Some Thoughts on Realism and Albanian Art

I simply wanted to draw forth from a complete acquaintance with tradition the reasoned and independent consciousness of my own individuality. To know in order to be able to create, that was my idea. To be in a position to translate the customs, the ideas, the appearance of my epoch, according to my own estimation; to be not only a painter, but a man as well; in short, to create living art—this is my goal.—Gustave Courbet, preface to the pamphlet Exhibition and sale of forty paintings and four drawings by Gustave Courbet, Paris, 1855

The following post is the first of two posts that address the question of ‘realism’ and ‘contemporaneity’ in contemporary Albanian art. These posts—perhaps more than what I usually write—are explicitly presented from the point of view of an outsider, because that is essentially what I am. I am neither an Albanian artist, nor an Albanian critic, nor an Albanian curator. I am a historian of modern and contemporary art in Eastern Europe, and I have focused a great deal on Albania, though primarily on its socialist period. The goal of these posts is not to offer some kind of objective critique, but to offer a few suggestions and provocations. Some of them, no doubt, would and will be roundly rejected by those who are critics, and artists, and curators, of Albanian art—and that is perfectly fine. I heartily welcome disagreement, or agreement if that is the case. The goal is simply to present a point of view. I hope to make it clear as I proceed the ways in which the point of view is narrow. However, I also hope that—at least in a few cases— these observations might present fruitful considerations for those who practice as artists, critics, historians, and/or curators in Albania and of Albania.

The posts are framed in terms of ‘realism’ and ‘contemporaneity’ for two reasons. The first is that, as a scholar of socialist realism, the question of ‘realist’ modernism(s) (or modernist realism(s)) is inescapable for me. It might also be a question that is of interest to artists and others working in Albania. The second is that my thinking about the issue of realism in contemporary art was further deepened by a recent post by Ardian Vehbiu on the blog Peizazhe të fjalës. The post dealt with the question of ‘contemporary art (arti bashkëkohor) and how it might remain relevant or regain relevance in the context of Albania today. A subsequent post by sound artist and electronic musician Ilir Lluka responded to the same issues. In both cases, it struck me that part of what seems to be at issue is the precise definition of ‘contemporary’ art—and while I by no means mean to answer this question, I’d like to raise at least a few propositions about what it might be. A further framing term is that of ‘kitsch’, which is raised in the first of the two posts and which seems to me to be crucial for nearly all debates on modern realisms and many debates on contemporary art. Finally, needless to say, I welcome responses—in English ose në shqip—and if any readers have lengthy responses in either language, I’m also happy to post them as individual guest posts.[1]

  1. Beauty, Kitsch, Realism

woman and tiger_bukuriaI was recently back in Tirana for a short time—a few weeks at New Year’s. Several mornings I had coffee at the same café, near the house I was staying in. The café’s interior was decorated with several pieces of digital art, printed in large format on unframed canvases hung as centerpieces on some of the café’s white walls. Calling these works ‘digital art’ is perhaps deceptive: these images were of the pseudo-Photoshopped variety so often found gracing the covers of cheap fantasy and romance novels published in the past decade: one showed a woman in a luxurious black dress weeping in a dark and misty forest, clutching a rose as her black makeup ran down her cheek, pining for a lost lover. Another featured a sorceress with an exotic headdress breathing life and fire into an orb of twisting metal tendrils held in the palm of her hand. Another—my particular favorite—showed a woman striding boldly and sexily along a dirt road towards the viewer while holding a tiger on a long silver chain at her side. A massive yellow sun set behind her and the landscape around the figures glowed in the vague, softly out-of-focus way that only digital manipulation can satisfactorily produce.

The pictures struck me for a number of reasons. First of all, they presented precisely the kind of apparently neutral visual content that attempts to reach as wide an audience as possible, and yet does not appear to say very much. Their colors were bold; their lighting was dramatic. The women were sexy. The images projected mystery, tragedy, sorrow, the slightest taste of danger, pleasure. Perhaps most significantly, the images simultaneously occupied two distinct space. One the one hand, they seemed quite typical of recent Albanian urban visual culture (I have seen many similar images in cafes around Albania); they seemed very much to reflect a set of ideas about desire and image that, in my own experience, seem to be prevalent in Albania. On the other hand, the images were completely disconnected from the Albanian context—they were the kind of pictures one can and does see anywhere (I see them whenever I open Facebook, whenever I watch a movie in America, whenever I go to the mall). Absolutely nothing about them suggested that they were created in Albania, and even if they were, they would have instantly transcended the specificity of that space. This was the beauty and the power of their undeniable kitschiness—the way they both seemed to reflect a very specific aspect of current visual culture and values in a particular place, and at the same time seemed so completely unmoored from that place, so general, so correspondingly vacuous.

