The Question of Actually Existing Communism: A Response to Romeo Kodra

This post comes from some thinking I have been doing (for quite some time, in fact, though perhaps not with the rigor I should have) in response to two posts by Romeo Kodra, on the blog AKS Revista. In essence, both posts concern the appropriateness of the use of the adjective “communist” to describe the period between 1944/45 and 1991 in Albania. The posts in question, “Albanian Lapidar Survey: Lehtёsia e papёrballueshme e pёrdorimit tё konceptit ‘komunist’” and “Communism Never Happened … edhe nё Shqipёri,” argue that there is something both wrong and more than slightly insidious in describing the culture of socialist Albania as “communist.” The particular context that Kodra singles out for critique is the publicity and terminology of the Albanian Lapidar Survey, conducted by Departamenti i Shqiponjave and recently documented in the three-volume catalogue Lapidari.

Given that I am a contributor to the catalogue, and that I am one of those singled out for critique in Kodra’s second post—since I use terms such as “communist regime,” “communist art,” and “communist state,” among others, in my essay in the catalogue—I would like to offer a defense of my thinking vis-à-vis my use of the term. I certainly cannot presume to speak for the other authors represented in the Lapidari catalogue, nor for Departamenti i Shqiponjave, and it may be that others’ reasons for using the term “communist” (perhaps ‘lightly,’ perhaps not) are quite different from my own. Two things bear saying: first, this post is meant in the spirit of dialogue—I am quite willing to entertain and be convinced by counterarguments, but I think there is a certain justification to my use of “communist” as an adjective in the contexts for which I am chastised for using it; and second: I realize that this response might come entirely too late. It has been several weeks since the second of Kodra’s posts, and more than half a year since his first critique. I can only say that thought on some issues takes time to unfold, and I hope that the delay is not taken as a sign that I do not value the critique presented by Kodra’s writings—quite the opposite. I also apologize for not responding in Albanian, although I honestly feel that my knowledge of the language would not permit me to respond as fully as I wish to do; the hypocrisy inherent in such an excuse is acknowledged, and I bear the weight of it.

In the first of his posts, from June of 2014 (“Albanian Lapidar Survey: Lehtёsia e papёrballueshme e pёrdorimit tё konceptit ‘komunist’” [“The Unbearable Lightness of the Use of the Concept ‘Communist'”], Kodra raises a very important set of issues surrounding the precise implications of using the term (or, specifically, the concept) “communist” to describe a period of Albania’s past that I consider to be the time from the end of the Second World War (or the ‘National Liberation War’) till the very beginning of the 1990s. It seems to me that Kodra is both concerned about the potential vagueness of the term (what is ‘communism’ anyway? who ever claimed that Albania was communist? and therefore why use that term?) and the specifically negative and sensationalist meanings that the word has taken on in a number of contexts in 21st-century Albania. I quote Kodra at length: “Opinioni im ёshtё se me anё tё gogolizimit tё termit konceptual “komunizёm” kanё kaluar nё shoqёrinё shqiptare lloj lloj konceptesh, qasjesh, praktikash fashistoide, nё rrafshin e shkencave sociale, humane apo edhe nё tё pёrditshmen e jetёs publike, qё nё njё botё normale dhe demokratike, siç ёshtё ajo e Bashkimit Evropian nё tё cilin shpresojmё tё bёhemi pjesё, as qё mendohet se duhet tё ekzistojnё. [“It is my opinion that alongside the transformation of the conceptual term ‘communism’ into a kind of boogeyman [in discourse], there are also a whole set of concepts, approaches, and practices of a fascist variety that have entered into Albanian society in the fields of the social and human sciences and even in everyday life. These concepts, approaches, and practices are not the kind that we should even imagine should exist in a normal, democratic world of the kind represented by the European Union, the kind of world we hope to become a part of.”]

Allow me to set aside the characterization of the European Union as a “normal, democratic” world[1]—as an American, my opinion on this matter is of little import regardless, since I have no pertinent experience living in the EU—and say that I am quite in agreement with Kodra’s critique. I do often hear the term communism demonized in an entirely polemical way in Albania (though this is perhaps as much as result of the move towards the EU as not), and I would like to avoid using the term in the way that it is used, say, by the organizers of exhibitions like Bunk’Art or Shtëpia e Gjetheve [House of Leaves]. (These latter two museums are also singled out in Kodra’s second post for their misuse of a rhetoric on “communism.”) It is entirely true that there is a sensationalism surrounding the term that cannot be avoided—though this does not mean that it cannot be engaged through the use of the term in less sensationalist ways.

There are a few defenses I will not permit myself, but that I wish to lay out so as not to be seen to be hiding behind them. The first being that I wrote my essay for the Albanian Lapidar Survey imagining an international audience, not simply an Albanian one—and therefore both the potential understandings of the term “communist” and the dangers of its use are even broader. (In conservative America, for example, the damage done to any image of Albania 1944-1991 might be significantly increased though the use of the term “communism”—but then, I am guilty of calling myself a communist in numerous public venues, and so be it. I do not use the term pejoratively.) The second defense I cast aside is the assertion that—in America at least—many of us simply use the term “communist” (as in “communist state”) when perhaps, strictly speaking, we should not—since communism was always a utopic possiblity and not an “actually existing” state. (I will return to this utopic possibility below, since it forms the crux of why I do use the term “communist.”)

