iranian audiences.

  • Mobility/Exchange