I was glad that I saw these images early on in my short stay in Tirana, because they reminded me of a few things that I tend to forget when thinking about art in Albania. The first is the degree to which beauty very much continues to exert an amorphous yet undeniably ubiquitous influence over debates on both art and mass (visual) culture. The images were affecting—despite, or perhaps because of, their emptiness—not so much because they asserted a strong definition of the beautiful but because the part of them that belonged to their context asserted the relevance of the debate over beauty, over the aesthetic. No less thoughtful a critic than Hal Foster famously questioned—in the late 80s—whether one of the defining elements of the postmodern condition was its anti-aesthetic character, the way it seemed to place the question of aesthetic experience firmly in the past, in the project of modernity. Nowadays, it seems quite clear that if the postmodern was indeed a period or a style defined by a rejection or transcendence of the aesthetic, then we have now left behind the postmodern and entered something else (the contemporary?). A more reasonable explanation is that the postmodern never really overcame the aesthetic—it never left, and its categories are every bit as relevant now as they have ever been, even if we remain uncertain about how they affect us. Of course, from a critical point of view we might agree with how Foster once framed it: the aesthetic can no longer be assumed as something ‘outside history,’ as a purposeless and ideal form of experience. However, the aesthetic would seem to continue to make precisely that claim for itself—at the very least, we must admit that it is every bit as necessary to struggle to historicize the aesthetic now as it was 30 years ago.

The struggle to historicize the aesthetic is, I think, something other than the attempt to overcome the aesthetic, and this is why I think it is unfortunate that Foster called his (now definitive) edited collection of essays the ‘Anti-Aesthetic’. The aesthetic is something that I think we should all be content to work within, whether we are historians or artists or both. Furthermore, I do not imagine that—in the context of Albania today—we can say very much without acknowledging the degree to which aesthetic experience—and that of the beautiful in particular—is marshaled as a political and social discursive framework. Furthermore, it is a framework that transcends political divides—as often as Edi Rama or Erion Veliaj assert that beautiful art will make a better and more civil population, their opponents (myself included) assert—on the basis of taste, that most modern/ist of all standards—that their interventions are not beautiful but rather, ugly.

So, then, my first provocation for a contemporary Albanian art could very well be this: historicize the aesthetic. Tell the history, show the history, consider the history of the beautiful as a mode of judgment in Albanian society. The question of the beautiful is, in the Albanian case, a decidedly concrete question. It is a matter that is rooted in discourse, certainly, but also in the phenomenological encounter with both urban and rural Albania. Put simply, the question of beauty is a serious one that everyone encounters when discussing Albania, and it need not be avoided simply because questions of beauty seem too closely linked to an apparently outdated modernism, or to a conceptually and emotionally empty mass culture. Far from it.

Because there is something about the notion of beauty—its mass appeal, no doubt—that suggests a decisive element of kitsch, let us consider kitsch for a moment, and move through it to the idea of realism. One of the passages that particularly struck me while reading Ardian Vehbiu’s post on the state of contemporary culture in Albania was the following assessment: “Thus, each work of art presented for mass public consumption simultaneously metabolizes two traditions: that of its own genre, or the tradition inherent to the sphere in which it is created and exists; and that of contemporary art, sophisticated, and elite(/ist). A sculpture placed in a public space cannot reproduce the language of sculpture as it existed during the 18th and 19th centuries, rejecting the stylistic transformations of subsequent periods up till today. Likewise, such a work cannot loyally imitate the template of modern or postmodern art while completely rejecting the expectations of its public. Unfortunately, both of these mistakes have been made in Albania: either the public is given works that are completely kitsch, works that look as if they were conceived and carved in the time of Louis XVI; or the public is given works that are kitsch in yet another sense, works that use modern art’s language of abstraction, a language the public does not know—and thus the public eventually uses them as urinals.”[2]

This passage contains several points related to the issue of contemporaneity, but for the moment I want to pay closer attention to the issues raised about kitsch. The problem, as I see it, is that this passage suggests that kitsch is something to be avoided in contemporary Albanian art, that the kitschiness of works of art condemns them not only to art historical irrelevance but also, depending on what kind of kitsch they are, to popular irrelevance. For me, this is problematic. Of course, my viewpoint is quite different: as a historian (and particularly as a historian of a region that remains ‘peripheral’ in most histories), I am not particularly concerned about whether the art I study is ‘kitsch’ or not—which is another way of saying I am not interested in whether it is ‘good’ or not. For Vehbiu, part of the issue is to return attention to the importance of ‘genuine’ or ‘proper’ art (arti i mirëfilltë), an art that suffers from public indifference in Albania. For me, the division between such a ‘genuine’ art (associated with the avant-garde, in this case) and mass-cultural kitsch risks implying that one is more valuable than the other from the point of view of historical understanding. It is my conviction that kitsch teaches us very important things about who we are and what we are, and the ubiquity of kitsch demands that we understand it better.