Kodra seems concerned that the use of the term “communist” (or “communism,” which I think are two actually quite different things, but perhaps in Albanian this is not true) obscures “the simple fact that communist Albania never existed” [“faktin e thjeshtё sepse Shqipёria komuniste nuk ka ekzistuar asnjёherё“]. Perhaps it does. Nonetheless, I would like to ask (either Kodra or anyone in deep agreement on the issue): what are the alternatives? One obvious term/concept that suggests itself is “socialist,” the term most often used by the regime itself to describe Albania’s condition ca.1944-1991. In fact, in my writing, I have often attempted to limit myself to the use of the term ‘socialist’ in place of ‘communist,’ for precisely this reason. However, I find myself equally unsatisfied with this term: it ultimately preserves nearly all the vagueness and—at least in America—many of the potentially negative and sensationalist connotations. However, at the level of usage by the Albanian 1944-1991 regime, it at least has greater historical accuracy, and perhaps that is the reason it should be used. Another possibility is “Marxist-Leninist,” which I find dissatisfying because it seems to simply link a more specific context (Albania in the years of Hoxha’s leadership and immediately afterwards) to a very general set of philosophical principles that were taken up and applied in numerous contexts—but then, so was “communism,” and I have used that term. So perhaps Marxist-Leninist is the answer. However, it seems to me that it would take some heavy discursive work for “Marxist-Leninist Albania” to become a term that a broad audience could conceptualize…but perhaps the work should be done by those of us who write on this period.

Along similar lines, the term “Enverist” (or “enverist”) could be used. This would acknowledge the specificity of Hoxha’s version of Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism-Maoism (the list could go on, of course). This seems to be one option Kodra would prefer, since he uses the term “Albanian Enverism” in his second post. However, I protest this term on the grounds that it treats the collective manifestations of culture and politics (I am interested specifically in culture, but of course they cannot be separated) of Albania 1944-1991 (or 1944-1985?) as solely the product of Enver Hoxha in some essential way. This to me seems equally sensationalist.[2] Kodra clearly wants to divide the negative associations of Enver Hoxha’s regime from the term “communism”, but this seems to me to simply transfer any negativity to the construct “Enver Hoxha,” as if he was the sole actor and bestower of meaning in “communist” Albania. Yes, I would like to preserve the potential of communism as a way of acting, believing, thinking, and living that is quite separate from Enver Hoxha’s method of cultural and political existence. However, I think this is done not by using alternative terms/concepts, but simply by acknowledging that the term “communism” (or “communist”) does not have a single hard and fast meaning. It most certainly does not always mean that the reference is to “actually existing communism.” I think I can say, of myself, that I have never used the term “communist” to imply that something (a sculpture, a painting, a regime, a dictator) corresponded completely with the concrete actuality of a communist reality. And this is precisely because I do not believe “communist” reality (or even “socialist” reality, but this is a separate conversation I am happy to have with Kodra or anyone who desires) to be something that appears concretely in the world in an empirically verifiable way. Quite the opposite.

To put it plainly: I regard all “communist” discourse as utopian, which is to say I regard it as taking up an attitude towards the world that posits an impossible endpoint that one nonetheless comports oneself towards. I realize that some (indeed, many) believe that communism is something that could be ‘realized’ in a way that would not merely be representational or utopic. I politely disagree, and I stake my use of the concept “communist” on this. When I have used the term “communist” to describe art or politics relating to the creation of art in Albania 1944-1991 (for this is the field I study), I mean that this is an art, a politics, a regime, a culture that takes up a particular attitude towards a utopian future reality of “communism”—a future that is never realized.[3] Communism is not a (and was not) a condition that ‘actually existed’ and made the things ‘within’ it “communist”; rather, “communism” as a horizon makes certain things “communist.” I hope that this at least clarifies my use of the term, and the futural quality of the Albanian art and culture I have used it to describe.

In his speech “Shkrimtarët dhe Artistët Janë Ndihmës të Partisë për Edukimin Komunist e Njerëzve Tanë” [“Writers and Artists Help the Party to Achieve the Communist Education of Our People”], delivered in December of 1974 at the Secretariat of the Central Committee of the People’s Republic of Albania, Enver Hoxha stated that “Marxism-Leninism leads the people [of the world] towards the new life, towards socialism, and towards communism.”[4] This forward-directedness, the motion towards an unachievable utopia  that nonetheless stands as the final term in any list of social transformations, is the meaning I intend to capture with my use of the term “communist.” Perhaps it is not the right word, but it seems at least as appropriate as the others I have considered here.

I hope that this post makes clear my use of the term “communist” to both my readers and to Romeo Kodra. I thank him again for raising the issue—and pressing it—and welcome a discussion from any and all parties about the way we might treat the valences of the term “communist” in a way that respects the weight of responsibility associated with that use—and does not simply linger in sensationalism.

[1] It is perhaps enough to say that I do not know why the EU should be the standard for ‘normal,’ not am I clear on why exactly it should be exalted as a place where “communism” is not sensationalized as a term.

[2] Likewise, the term “totalitarian” has sometimes been applied to Albania 1944-1991 (or some subsection of this period), but seems equally—if not more—sensationalist. I should also like to point out that I am also unsatisfied with the implication that everything ‘bad’ about Albania 1944-1991 should be blamed on Hoxha and his government, as if there were nothing good about ‘enverism.’ Likewise, speaking of “Albanian Stalinism” seems equally weighted with negative connotations. In short, I find myself at a loss to propose an alternative term that would not suffer the same fate as “communism/ist.”

[3] One could, of course, say that Hoxha’s regime never legitimately aimed at this utopic future horizon of communism…but this is to ignore the regime’s rhetoric, and I would argue that that very rhetoric created a reality that—at least in part—unavoidably looked to a utopic communist future.

[4] Hoxha, Mbi Letërsinë dhe Artin (Tiranë: 8 Nëntori, 1977), 476.

Të Thellojmë Njohjen e Jetës

This is the sixth in a series of posts containing PDFs of texts that may be of interest to those studying Albanian socialist realism. Initially I had planned to write thorough descriptions and analyses of the content of the documents, but I barely have the time to scan them, much less write extensive commentaries. 

Nentori, April 1965 cover 

Today’s volume is an excerpt from the April 1975 volume of Nëntori, featuring the discussions at the Plenum of Albanian Union of Writers and Artists of that year. The proceedings, written by critics such as Dritëro Agolli, Kujtim Buza, Sterjo Spasse, Pipi Mitrojorgji, and others, often deal with the intellectual results of the 4th Plenum of the Central Congress and the influence of the National Exhibition of figurative arts devoted to the 30th anniversary of liberation.

