Tehran artists vs Condi Rice, the prequel

 Luc Tuymans, The Secretary of State, 2005 Long before blogs existed, I wrote for suck.com (not a porn site, but an outgrowth of Wired magazine). In my favorite of my own Suck pieces, I tried to imagine the conversation that led to a particularly bizarre advertising campaign in Details magazine. It’s a mental game I often play when undeniably intelligent people have taken totally inadvisable steps. Like, for example, Condoleezza Rice trying to co-opt 14 Iranian artists into a State Department PR ploy targeting the Middle East.

As the artforum.com news digest reported, “Ten of the fourteen Iranians who received special visas for the exhibition refused to be photographed with Rice, and two would not even accompany her through the gallery because they were “‘uncomfortable.'” Tracing back to the item’s original source, the Guardian’s Unease As Rice Meets Iranian Artists, I discovered

What was billed as a unique and open expression of culture bridging vast political differences between the U.S. and Iran became an exercise in crowd control as the State Department scrambled to prevent reporters from even glimpsing Rice’s tour. All journalists, including those without cameras, were kept in the final room of the exhibit behind two immense wooden doors that opened only when Rice finished and appeared with four of the Iranian artists to say how much she enjoyed the show.

So how does a fiasco like this unroll? I imagine conversations that went somewhat like the following.

Three months ago…
Political Aide 1: We need to do another cultural exchange to show that we’re really on the side the Iranian people. We’ve already done doctors, wrestlers and teachers. What group can we do next?
Political Aide 2: I know: Artists! Let’s do an art exhibition here in Washington and call it something like “Wishes and Dreams.”
Rice: Aren’t artists a little risky? Sometimes artists can be very political .
Political Aide 2: We’ll make sure to choose people who don’t do political art. Just people who make pretty pictures and will be happy to show their work where somebody might actually buy it.

A week ago…
Political Aide 2: Bad news, Condi – most of the artists are saying they refuse to be photographed with you, and two of them won’t even walk next to you.
Rice: Is it too late to revoke their visas and choose some more pliable artists?
Political Aide 1: Um, yeah, well, we already sent out a press release with their names and something about “the symbolism of the American Secretary of State reaching out and demonstrating for the Iranian people an appreciation for products of Iranian culture.”
Rice: Okay, then let’s do it. But for God’s sake, keep the press away from all the ungrateful artists, and let’s just do a photo op with the ones who appreciate what a great opportunity we’ve given them.

Granted, I’m sure it didn’t go down exactly like that. But you know things have gotten really weird when untold US tax dollars are being spent to stage a media event and the media are then kept behind a closed door as the event unrolls. Or is this just a classic case of politicians forgetting that artists are often intensely political people, despite the fact they have chosen a life path lying far from the halls of power?

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