Now, I am certainly not attributing to Vehbiu the assertion that we should stop trying to appreciate or understand kitsch works of art; that is not at he point of his post at all. However, there is a way in which relying on the division between kitsch mass culture and a more authentic (avant-garde or otherwise) kind of art parallels an analogous division within the historical and critical assessment of art, a division that I think obscures more than it reveals. The division, as James Elkins puts it nicely in Art and Globalization, is that between art that tries to act primarily as an aesthetic phenomenon and art that is anti-aesthetic and thus perceived to be more radical.[3] Obviously, this distinction is different than that between kitsch and avant-garde, but in both cases there is a line drawn between art that conforms to a certain set of expectations (aesthetic ones, ‘popular’ ones) and art that challenges the norms, an avant-garde or radical art. Elkins, following Benjamin Buchloh, points out that this division is both too easy and a bit of a dead end: it presumes that when we study art (or critique art, or make art) we are primarily just looking for the means to resist X (capitalism, globalization, mass culture, etc.) As Elkins says, “We could spend an equal time with contemporary international art that is unreconstructed, celebratory, nostalgic, ‘amnesiac,’ as Buchloh puts it, aestheticizing, retrospective. For me, this is the function of an economic or sociological analysis: otherwise we are mining the phenomena of globalization in order to create the strongest possible resistance, rather than trying to understand the generative conditions, the current states and processes of globalization” (2-3).

To me, it is not just a matter of performing a more thorough economic or sociological analysis, although that is certainly necessary. It is also a matter of recognizing that the lines between mass culture and various types of art practices (‘unreconstructed’ and otherwise) are mutually (re)constructing. From a historical point of view, this means that it is fairly unhelpful to focus on artists who are perceived as pushing the boundaries at the expense of artists who continue to practice within relatively stable conventional categories. Likewise, it means it is fairly unhelpful to focus on avant-garde practices as if they could exist solely in opposition to kitsch, when in fact they at least as often function alongside it, with it, and through it. I suppose that the second provocation to Albanian contemporary art, art history, and criticism would be: one shouldn’t allow the search for a means of resistance to prevent one from engaging with the concrete realities of the situation.

And so we come to the question of realism. I recently read Sabine Eckmann’s admirably succinct essay in the catalogue for New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic, 1919-1933, and was reminded that no less a luminary of early debates on postmodernism than Jean-François Lyotard wrote, in 1982, that “Realism, whose only definition is that it intends to avoid the question of reality implicated in that of art, always stands somewhere between academicism and kitsch” (75).[4] Now of course, the realism I am about to try to make a case for is not the kind Lyotard is dismissing—but it is first necessary to point out that Lyotard’s dismissal of both kitsch and academicism is already problematic, in that it assumes that practices falling into these categories have nothing to tell us about the world we live in. Perhaps—perhaps—a case could be made that academicism has relatively little to say about the present conditions of cultural production, but it has become one of the defining features of kitsch that it comments endlessly on itself and its appeal. Furthermore, Lyotard’s definition of realism is clearly drawn from socialist realism and National Socialist neoclassicism, and he believes that because these art constellations attacked the avant-garde, they were not critically engaged with the conditions of reality.

There is a long argument to be made here; I frankly think Lyotard is simply wrong about certain historical kinds of realism. The argument can be partially bracketed, however, because Lyotard is ultimately speaking about the present, and I want to speak about the present as well. But: we will not have a very robust view of art in the present if we insist that the art of the past was naïve and disengaged from the world. Perhaps a better question would be: why would we ever assume that realism (or Realism(s)[5]) were incompatible with the avant-garde? What kinds of realism in history have actually “intend[ed] to avoid the question of reality implicated in that of art”? No doubt there are some, but we may say: relatively few. Socialist realism was certainly not among them—it was very deeply concerned about the question of reality implicated in that of art; indeed, that was one of its primary foci. So, contrary to Lyotard, isn’t realism in fact one of the first approaches to art to question both the nature of reality and the relationship art could have to it? And isn’t that project something that seems vitally necessary in the current moment?