The art in the issue is devoted to the 30th anniversary of the Forcat e Kufirit and the Policia Popullore. The cover features a great painting by Pandi Mele, which in turn features a Lapidar!

Happy reading!

Eros on the Roads of War: Some Brief Notes on Hektor Dule’s Në Udhët e Luftës For and Against the Decadences of the Flesh

Another in my continuing series of posts giving vaguely idiosyncratic readings of Albanian socialist realist art. 

Hektor Dule, Në Udhët e Luftës, plaster version, photo by A. Kruti in Drita, 8 September 1975.
Hektor Dule, Në Udhët e Luftës, plaster version, photo by A. Kruti in Drita, 8 September 1975.

First exhibited in during the National Exhibition dedicated to the 30th Anniversary of National Liberation, Hektor Dule’s Në Udhët e Luftës [On the Paths of War] (also called Në Rrugën e Luftës) now stands in Tirana’s Great Park,[1] near to the fountains (and also to the new assortment of exercise equipment installed in the last few years). The bronze statue, depicting an Albanian woman holding up a jug of water and allowing a partisan soldier to drink deeply from it, seems appropriately placed in its pseudo-natural surroundings. It is, after all, about the nourishment of the body in the course of its struggles…what better location for it that the Great Park, where the body—in exercise, in sex, in relaxation and communion with an artificial nature—is fundamental to the creation and experience of space?

In 1975, writing of the work’s appearance in the exhibition (in its earlier version done in plaster), Fatmir Haxhiu wrote that “precisely in this moment both ordinary and life-affirming, in this fundamentally simple act—one that may people have encountered during the war years (a mother giving a jug of water to a partisan)—the artist struggles to show the love and intimacy that our people felt for the partisans, and the support that ordinary people gave to the partisans during the National Liberation War. And the artist achieves his goal. The two figures are connected to each other in a conceptual unity and by the complete harmonization of their forms.”[2] Later, Haxhiu writes, “It is an intimate work” [my emphasis].[3] The remainder of his article praises Dule (who at this point was one of the important figures in a new generation of Albanian sculptors, best known for the Mushqeta monument and his work with the famous ‘monumental trio’ of K. Rama, Sh. Hadëri, and M. Dhrami), offers the typically supportive assessment of his treatment of themes from the National Liberation War, and makes some minor aesthetic criticisms aimed at his future improvement as a sculptor.

Without dismissing the relevance of the ever-present theme of the partisan struggle, and certainly without wishing to poke fun at either Haxhiu’s analysis or Dule’s work, I would like to suggest a slightly different interpretation of Në Udhët e Luftës. Perhaps it is more accurate to say: I wish to expand upon our understanding of the themes of the partisan struggle precisely by pausing as we read the words love and intimacy, and considering what sculptural traditions Dule’s work is truly in dialogue with. In short, I would like to introduce (or perhaps, since so much popular discourse seems so committed to separating the two, to reintroduce) the question of the body, sensuality, and sex into the discussion of Albanian socialist realist sculpture.

For it seems undeniable to me that Dule’s sculptural group carries an immense sexual charge (and not just because of some vague associations with what goes on elsewhere in the Great Park). If Haxhiu’s analysis of the work seems to avoid this aspect, I think the fact that he uses the words “love and intimacy” to characterize the work indicates his awareness of the issues potentially broached by the work and an active attempt to undercut them. In much the same way, I think that Dule is trying to use the tropes of a certain sculptural tradition in the context of socialist realism in order partially to undermine them and partially to harness them.

Clodion, Nymph and Satyr Carousing (also known as The Intoxication of Wine), 18th century (ca. 1780–90), terracotta, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, photo from the Met's website
Clodion, Nymph and Satyr Carousing (also known as The Intoxication of Wine), 18th century (ca. 1780–90), terracotta, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, photo from the Met’s website

To see the eroticism of Dule’s sculpture, we need only compare it to a work that I dare say it was actually intended to be in dialogue with: Clodion’s Nymph and Satyr Carousing (also known as The Intoxication of Wine), 18th century (ca. 1780–90), terracotta, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Clodion’s work, which straddles (as the sculptor himself did) the turn towards the Neoclassical in sculpture with the more playful sensuality of the Rococo, is a kind of decadent mirror of Dule’s work. In Clodion: a satyr, the preeminent mythical being of male lust, leans back, allowing himself to rest upon a stone as he lifts one animal leg off the ground and pulls a naked nymph to him, his fingers digging into the flesh of her back. She leans into him, straddling his left leg, wrapping her right arm around his neck, and holds a goblet of wine above his mouth, pouring. In Dule: an Albanian woman, barefoot and dressed in garb that suggests she must be a villager) stands before a male partisan. Her feet are slightly apart, and one of his booted feet steps forward, placed firmly between hers. Her left arm and shoulder are drawn back, her clothing flowing out a bit behind her, and her right hand reaches out to steady a full, rounded jug as the partisan holds it in his right hand, by its handle, above his head. His head is thrown back, the jug held a few inches from his open mouth to allow the water to flow down his throat. His left shoulder is likewise thrown back, exposing his chest, and he braces his weight on his left leg. His left hand steadies the his rifle at waist height, as its barrel juts out phallically, but directed away from the woman. The only contact between the two bodies takes place between her sleeve and his chest as she steadies the jug, but she stares directly at his face as he drinks in a fixed gaze that connects the two emotionally, physically, and compositionally. Like Clodion’s pair, Në Udhët e Luftës rewards viewing in the round, shifting perspectives that give us different views of the two bodies and their intimate connections.

