LONDON — Cultural relativism is a problematic thing. If you don’t agree, ask Caveh Zahedi, whose new film, The Sheikh and I, was acquired by Factory 25 and is set to premiere at Brooklyn’s Videology on December 7, after having been banned on the grounds of blasphemy by the biennial that commissioned it. Responses to the movie have been varied: Some have called it unproductive, insulting and downright despicable. Others have called it illuminating and irreverent.

But who is right and who is wrong?

In thinking about the film, difficult questions are raised that perhaps need to be addressed as the world becomes more global. In the art world, especially, such questions are pertinent when considering that from three art fairs in 1970 – Art Cologne, Art Basel and Art Actuel (Brussels) – the number of art fairs has, according to The Art Newspaper, “mushroomed in the past decade from 68 in 2005 to 189 in 2011.” The art fair format has moved beyond Europe and the United States into Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, and this expansion has coincided with a similar replication of the Biennial format, too. “Over 150 biennials for art and related disciplines are currently being organized all over the world,” announced the organizers of the First World Biennial Forum held in Gwangju in October 2012. Forum organizers also mentioned that these events are taking place in a world not with one, but with many cultural centers, characterized by rapidly changing socio-economic and political certainties.

It’s true: the world is changing and people are changing, fast. And as cultures meet and intermingle, with globalization comes its dilemmas, especially in such global spaces as those created by the contemporary arts. But in thinking about how one culture relates to another, how do we express, mediate and share culture today? And how far can we — or should we — critique the cultures of others?

When Zahedi showed his movie in America, he met another backlash and decided to document this experience in an eight minute short where he presents another side to his story.

But take note: A public debate as contentious as this one has many faces. This is just one of them.

Stephanie Bailey

Stephanie Bailey covers contemporary art and culture from around the world for publications including ART PAPERS, ARTnews, Artforum, LEAP, Modern Painters and Yishu Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art....

7 replies on “When Art as a Subversive Act Is too Subversive”

  1. Perhaps this is an occasion where critiquing your home culture and western caricatures of your own culture successfully shocks the world. People are uncomfortable with satire of satire because they might not have the culturally specific foreknowledge to recognize what Zahedi is making fun of exactly. He’s the true hipster hehe.

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