As Eckmann points out in her essay, Realism as it was first practiced in 19th-century France (by Courbet) was precisely not about the uncritical use of established aesthetic conventions; it was instead “devoted to a new and unfamiliar form of depicting the world” (33). This involved both creating new iconographies and subject matter as well as mobilizing new aesthetic categories and formal devices. And yet, the consensus was for some time—and in many cases still is—that after the end of the 19th century, r/Realism never again held these functions. (Of course, even by seeking for these ‘radical’ or ‘avant-garde’ functions, we are falling back into the kind of trap I outlined above, whereby we first divide art into ‘radical’ or ‘not-radical’ and pursue a deep historical or critical investigation only of the former.) However, as Eckmann also points out, recent critical approaches and revisionist histories of various 20th-century and contemporary art have identified new genres, movements, and styles with the idea of ‘realism.’ One of her key examples is Okwui Enwezor’s discussion of political realism, the documentary, and vérité.[6]

Another example, one Eckmann does not mention, would be Alex Potts’ recent (and perhaps overly ambitious) attempt to re-survey much of the canon of postwar Western art—including not only Art Brut and Nouveau réalisme but also Pollock’s abstraction—under the rubric of ‘modern realism.’ For Potts, realism and abstraction “should not be seen as opposing and mutually exclusive polarities but, rather, as existing in a dialectical relationship with each other” (1). His goal is essentially to reclaim (a bit late, it would seem to me) the idea that much of the work produced in the postwar period is importantly “not just of the world, as the pure modernists would have it, but it is also about the world” (1). In other words, a realist work has “world-referencing” elements—and it is certainly undeniable that much postwar art has such elements (46). However, what Potts means by modern realism is an art that does not simply mirror the world (naturalistically, let us say), but one that is “committed to achieving a defamiliarizing of the phenomena it reference[s] or invoke[s]” (27). For this reason, Potts does not consider—to take one example—socialist realism (or even, really, social realism) in his survey; he does not believe that it complicates our relation to reality enough. In other words, he shares Lyotard’s assessment of socialist realism, “that it intends to avoid the question of reality implicated in that of art.”

Now, there are certain things I would like to take from Potts’ definition of modern realism, and certain things I would like to jettison. On the one hand, I think his definition of realism as—essentially—any art that is about the world, is too broad.[7] However, I want to retain Potts’ willingness to treat even ‘abstract’ art as ‘realist’ in certain historical circumstances. Abstraction can be a quality of the world as much as it can be a quality of transcendental realms and forms.

On the other hand, however, I think Potts is too reductive in treating certain kinds of figurative realism as too naïve in their ‘mirroring’ of the world. Why should we assume that extremely ‘mimetic’ forms of art have an uncomplicated relationship to reality? And, why should we assume that the only critical process available to realism art is that of radical defamiliarization of phenomena?[8] I prefer a definition of realism closer to that adopted by Eckmann in her discussion of the New Objectivity: “Realism signifies an artistic focus on the visible[9] world that is articulated through mimetic methods. Yet realism, in contrast to naturalism, does not imply an exact replication of reality, nor is it measured in terms of the degree to which it resembles the real.[10] It doesn’t necessarily accommodate truth to nature. Rather, realism entails questioning and inquiring in to the nature of the real to reveal truth, or vérité” (30). Now, there is no claim on my part (or Eckmann’s) that the ‘truth’ needs to be singular, only that it is tied to an actual experience of the world.

Here, I hope, I have tied up at least one dangling thread from the discussion of beauty above. My claim is this: no matter how much we wish to claim that, in postmodernity, we no longer believe in ‘experience,’ I think this claim is demonstrably false. It is demonstrably false because at least one kind of experience, aesthetic experience, has remained an important element of both modernity and postmodernity (or contemporaneity—I don’t feel like I am yet in the position to debate this distinction). Our understanding of our selves and our environment is still strongly influenced by our understanding of sensory perceptions, our desires related to them, and our attempts to restructure them—this is true as much in art as in other fields of life. Thus, at the very least, a realist art would be one that undertook an investigation of the actual conditions of our aesthetic categories, either in the realm of kitsch mass culture or high/avant-garde culture. In the specific case of Albania, as I’ve noted, the investigation of the category of beauty would be one quite ‘realist’ object of artistic investigation.

There is another element to r/Realism that I would like to introduce before I undergo what will no doubt be an unsuccessful attempt to satisfactorily bring together all the strands of my thought on the possibilities a contemporary artistic realism might offer in the Albanian context. Realism—at its inception, in the 19th century—did not simply turn to its present surroundings as a subject matter by chance. As Linda Nochlin argues in her seminal study of the movement, the rise of Realism coincided with a new vision of history (23-33). History was no longer exclusively the realm of history painters, who dealt with the great deeds of antiquity; it became the realm of genre painters. In turn, these genre painters were no longer attempting to depict a timeless kind of ‘everyday life,’ but began to seek for the traces of historical understanding and historical structures in that everyday life.