Hektor Dule, Në Udhët e Luftës, bronze version in Tirana's Great Park
Hektor Dule, Në Udhët e Luftës, bronze version in Tirana’s Great Park

I do not think that Dule’s sculpture intends to posit for its viewer a narrative of sexual engagement between the village woman and the partisan he shows, although that is certainly possible.[4] Rather, I think that Dule takes the tradition of which Clodion is emblematic (a Neoclassical sensibility, but with one foot still in the aristocratic tastes of the Rococo,[5] celebrating not only the sobriety of antiquity but also its Bacchic excesses) and attempts to overcome it in the context of socialist realism. Socialist realism was, after all, as much a “logic of cultural supplementarity, a logic that established itself by qualifying previous aesthetic traditions that were already…known” (as Devin Fore asserts), as it was a style in itself.[6] At the same time, however, he brings sensuality into socialist realism, offering a view of the National Liberation War—in its most “ordinary” and “life-affirming” moments—as a struggle that includes the sensual gratification of the body and its desires, of the partisan reinvigorated physically by is encounter with the village mother. There is no need to digress into Freud, and love, and the death drive (though indeed one could) to consider the equation of war, sexuality, and physical release that Në Udhët e Luftës presents. As much as Haxhiu seems careful to ensure that “love and intimacy” have strictly Platonic meanings in the context of Dule’s sculptural pair, the suggestion of sexual fullness present in the jug, the rifle held stiffly at waist-level, the partisan’s head thrown back, and the assertive offering of the village woman trace the contours of a very different set of connotations.

Hektor Dule, Në Udhët e Luftës, bronze version in Tirana's Great Park
Hektor Dule, Në Udhët e Luftës, bronze version in Tirana’s Great Park

One could certainly go further, and perhaps one should. All I mean to suggest here is the necessity of reasserting the body and its pleasures—sexual and sensual—at the heart of socialist realist sculpture (and art in general) in Albania (and elsewhere, of course). Works like Në Udhët e Luftës reveal the tension of inheriting the sculptural tradition of bodily desire made materially manifest, and the rich possibilities of bringing that ‘decadent’ tradition into the context of the National Liberation War narrative—of denying the pleasures of the flesh, but also of reaffirming them in the context of sacrifice and struggle. It should also remind us that the war years were not simply a clash of battalions and strategies, of ideas and ideologies, but also of bodies and their desires.

[1] I would welcome anyone with information about the precise year in which the bronze version of the statue was placed in the park—I confess I have no information regarding this placement.

[2] Fatmir Haxhiu, “Në Udhët e Luftës: Shënime rreth grupit skulptural të H. Dules,” Drita, 28 September 1975.

[3] Ibid.

[4] And the narrative itself seems plausible, though I have read no accounts that discuss the occurrence and/or frequency of sexual dalliances between partisans and the ‘ordinary people’ that gave them support and shelter during the war.

[5] Indeed, what style or period could more fully epitomize the “decadence” of bourgeois culture—that perennial enemy of socialist society—than the Rococo?

[6] Devin Fore, Realism After Modernism: The Rehumanization of Art and Literature (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012), 244

A Style and a Half or Half a Style?: Modernism, Socialist Realism, and Postmodernism in Albanian Art

Vilson Kilica realist? Më 1960 ai ishte një nga themeluesit e Institutit të Lartë të Arteve, të cilin ai e drejtoi. Në ateljenë e tij, një portret i presidentit të vjetër Hoxha tregon që ai di t’i pikturojë gjërat ashtu siç janë, por të gjitha vepra të tjera të tij afirmojnë vizionin e pastër dhe subjektiv të botës. Dhe për të, arti është një problem individual, e në asnjë mënyrë kolektiv. Herezi? [Vilson Kilica, a realist? In 1960, he was one of the founders of the Institute of Arts, for which he served as director. In his atelier, a portrait of the former president Hoxha shows that he knows how to paint things as they are, but all his other works affirm a pure and subjective vision of the world. For him, art is an individual problem, in no way a collective one. Is this heresy?]—Denis Picard, in Connaissance des Arts, 1990[1]

Vilson Kilica, Peisazh, 1993
Vilson Kilica, Peisazh, 1993

Among Boris Groys’ most famous formulations is that of socialist realism as “a style and a half,” occupying a middle position between the modernist avant-garde of the early 20th century and the postmodernist ironic eclecticism of the latter part of the century.[2] Indeed, reading Groys—still probably the most oft-cited Western theorist of socialist realism—one has the impression that the acceptance of socialist realism [hereafter: socrealism] as a legitimate subject of study is based firmly (and solely) upon its role as theoretical, political, and visual fodder for the subsequent Moscow conceptualists and heroes of Sots Art. Groys’ analysis of socrealism has been the subject of a number of critiques, both in terms of its reading of the relationship between the avant-garde and socrealism and its reading of the relationship between socrealism and postmodernism, and my purpose is neither to summarize these critiques nor to add to them. Rather, I would like to pose a question that might seem to some to be straightforward and  even retrograde: What can we say about Modernism after Socrealism—in the case of Albania in particular? In a history of styles, how do we do justice to modernist paintings done in the wake of the system of socrealism? How does socrealism change the relationship between modernism and postmodernism? Is such a ‘belated’ modernism[3] a style and a half? Half a style?

Zef Shoshi, Grup Portret Zadrimoresh, 2004
Zef Shoshi, Grup Portret Zadrimoresh, 2004

The corpus I want to understand is not so much those ‘modernist’ paintings done in Albania during the period of socialist control, during which socrealism as the mandated style—and which were often ether condemned or kept secret, but which in some cases were celebrated as exemplars of socialist art. Instead, I am concerned with how we might understand the art (and in this case, I am most concerned with painting) created in the late 1980s (after Enver Hoxha’s death in 1985), the 90s, and the early 2000s that might be described as ‘modernist,’ much of it created by artists who began their careers as socrealists. (I use the term ‘modernist’ here in the vaguest and most uncritical sense, as a descriptor for art that tends towards abstraction [though it is still often figurative]; is concerned with formal experimentation more than content; and often embraces subjectivity or universality, or both in spite of their apparent contradictions.) What can we say about this art and its stylistic significance? What do we say about Zef Shoshi’s (seemingly unending) images of Zadrimoret ? About Vilson Kilica’s colorful surrealist landscapes? The question will, no doubt, be uninteresting to many readers, and I should like to elaborate some of the potential objections to this investigation, if only to make it clear what I am not concerned with understanding or criticizing. First, of course, one could ask: what is the use of trying to fit a belated, post-socrealist, pre-postmoderist modernism into a history of styles anyway? Hasn’t the history of styles long been an implicit enemy of the study of non-Western modernisms (and even of early-20th-century American modernisms), since it often inevitably privileges teleological narratives of the purification of stylistic paradigms (in regions where artists nearly always mixed the most diverse styles), not to mention continually drifting close to the trap of tying visual properties to ideological schemas in stable systems? Aren’t we art historians well and truly done with such a formalist enterprise, and aren’t we better off for it?

