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The Shiraz Arts Festival: Cultural Democracy, National Identity, and Revolution in Iranian Performance, 1967-1977


The Shiraz Arts Festival was an annual weeklong summer festival that ran from 1967 to 1977 in and around the city of Shiraz, Iran. Subsidized by the Iranian government and spearheaded by Queen Farah Pahlavi, this international festival presented contemporary, classical, traditional, and avant-garde music, theater, and dance from all over the world. Organized around the goals of raising the cultural standard in Iran, celebrating Iranian traditions, and familiarizing Iranians with the latest international artistic developments, this event promoted the sharing of culturally democratic values and the representation of a balanced Iranian national identity. At the same time, because of certain controversies surrounding the Festival, critics and historians have placed it in the context of the 1979 Iranian Revolution where opposition led by the Ayatollah Khomeini replaced the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s monarchical government. This dissertation investigates and details the Festival’s relationship with cultural democracy, Iranian identity, and the revolutionary narrative. The Festival encouraged democratic values by allowing new artistic freedoms, calling for multicultural inclusivity, granting access to the masses, and inspiring intercultural collaborations. Certain performances, such as concerts of traditional Iranian music, exhibited several sides of Iranian identity. Young musicians inserted a modern sound into the tradition, while engaging with both Iran’s ancient pre-Islamic history and Islamic spiritualism. Additionally, the Festival echoed a failing government in its embrace of the Western avant-garde and Western imitation, and in its financial expenditure during a time of intensifying wealth inequality. Furthermore, related controversies were utilized to fit a campaign of dissent. My writing reveals how potentially conflicting ideas and identities aided in creating a unique and unprecedented cultural event. Ultimately, the Festival proved that cultural democracy and Iranian identity were fundamental to Iranian performance and the arts could continue to be a place for reflecting on social issues within a decentralized public space.

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