In a recent post, I discussed Gëzim Qëndro’s book Heronjtë Janë të Uritur, and the possibilities it offered for using the search for ‘realism’ in art as a critical method. One of the most interesting facets of Qëndro’s study, from my perspective, is the way it explicitly understands realism not so much as a style but as a kind of historical consciousness. True, I think Qëndro in fact pays too little attention to the visual aspects of the (realist?) painting he discusses, but I do think he convincingly draws attention to the way that realism is tied to an explicitly historical mode of understanding the world in 20th-century Albanian history. That is, Qëndro’s quest for realism draws our attention to the role art can play in relation to history. This would be perhaps my most assertive provocation for Albanian contemporary art: How can Albanian art help us achieve a more nuanced historical understanding of the world (or ‘reality’)? This is not to insist that art try to turn itself into history, nor to imply that all contemporary art must be, first of all, about history.[11] However, it is to insist that one of the most important projects of a contemporary Albanian art should be the attempt to reveal, to understand, to clarify, and to challenge the present moment as the outcome of historical processes. This kind of confrontation with the present is something that r/Realist art—broadly construed—has always attempted, and for this reason it seems to me that realism is one approach that would serve artists in Albania today well.

Before I conclude by saying a bit more about the challenges that face any historically conscious model of realist contemporary art, let me say how the earlier discussion of kitsch fits into this model. Of course, in some ways, the discussion of kitsch was simply a way to move from Vehbiu’s insightful thoughts on the challenges facing contemporary art and culture in Albania. My attempt to assert the need for a more nuanced understanding of the relation between avant-garde and kitsch in contemporary culture was in part meant to introduce the notion that realist art is an art that many have dismissed and some continue to dismiss as kitsch (because it is figurative, because it is mimetic, because it sometimes has broad popular appeal, and so on); and yet realism turns out to much more critically relevant than the term ‘kitsch’ implies. But that isn’t everything. I also think it is important for contemporary art to conceive of itself as kitsch as much as it conceives of itself as avant-garde, and this is—I think—particularly the case for a realist art. All art, no matter how radical, ultimately performs (in certain contexts and for certain audiences) the project of familiarization and repetitive conformity that kitsh (broadly speaking) performs.[12] The key—and this is where a self-consciously realist sentiment is beneficial—is to for art to investigate where and why and to whom it produces the effect of familiarization, or conformity, or comfort. Ultimately, this is neither a very radical, nor in any way an original. To me, the realist approach to art and aesthetics asserts the following: the point is not to try to produce ‘art’ as opposed to ‘kitsch,’ but to produce art that is more aware about when and where it might become kitsch, and when and where it might remain ‘art.’

Of course, this brings us back again to Vehbiu’s observation that artworks can be considered kitsch in different ways, and that every work of art operates in (at least) two contexts: its own artistic tradition or historical genre, and the expectations of its public. These two contexts have different histories, and understanding how these two histories come together in the work of art is a duty that artists, historians, and critics must collectively shoulder. It is not, I think, a burden that is frequently shouldered in discussions of Albanian art, in exhibitions staged in Albania, in Albanian artist’s writings on their works, in the writings of foreign scholars and curators on Albanian works.[13]

During my recent visit to Albania, I only visited two exhibitions. One of them was the Onufri XXI show at the National Gallery of Arts. I did not spend as much time as I should have with the show, and so if I seem to condemn it in what follows, that is no doubt partially my own fault. This year’s Onufri was curated by the duo VestAndPage (artist Verena Stenke and artist/writer Andrea Pagnes), and it was devoted to the idea and medium of glass (hence the show’s rather lengthy subtitle “SiO2 – The Reason of Fragility, How Do We Spell The Word C-A-R-E When Staring At Glass?”). To be frank, I did not understand the exhibition. It seemed, to put it bluntly, eclectic in the pejorative sense of the term—it contained a number of works that related to each other (in terms of their shared engagement with or use of a particular material, glass) that at first seemed related but ultimately revealed themselves to have little to do with one another. There are, no doubt, a number of reasons the exhibition as a whole escaped my understanding. However, the reason that is most salient for my current discussion is this: the show did not know how to bring together works that spoke primarily about the history of art as a broad (Western) phenomenon, and works that seemed to speak more directly about the historical (contemporary) Albanian context.