The answer, I think, is no on both accounts. I will not fully elaborate all of the reasons for the continued relevance of this question here, but one is of particular significance here: the history of styles is a global history, and it is a history of abstract ideas as much as of localized agencies, forces, and differences. The well-founded critique of the global history of styles is that, at best, it misses the specificities of the local and, at worst, it subsumes local specificities to dominant (Western) paradigms. Unfortunately, this critique often takes the form of a call for histories ‘radical contextualized,’ which both assumes that such contexts are actually and significantly present for particular works of art and often paradoxically implies that the only way to recover the importance of marginalized art histories is to discuss them on a political, social, and visual level almost totally divorced from that of the global history of styles.[4] Insofar as I am quite interested in the specificity of the Albanian case, I am here also interested in using it to help tell a much broader story about the temporal emergence of modernism and its possible chronological positions in a history of styles.

The second objection (or set of objections) that might be raised to the investigation of post-socrealism Albanian modernism as modernism is that this approach 1) heroizes modernism as the escape from the artificial confinements placed on painting under the socrealist system;[5] 2) perpetuates the idea of a country like Albania as ‘behind’ in the global cultural trajectory, since it has only recently produced modernist painting; 3) [the implicit corollary to the previous objection] reveals that there is nothing much of interest in such painting from a stylistic point of view, since it only repeats what has been done before elsewhere (at best it is significant in a ‘radically contextualized’ political-artistic history;[6] and 4) devotes too much attention to a (be)late(d) modernism and ignores the very real work to be done on modernist painting in Albania before the advent of socrealism. Against this set of objections I have little to say except that they represent points of views and approaches that are not immediately of interest to me. What I am interested in is the possibility of discussing modernism as something ancillary to socrealism in both a chronological and a conceptual sense, something that builds upon socrealism rather than being distorted or erased by it. Furthermore, I am interested in thinking more critically about how modernism-after-socrealism might continue to serve a real stylistic political function in a time when critical attention is more squarely focused on both ‘postmodern’ and ‘contemporary’ art.[7]

Vilson Kilica, Fushe e Blerte, 2008
Vilson Kilica, Fushe e Blerte, 2008

I doubt that many would insist that modernism (or, let me say for the moment, Modernism) is insignificant in the current and recent Albanian political context (and argue instead that the Albanian politico-cultural context is purely ‘postmodern’). Modernism’s current relevance—both stylistically and philosophically—is continually reaffirmed by debates surrounding public aesthetic policy in Albania, from the designs for the 2012 Monument to the Anniversary of Independence, to the aesthetics of projects like Bunk’Art, to Edi Rama’s own state-as-a-work-of-art political paradigm. No amount of metacommentary (of the kind, for example, represented by Anri Sala’s documentation of Rama’s projects) can completely displace recent examples of public art from the realm of modernist aesthetics into the realm of postmodernist post-aesthetics.

However, I hope that my present argument amounts to saying more than “We—or at least, Albanians—are still in Modernism; we never escaped it” (a decidedly unsatisfactory assertion at best). The traditional art historical trajectory sees the formalist concerns of modernist painting (as abstract expressionism, or as art informel, for example) in terms of an escape from the explicitly political contexts of the wars and subsequent totalitarian states, and a new kind of traditional reading of socrealism credits its explicit politicization of aesthetics with the postmodernist realization that ‘everything is political.’[8] What would it mean, however, to set alongside those general accounts of stylistic trajectories, and to take seriously, these three propositions: 1) Socrealism (as a realism) can predate modernism.[9] Alternately, it can come into being as an early, embryonic form of modernism rather than a late one; it can be “half a style” and not only “a style and a half.” 2) Positioned at in the earlier stages of modernism, socrealism is not so much partially responsible for the political awareness of postmodernism as it is partially responsible for the political awareness of later forms of modernism. In other words, it is not simply that socrealism inherits the philosophies of the avant-garde: it also forges the avant-garde. 3) With and in contrast to 2), socrealism doesn’t just help to create the collective, politically-aware positions that characterize some postmodern artistic practices; it also helps create the possibility of the modern artist as individual creative subject. This creative subject can be alternately conceived as radically political (a politician-artist like Edi Rama being a [perhaps worn out but still quite accurate] prime example), or as apolitical and ‘free’ from social pressures. This third proposition in effect reverses the implicit logic of Denis Picard’s quotation used to introduce my essay: there (in quite a cliché manner, but that does not mean it is any less critically relevant) the “pure and subjective” vision of art as an “individual problem” is considered primary, and any “collective” distortions are subsequent. Instead, let us entertain the possibility that socialist realism does not construct a collective aesthetic epistemology (for example, by effacing, subjugating, and distorting a more primordial individual artistic subject-position), but instead generates the individual subject, and with it the style of the individual artist, as something secondary.[10] Thus, the modern (or Modern) artist is the supplement of socrealism, not the reverse. Socrealism is not always something added on en route to postmodernism; sometimes it is modernism that is added on.

