Pop goes the axis of evil

Lichtenstein, feminists and funky photography: the Iranian art scene is hotting up. Anna Somers Cock

Who would have expected to see Lichtensteins on display in Iran today? Or a Jewish-American lecturing on the latest in feminist art at Tehran's Museum of Contemporary Art? And an exhibition of funky British photography touring the country, courtesy of the British Council and specifically requested by the Iranians? All this has happened this year.

It can be appallingly provincial and condescending to praise another culture for its resemblance to one's own, but in the case of Iran, it is necessary at the moment because it is easy, although not intelligent, to demonise people whom you see as being completely alien. And this kind of demonisation has become all too popular since 11 September.

Since the 1979 revolution, we have had very little information about what is going on in the minds of ordinary Iranians, apart from the outstanding films of directors such as Abbas Kiarostami, which you can be pretty sure George W Bush has never seen. It is equally likely that, when Bush made his astonishing remark about Iran being on an "axis of evil" with Iraq and North Korea, he did not know that Iran's president, Mohammad Khatami, is a man profoundly interested in the philosophy of aesthetics and the role art and culture can play in opening up his country to the rest of the world. For when you base your view of a country solely on what its politicians and newspapers say in public and what your secret service and strategic defence analysts tell you, you risk getting it seriously wrong. The west should remember that it completely failed to foresee the fall of the Shah, although Iran was a great deal more open then than it is now and the signs were there for all to read.

So what does the Iranian art scene reveal about the country's politics? Sami Azar, the Birmingham-educated, young director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, left me in no doubt when I was in Tehran recently, at the museum's conference on "Modernism and Postmodernism", that the current liberalisation stems directly from the president: "Mr Khatami is the one who has raised the issue of dialogue and discourse instead of exporting revolutionary ideas which suggest the truth is just with us. He has become a symbol of collaborating with others, an idea that has always existed in Persian civilisation." Dr Azar went on to say that he was being advised to be active on the cultural scene, in order to end Iran's political isolation: "The doors were closed for two decades after the revolution, but now we are opening up and we are facing a generation that longs to know more about recent art movements."

He took me down to the stores where there are racks and racks of extremely valuable 20th-century western paintings, assembled in a buying frenzy shortly before the revolution by the empress's brother for the new museum, and all off display until very recently. I saw works by Picasso, Kandinsky, Ernst, a superb Gauguin, Rothko, Calder, Dine, Rauschenberg, de Kooning, Bacon and many more. Everything is still there, except for one in de Kooning's Woman series, swapped a few years ago for some leaves of the greatest Persian illuminated manuscript, the Shahnameh.

The west is finally waking up to the fact that Dr Azar is sitting on one of the world's great forgotten collections. Tate Britain hopes to borrow a great 1968 Bacon triptych next year, and the Tehran museum is already back on the exhibition circuit, having lent to recent Warhol, Gauguin and Calder shows, and to the surrealism exhibition at the Pompidou Centre.

There are still some limits, however, to what Dr Azar can show in his galleries: the Bacon is a possible, he told me, even though it shows two men in bed, but an American Pop work with a faint overall pattern of a woman in a bathing suit is not.

After a lecture by an American feminist, I saw her mobbed by keen young students, boys and girls together, who wanted the names of the artists mentioned so that they could look them up on the web. The web, of course, means there are no purely national schools of contemporary art any more, and Iranian art is hybridising fast - October sees the second national exhibition of conceptual art at the Tehran museum. I asked Sami Azar whether this might not get him and the artists into trouble, as conceptual art without criticism of the status quo is almost unimaginable. He said that last year he had been apprehensive, but there was no official comment, despite some "ideologically explosive stuff". But maybe the mullahs have not yet got the hang of reading these gnomic works.

At the Tehran museum conference, at which I was also speaking, no one told us what we could or could not say, although we did exercise a modicum of self-censorship, avoiding nudity and the wilder forms of sexual politics. Nor was there any system of control on who could come to hear us, and the hall was packed with 500 or so boys and girls from the various universities. The questions afterwards revealed an excellent knowledge of western culture - I heard Heidegger and Hume quoted - but also a reverent serious-mindedness about art that could only arouse nostalgia in us from the cynical, postmodern west: "Are your artists in pursuit of truth?" asked one young man of each of us.

The sad fact, however, is that these highly educated young people have poor job prospects. The Iranian economy is stagnant and needs to be liberalised and reformed. The conservative mullahs are a drag on Khatami's plans, but demographics are not on their side: 70 per cent of the population is under 30; there are more female graduates than male; and social change looks inevitable. The most helpful thing the US could do at this point would be to lift the sanctions, which would reward Khatami's flexible and tolerant policies by boosting the economy and would strengthen his following in the country, making the revolution that some Americans are blithely foretelling for Iran less likely. In the meanwhile, Khatami may be hoping that the arts will prove something of a safety valve.

I end with the musings of a diplomat who came to hear one of the lectures given by a fellow westerner. He looked amazed at the eager crowd and the freedom with which everyone was speaking. "Perhaps we ought to get out more often and see this side of Tehran life," he said to me. "Things look very different from the embassy compound."

Anna Somers Cocks is editor of the Art Newspaper