This failure is significant because—according to the organizers—they were seeking precisely to avoid aestheticism and produce “a vision of the essence of reality”:[14] “In fact, the artistic image of the world cannot be adapted or compared to purely cognitive rational paths, because it represents a way of appropriation of the world that, in its specific and unique form, is possible only in the artwork. It is after bearing these considerations in mind that we can understand how a material such as glass – for its linguistic, symbolic and metaphoric potential and the intrinsic properties of fragility, transparency and resistance – is the most appropriate to indicate that an intuitive knowledge of art escapes any ‘correctness’ criterion, as its difficulties – its beauty – must be conquered by intuitive thought, and therefore must be realized as a result of a “vision of the essence.” It is exactly this concept that the exhibition aims to communicate, since in any way it may be judged, the experience of a vision of the essence of reality leads to a thought that art is not limited to the unsullied pleasure of pure aesthetic contemplation, but it is capable of generating a powerful reflection and consequent awareness on the multiple dimensions of meaning that are behind the human thought itself.”

In fact, the exhibition seemed to be organized very much in line with the vision of material(ist) modern realism that Alex Potts describes—the curators believes that by framing the exhibition around a material, the works included would somehow automatically constitute a critical engagement with reality (or ‘the world’). And to ensure that this was framed historically, they included works that belong to a broader history of Western and global postwar art—works that read as belonging to art history (Abramovic, Kosuth, Yoko Ono, and so forth). In this sense, it was helpful that Armando Lulaj’s The Large Glass framed the entrance to the exhibition, since it framed the show in reference to a work that belongs to the canon of Western art history. Yet, within the exhibition itself, the link between two (clusters of) histories—one a global history of artistic practice, the other a relatively localized history of Albanian ‘reality’—felt conspicuous by its absence. It was not only the weakness of the curatorial text, or the way that even the most ‘conceptual’ works were expected to hold their own as aesthetic phenomena. It was primarily the way that the show did not seem to take seriously the need to understand how these histories might or might not relate.

The two works that I felt most drawn to in the show both dealt with the same subject matter—and it was slightly strange that two works dealt with the same theme. Ermela Teli’s video and multimedia installation Glass, a weapon! (2015) and Sead Kazanxhiu’s mixed media installation On the Wall (2015) both dealt with a common feature of home architecture in Albania: the practice of cementing pieces of broken glass to the top of garden walls in order to prevent intruders from climbing over them. Facing each other across one of the gallery’s rooms, these two works seemed to be the most directly tied to everyday life in Albania.[15] And yet, at the same time, the gap between these works and works belonging more directly to a general history of art (say, Lawrence Weiner’s Impacted to the Point of Fusing Sand into Glass) seemed absolute.

Ermela Teli, Glass, a weapon!, 2015, installed at Onufri XXI
Ermela Teli, Glass, a weapon!, 2015, installed at Onufri XXI
Sead Kazanxhiu, On the Wall, 2015, installed at Ounfri XXI
Sead Kazanxhiu, On the Wall, 2015, installed at Ounfri XXI

Perhaps I like my art a bit too literal, but what appealed to me about both of the works in question (Teli’s and Kazanxhiu’s) was the fact that the looked like something I had seen during my time in Albania,[16] they referenced a structure of the environment that I encountered several times. Furthermore, they were the works that made me think most about my encounter with Tirana afterwards. I found myself looking at the way people had installed glass on the walls around their gardens, observing the density of the glass fragments, their color, wondering what kinds of vessels they had broken to produce the glass, wondering who was really deterred by the glass in the first place, wondering how long it would be before each of the walls I had seen with such glass on it would be leveled along with its house in order to construct some new apartment building that needed no such defense against incursion. And at the end of the day, this thinking seemed much more productive to me than a lengthy consideration of Weiner’s Impacted to the Point of Fusing Sand into Glass.

What I craved most as I was wandering through Onufri XXI was a work of art, a text, anything that would tell me something about “the essence of reality” in Albania today, and about what the essence of that reality might have to do with local histories, with individual histories, with global histories. That, I imagine, is the task that a Realist artistic practice would set for itself. Of course, there are many kinds of art-making, and most of them do not need to have anything to do with this task. However, I find it hard to imagine how an art that called itself ‘contemporary’ could dispense with such a project.


Books Cited:

Foster, Hal, ed. The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. Port Townsend: Bay Press, 1983.

Eckmann, Sabine. “A Lack of Empathy: On the Realisms of the New Objectivity.” In New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic, 1919-1933. Exh Cat. LACMA, 2015. pp. 27-39.

Elkins, James, Zhivka Valiavicharska, and Alice Kim, eds. Art and Globalization. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 2010.

Enwezor, Okwui. “Documentary/Verite: Bio-Politics, Human Rights and the Figure of “Truth” in Contemporary Art.” Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art 5:1 (2004). pp.11-42.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. “Answering the Question: What Is Postmodernism? [1983]” In The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1984. Pp. 71-84.