This was, perhaps unsurprisingly, nearly precisely the claim of socrealism in Albania: the collective made possible the individual aesthetic personality of the artist. Kujtim Buza states it most clearly:

Në qoftë se M. Dhrami realizoi me sukses skulpturën “Lart frymën revolucionare”, K. Rama “Shote Galicën”, H. Dule kompozimin “Brez pas brezi”, Sh. Hadëri “Herojt e Vigut”, etj., kjo ndodi sepse personaliteti i tyre krijues u poq në mes të kolektivit, u farkëtua në shkollën e madhe të kolektivit. [If Muntas Dhrami successfully created the sculpture “Lart frymën revolucionare”, Kristaq Rama the work”Shote Galica,” Hektor Dule the work “Brez pas brezi,” Shaban Hadëri “Herojt e Vigut,” etc., this happened because their creative personalities matured in the midst of the collective, were forged in the great school of the collective.][11]

To a certain extent, taking seriously the model I have suggested here amounts to a structuralist reading of art history, where modernism and postmodernism always exist as stylistically or thematically distinct possibilities that need not conform to any teleological progression. I am certainly not opposed to such a framework, and I think it moves beyond certain teleologies that—no matter how much we insist they have been debunked—still guide the writing of 20th-century art history. However, I also want to suggest—in my use of the Derridean vocabulary of the ‘supplement’—that a reassessment of the chronology of modernism, socrealism, and postmodernism does more than enrich our understanding of a structure: it also destabilizes and redoubles a set of conceptual and aesthetic categories that (and here the ‘radical contextualization’ will slip back in) have too often been considered primarily in the context of Western Europe, Russia, and/or America, and only secondarily (supplementarily) in places like the Balkans. This destabilization might result in a fresh set of questions regarding the presence or absence (read: the interiority or exteriority) of modernism, socrealism, and postmodernism to each other both in the 20th century and in the 21st—questions that the chronological placement of socrealism as “a style and a half” cannot ask. What would it mean to write socialist realism as the effaced origin of a (be)late(d) Modernism, and to see that Modernism as interwoven throughout every attempt to go beyond it, every postmodernism? In this context, I think we might find a new significance in the (both valorized and decried) colorful geometric landscapes, abstract partial torsos, and Fauvist folk scenes of Albanian modernist art in the decades around the turn of this century.

Zef Shoshi, Malesor i Qeshur, 2009
Zef Shoshi, Malesor i Qeshur, 2009

This might seem a rather unsatisfactory conclusion, but I mean the previous discussion as an incitement to discussion rather than a definitive statement—not least because it seems that relatively little has been said about the (allegedly naïve, at worst hopelessly kitsch) emergence of modernism[12] in the past three decades in countries like Albania. Allow me to close—with a sort of footnote—by returning to Groys, who refers to the work of the Russian ‘postmodernists’ as “post-utopian,” suggesting that the utopia envisioned by the early 20th-century Russian avant-garde was ‘realized’ in a sense by socrealism, and that contemporary artists work in this fallout. Something in this implies (although I do not think this is Groys’ point) a spatio-temporal incompatibility between the failure (or the end) of utopia and the practice of modernist aesthetics…as if modernism can only prefigure utopia and all that comes after utopia is either ‘postmodern’ or ‘contemporary.’[13]  If the interior of the body of Modernism continually—and absolutely—reforms itself, why not consider the utopian dreams of socrealism yet another block of ‘becoming-Modern’? What kind of temporality would we have to conceptualize to envision stylistic modernism after utopia?

[1] Qtd. in Vilson Kilica: Një Jetë në Krijimtari (Tirana: Studio Kilica, 2012), 10.

[2] See Groys, “A Style and a Half: Socialist Realism Between Modernism and Postmodernism,” in Socialist Realism Without Shores, ed. Thomas Lahusen and Evgeny Dobrenko (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997), 76-90. Of course, Groys is quite explicit that socrealism is a modernism, albeit one “of a very particular kind” (76). Thus, the significance of socrealism is also argued based upon its realization of particular principles inherent to modernism and the modern project or experience more broadly.

[3] I use the term ‘belated’ with a great sense of aversion and caution, but I think it is appropriate. While I think the term is often misplaced in discussing developments in Eastern European art of the (earlier) 20th century, there is a sense in which any modernist art coming in the final decades of the century (to say nothing of the 21st) is ‘belated’ not in the sense that it comes after the same developments have occurred elsewhere, but that it comes after developments that elsewhere, it preceded. For example, if it is generally the case that socrealism grew out of and ultimately against modernism, what can we say about modernism that grows out of socrealism and ultimately against postmodernism?

[4] These are, of course, extreme positions, and they most certainly should not imply either that all those who seek ‘radical contextualization’ adhere to these ideas, nor that ‘radical contextualization’ is unhelpful. It is. However, as an art historical strategy, it often displays an aversion to overarching discussions of style that are still helpful in understanding art history in the longer view. After all, it is not necessarily likely that subsequent histories of the 20th and 21st centuries will see the shift from modernism to postmodernism as we do, or even that they will see them as distinctly as we do.

[5] The quotation at the beginning of this essay is emblematic of this heroization of painters as ‘modernist’ (as opposed to ‘realist’.

[6] The implication being that one misses out on what is being done by actually innovative artists if one focuses on those who merely uncritically repeat or dabble in earlier paradigms. This may be true, but it is far more convincing from an aesthetic/art-critical standpoint, and less so from one that attempts to theorize as inclusive a history as possible. The more problematic side of this objection is when it also carries the implication that what we can all agree on is that such belated (or worse, pseudo-) modernist painting from contemporary Albanian painters is bad. I disagree that it is all bad, but that is not the point: questions of style are not all questions of  aesthetic merit, and I am not interested in aesthetic merit.

[7] In fact, I consider the designation ‘contemporary’ to be quite helpful in contradistinction to ‘postmodern,’ but  often theorists of contemporary art avoid using the label for art that seems squarely rooted in the presuppositions of  earlier modernisms. This is, in my view, a bit too limited; I would prefer that the term ‘contemporary’ also included the (set of rather uncritical) revisitations and re-appropriations of modernism that are often found in chronologically ‘contemporary’ and postmodern art. (I prefer it to a term like Svetlana Boym’s ‘off-modernism’, which, while I think it is accurate and appealing, seems to somehow imply that the off-modern is not coterminous with the contemporary…and in many cases it is.)