Nochlin, Linda. Realism. New York: Penguin, 1971.

Potts, Alex. Experiments in Modern Realism. New Haven: Yale UP, 2013.


[1] I’ve only done this once before, and it strikes me it would be fun to do it again. So please feel free to write long responses and contact me if you’d like to post them as entries in this blog, instead of just comments. Comments are of course also encouraged.

[2] “Kësisoj, çdo produkt artistik që ofrohet për konsum masiv metabolizon njëkohësisht dy tradita: të zhanrit të vet, ose të traditës brenda sferës ku vepron; dhe të artit bashkëkohor, të sofistikuar, elitar. Një skulpturë që vendoset në një vend publik nuk mund të riprodhojë gjuhën e këtyre veprave të përpunuar gjatë shekujve XVIII-XIX, duke shpërfillur gjuhën e re skulpturore të përpunuar më vonë e deri në bashkëkohësi; sikurse nuk mund të ndjekë besnikërisht shabllone të artit modernist a post-modernist, duke shpërfillur pritjet e publikut.

Për fat të keq, të dyja këto shmangie kanë ndodhur në Shqipëri – ku publikut i janë dhënë ose vepra totalisht kitsch, që duket sikur janë konceptuar dhe gdhendur në kohën e Luigjit XVI; ose vepra sërish kitsch, por që përdorin gjuhën abstrakte të artit modernist, të cilën publiku nuk e njeh dhe as e vlerëson; prandaj edhe qëllon pastaj ta përdorë si urinore.”

[3] When I say the division is analogous, I mean that the two forms of kitsch Vehbiu identifies are, essentially, forms of culture that rely heavily on aestheticization—whether it is a nostalgic aesthetic that longs for the ‘high’ art of the past or a (post)modern(ist) aestheticism that ignores the public taste in its claims to universality. It seems to me that Vehbiu is calling for an art that would counteract these two forms of aestheticization, and in this sense the dichotomy he outlines is similar to that between uncritical aestheticism and radical or critical anti-aestheticism.

[4] It’s always refreshing when famous thinkers say things that, in retrospect, turn out to be so completely misguided.

[5] Elsewhere in this essay, I sometimes write “r/Realism” to indicate that artists and critics may take realism to be a general term for a particular approach or as the proper name of a style/movement. For me, it is not particularly important that it be one or the other—more often, I believe, it should be thought of as both.

[6] As Enwezor puts it, “Vérité has been defined as: truth. But also it refers to lifelikeness, a trueness to life. In the latter definition it is predisposed towards mimeticism. For example, in French, vérité also means to strive to be true to life in art: s’efforcer a la vérité en art. Similarly vérité refers to realism to real life, naturalism, authenticity, pragmatism, verisimilitude” (34).

[7] For Potts, this definition allows a more materially-focused re-assessment of certain forms of abstraction, since materials are by definition part of the world, but I don’t think this helps us much in the present context.

[8] Of course, Potts is not speaking about the immediate present. However, I would argue that—given the pervasively ‘defamiliarizing’ effects of late capitalism in much of the world today—it is just as easy for art to be both ‘uncritical’ and radically ‘defamiliarizing.’ In some cases, making the world familiar again is a first step that art can undertake in order to provide us with means to deeper engagement with our surroundings.

[9] I myself do not think the focus needs to be necessarily only on the visible world alone, but I would not equate the ‘invisible’ would with the spiritual realm, as some earlier forms of abstract modernism did. Rather, I think it is entirely ‘realistic’ to assume that there are material realities that we cannot see, and that realist art can attempt to mimic those material realities in a number of ways.

[10] Potts, on the other hand, dismisses certain kinds of realism as retrograde because he does judge them on how much they resemble reality. He believes they resemble it too closely.

[11] However, for reasons I’ll discuss in a subsequent post, I think it is difficult to conceive of an art that is truly contemporary and yet sets aside historical investigations. After all, as Nochlin writes, it was the Realists who first demanded that art concern itself with contemporaneity.

[12] Calling something kitsch, or referring to it as mass culture, is not primarily asserting that the object in question is different in kind from an art object. It is asserting that it produces particular kinds of effects among certain (‘popular’) audiences/consumers more often than it produces those effects among others.

[13] Of course, this is the case in many places, but here I am speaking primarily about Albania. It is of course also unfair to suggest that this kind of thoughtful evaluation never happens—I am happy to say that sometimes it does. But not as often as I would like. Hence this post.