[8] Recently, for example, the relationships between the political position of socrealist art and that of contemporary art in China have been discussed by Liu Ding and Carol Yinghua Lu, in ” From the Issue of Art to the Issue of Position: The Echoes of Socialist Realism,” e-flux 5 (2014), available from (accessed 1/7/2015).

[9] When I say, in the context of Albania, that socialist realism can predate modernism, I do not mean to imply that Albanian culture existed in some vacuum where modernism did not penetrate. This was manifestly not the case, since nearly all of the earliest modern painters in Albania were educated abroad. However, there is a difference between a style being practiced by some and a style achieving heightened significance in society. The point is not that there was no modernism in Albania before socrealism, but that socrealism was part of the development of modernism, and not a break away from that development (either in a regressive sense, or in the sense of prefiguring what would come after modernism).

[10] We can of course still be suspicious of this individual creative artist, and the search for his or her origin, but we gain a new understanding of the origin of the myth of such a figure.

[11] “Puna Krijuese Kolektive në Fushën e Arteve Figurative,” Drita, September 27, 1970. Here too, there is the danger of imposing the kind of binary that theorists like Jameson impose, wherein ‘first world’ cultural production starts from subjectivity, and ‘third world’ cultural production starts from collective political analogies. However, one need not embrace such a rigid framework to extract valuable insights from the idea of beginning from the collective

[12] Note that I do not say “return to modernism.” if it is, in some cases, a return, a retreat from the excesses of postmodernism, I think that this is not always the case. Precisely because the movement I am suggesting here is not teleological, I do not think it is necessary to view the appearance of something very similar to (if not identical to) modernism in contemporary works as a ‘return.’

[13] Of course, the dream of utopia shows up in many ‘contemporary’ works, and I do not think that these works are all (or even mostly) modern.

The Unofficial View of Tirana (83)

Today’s essay—an examination of Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama’s recent speech at Creative Time—is a guest post by Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei, the 83rd in his ongoing Unofficial View of Tirana series.

While local journalists were once again busy regurgitating worn-down, coma inducing positions about yet another spectral appearance of Enver Hoxha at the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Tirana, very few cared to analyze the rather remarkable speech of PM Edi Rama at the 6th Annual Creative Time Summit on November 15 in Stockholm. According to the Creative Time website, an internationally operative (public) art organization based in New York, Edi Rama “led important post-Communist reforms, including the vetting of government officials to reestablish civic trust.” This “Get To Know” catch phrase seems to suggest that the entire period up to Rama’s advent to power, including the previous 8 years of Sali Berisha’s reign, can be labeled as “Communist.” As for civic trust, let’s hope that the currently developing scandal around several tenders handled through (or dumped on) the Ministry of Culture will not break its spell. A pull quote on the same page cites Rama as follows: “I’m not sure I am a politician. I would say that I am still an artist, and I’m trying to use politics as an instrument for change.”

Each year, ArtReview publishes the “Power 100” list, comprising the most powerful figures in the global art scene. This year’s most powerful person is Nicholas Serota, director of the TATE in London, followed by gallerists David Zwirner and Iwan Wirth on positions 2 and 3. But who on this list wields a fully functioning army, the nominal monopoly on violence across a territory the size of Belgium, and an annual spending budget of about 3.35 billion euros? Who on this list gets to reorganize city centers, decide immigration policies, and negotiate with the Worldbank? This is not to say that Rama wields all this power personally, but with a nearly absolute majority in parliament, an unquestioned authority within his own party, and an opposition that is scattered, desperate, and simply a sad joke, none of the above has proven particularly difficult to pull off. While Neue Slovenische Kunst invented a state “in time,” without territory but also without temporal finitude, whereas my colleague Jonas Staal travels to communist enclaves in the Philippines, Azawad in Mali, and Syrian Kurdistan in search of the “stateless state,” Edi Rama has captured what could have well been a “failed democracy,” and has turned it – with barely anyone noticing – from the “state art” of socialist realism into the “art state” of realist socialism, with Tony “Third Way” Blair as its counsellor. Considering this state of affairs, we would do well to look closely at Rama’s speech (which has not been published on his homepage), keeping in mind that his audience here consisted precisely of those artists, curators, intellectuals, writers, who are not featured in ArtReview’s Top 100.

Edi Rama in a fluffy yellow frame, his desk on the background.
Edi Rama in a fluffy yellow frame, his desk on the background.

Edi Rama is explicitly introduced as someone (an artist) in the position to act, that is, different from the regular artist down the street who merely contemplates, incites, reflects, suggests, complicates, and mirrors, someone who can have things done. His presentation therefore necessarily begins with an image of the place where he gets things done: the desk in his governmental office (I wrote about his desk before in the Unofficial View of Tirana 70, which unfortunately has been removed by my previous host continent.), his colored pencils in focus and the Albanian flag and founder of the nation Ismail Qemali in the blurred background: the prominence of the symbols of art is emphasized over those of the state. This is an image that will be constantly reaffirmed by Rama’s speech, which otherwise features no other images but his painting of Tirana’s façades when he was a mayor. This desk is therefore the only image of his contemporary political practice.

I have transcribed his entire lecture  in full from the video recording on the Creative Time website, and provided it with a running commentary between the different sections.

We are all, whether a country or a human being, a product of our past and of what we learn from it. A product too of our character and our ambitions. I am a prime minister now. I developed from what I was to become what I am. I am the same person doing different things. I was an artist. I still like to paint and draw, I just have less time. But in politics too, I try paint a canvas. I visualize how I want our country to be, to feel. How I want to change as the world changes around us. I am not saying that all prime ministers should be artists of course, far from it. It is good if politics is a gathering of people how come from a variety of backgrounds. From Reagan, who was an actor, to the Swedish prime minister, who is a welder, to variety in experiences is amazing. And even when the variety in professional backgrounds is less striking – Margaret Thatcher was a chemist, Angela Merkel a PhD in chemistry – their brush in the larger tableau is far from being similar, but both impressive. I think the skills we have in one field may help or hinder in another, though, in spite of all, the artist in me is never still.