[14] The English translation is that of the National Gallery or the organizers, not mine. The Albanian, from the Gallery’s website, is as follows: “Në të vërtetë, imazhi artistik nuk mund të adaptohet apo të krahasohet me shtigje të thjeshta logjike e racionale, sepse përfaqëson një mënyrë të përvetësimit të botës që, në formën e saj të veçantë dhe unike, është e mundur vetëm brenda veprës së artit. Përsiatjet e mësipërme janë të domosdoshme për të kuptuar se një material si qelqi – për potencialin e tij gjuhësor, simbolik dhe metaforik, krahas vetive të tij kompozicionale të brishtësisë, transparencës dhe rezistencës – është mëse i përshtatshëm për të treguar se njohja intuitive e artit i shmanget kritereve të korrektësisë, dhe se vështirësia e tij – bukuria e tij – duhet të kapet nga një mendim intuitiv, e si rezultat të realizohet si një “vizion i thelbit të realitetit”. Është pikërisht ky koncept që ekspozita ka për qëllim të komunikojë, sepse në çdo lloj mënyre që gjykojmë, përjetimi i një vizioni të thelbit të realitetit të çon në mendimin se arti nuk është i kufizuar vetëm tek kënaqësia sublime e mendimit të pastër estetik, por është i aftë të gjenerojë një reflektim të fuqishëm dhe ndërgjegjësim të mëtejshëm për dimensionet e shumfishta të kuptimit që janë përtej edhe vetë mendimit njerzor.”

[15] Of course, I’m speaking here of my life while there…but I was drawn to these works precisely because, every day as I walked home during my two weeks in Tirana, I passed homes with just such conglomerations of jagged glass installed atop their garden walls.

[16] They weren’t, of course, the only works in the show to do this. But they did seem to me to be the two that made this reference most explicit.

4 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Realism and Albanian Art”

    1. As I noted in the post, I did not spend a great deal of time in the exhibition, but I was also not offering a critique of the individual works in the show–many of which were quite good. What I believe is that the show tried to rely too heavily on the works’ perceived value as ‘ART’ and not enough on creating concetual, aesthetic, or historical links between them. That said, I am curious what you mean by ‘art’ in your comment.

  1. Mr. Qemal Stafa,

    When I use the term Art, I use it ia a pegorative way. Any work in that display was not ART, was shit. Even the historical works. Indeed I agree with your point. The exhibition doesn’t work at all, but lets say some works are fantastic. Some Albanian artists as well. Did you like any of them? And here I’m not refering to Kazanxhiu or Teli, as to my point they are very weak – they are bullshit.

    1. As far as the works that I liked from the show, I thought that Lulaj’s Large Glass was an interesting work, but that was due–in large part–to the fact that an expanation accompanied it. In fact, such an explanation should have accompanied almost every work in the show, I thought. Since the curators made it explicit that the works were not simply supposed to be considered in ‘purely aesthetic’ terms, a more clear conceptual framework should have been forthcoming. Lulaj’s work effectively set up a kind of promise for the show–linking political commentary to a history of Western art in its reference to Duchamp–that the exhibition did not live up to. As Ive said, I liked both Kazaxhiu and Teli’s works: they both walked a line between recognizable subject matter and certain regional art historical tropes (the trope o the ‘Wall’, which has been done and overdone in Eastern European works). Were these works as fully realized as they could have been? Most certainly not. But they at least promised an engagement with some concrete material circumstances (as in: they dealt with an aspect of the built environment that many people encounter on a daily basis, whether or not they notice it). Oltsen Gripshi’s work was promising, especially in juxtaposition with Anonymous’ Glass Bio Kammer, but without any deeper contextualization it seemed too literal. (Sometimes I like my art to be literal; at other times not.) I thought Klodian Deda’s bottle was funny, but it felt too much like a punchline and not enough like a work meant to incite deeper thought. I didn’t spend enough time thinking about or looking at Jonuzi’s or Baboci&Doci’s works; I won’t comment on them. Eros Dibra’s work was interesting to me, but I find the reason’s given by the jury for selecting it as winner to be dubious: the explanation basically praised the work for effectively speaking a language of post-structuralist art, but in doing so, it made the work seem like basically a cookie-cutter example of ‘playing with the mirror and the image and the gaze, blah blah blah’. I think the work probably had something more to say, but as it was, it seems to have been selected as the winner because it spoke to a particular kind of post-structuralist-leaning audience very well. Fair enough.

      I’m curious to know by what standards you consider most (all?) of the works to be ‘bullshit’. Do you mean that they were insufficiently conceptualized? That they seemed hastily constructed? That they appeared to have only one-dimensional meanings? Did you yourself like any ofthe works in the exhibition, and if so, why?

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