The opening paragraph sets up the main metaphor of Rama’s speech, namely the idea of politics as “painting a canvas,” something he will later connect to the metaphor (if not cliche) of the “big picture.” At the same time, he suggests that not only artists would be able to engage properly in this politico-artistic act. He names a variety of politicians with vocations different from artist: an actor, a welder, and two chemists. That by far the majority of the politicians from the US, UK, Sweden, or Germany never had any other vocation than being a politician–bureaucrat–corporate manager is ignored, or maybe Rama intends to suggest that “professional” politicians would be unable to engage the political canvas on the same terms: the ancient idea that politics should never be someone’s profession.

The examples listed by Rama, supposedly from a left-wing party, are surprising. The first politician he names is none other than Ronald Reagan, hardly a thinker with left-wing aspirations, who is than followed by other right-wing hardliners such as Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel. Typically, the working class representative among the politicians remains nameless (his name is Stefan Löfven, from the Swedish Social Democratic Party). Adam Curtis, among others, already suggested that the Third Way advocated by Tony Blair and Bill Clinton at the end of the 1990s was nothing but a continuation of the neoliberal politics of Reagan and Thatcher. That these two names – and we again keep in mind that Blair is a close advisor of the Prime Minister – reappear in this context as contributing to the “variety of backgrounds” creates a certain discomfort as regards the type of canvas that is supposed to be painted with this “amazing” “variety of experiences.” Why not  Polish prime minister Ewa Kopacz, a pediatrician? Or what about José Mujica ex-guerrilla fighter and president of Uruguay or Evo Morales, anti-War on Drugs campaigner and president of Bolivia? In other words, the friendly sounding term “variety” here is used to obfuscate that his examples do not suggest any variety whatsoever – they all point into the same political direction.

Two pages of Rama's doodles: a calendar page from December 11, 2006 (when he mayor of Tirana) and a printout from the French Socialist Party's website from 2005.
Two pages of Rama’s doodles: a calendar page from December 11, 2006 (when he mayor of Tirana) and a printout from the French Socialist Party’s website from 2005.

Once I met someone who got really offended because I was drawing while we were talking in my office. Regular visitors are used to this, I do it all the time. I doodle all over my daily agenda. My office table is somehow my atelier. But the visitor who became offended by my drawing, thought I didn’t care about what he was saying. He said: I came here and I have a problem, so don’t draw while I’m talking to you. I apologized, put down my pen, discussed the issue, he bowed to me and he left. The next time I met with him, I remembered the offense he had taken so I push my pot of pens to the other end of the desk and I did not draw. Yet, still he was not happy. At the end he said: I feel that you are not listening. You are looking at me, but you are not here. And I said: You see, allow me to draw if you want me to concentrate. If you want me to listen to you and be myself.

This anecdote reveals several aspects of Rama’s politico-artisthood. His drawing and doodling is a compulsion. He does it “all the time,” and without it, he is not himself. Drawing here is a necessary supplement to listening, as he cannot “concentrate” without having a pen in his hand, sketching out the conversation. There is thus a direct mediation between the conversation partner, who puts forth his “problem,” and “drawing the picture” – a mediation that is thoughtless and effortless. Because of the position of this morality tale, which is at the same type an example of his political ethos and a warning not to disrupt it, just after the introduction of the canvas of politics, this image suddenly becomes much more concrete. While engaging in politics, discussing the issues of the country, studies for the larger canvas are doodled on his agenda and memos. Continuous artistic production therefore slowly contaminates and erases the minutiae of administrative language. Contrary to the slow trickle-down of bureaucracy, Rama authoritatively transforms the concerns of the citizen immediately and without interruption into the bigger, political picture. Doodling here becomes a sovereign gesture that cancels out bureaucratic and administrative procedure. It is therefore not difficult to imagine an absurdist scene in which dozens of government officials are peering over Rama’s colored notes, interpreting the colors, shapes, and forms of the doodles as if they were divining a sheep’s liver or the drivel on the bottom of a coffee cup.

The first time in my life that entered a state building in Albania was when I assumed public office, when I became Minister of Culture. It happened in a moment, in very extraordinary circumstances. Life takes many turns, and this was not one I had expected. But this is a story for another day. It was 1998 and I settled into this new life. I imagined I buried the painter in me. But then two years later I stood for elections for Major of Tirana. And I won, and I saw a city facing so many challenges. In front of us such high expectations of my campaign. That is when I felt my political impulse, the desire to offer people a better future, fused with my artistic impulse. I oversaw a plan to splash brightly colored paints on drab and soulless buildings in the city’s main entrance roads. To me it was political action with colors. Not with words, either with legislation.

Our analysis of the first anecdote is corroborated by the next story. The surface of papers, agendas, and memos is replaced by the “drab and soulless” surface of the buildings in Tirana. The unstoppable “artistic impulse” to doodle on the face of and equally “drab and soulless” bureaucracy is combined with a “political impulse, the desire to offer people a better future.” What constitutes here a “better future” – not to mention that which would have “soul” – remains utterly vague, but if we are to take a cue from the politics of the only other politicians mentioned in the speech – Reagan, Thatcher, and Merkel – this does not bode very well for anyone who had hopes that this prime minister would be true to “socialism” in any form or function. That he painted his own party’s headquarters into a fuchsia pink instead of the traditional red, has been the first indication for this, and yet the present opposition seems utterly blind to it, bleating about communism and enverism at Rama’s every move. The problem is that, different from Thatcher or Reagan, this clear political ideology is obfuscated by exciting language about “artistic impulse” and unorthodox practices of “doodling,” spoken at a conference of like-minded artistic souls, who all feel the desperate need “to act.”

When we painted the first building by splashing the red and orange on the somber gray, something unimaginable happened. There was a traffic jam and a crowd of people gathered as if it were the location of some spectacular accident, or the sudden sighting of a visiting pop star. The French EU official in charge of the funding rushed to block the painting. He scratched(?) that he would block the finances. But why?, I asked him. Because the colors you ordered do not meet European standards, he replied. [laughter] Well, I told him, the surroundings do not meet European standards too [more laughter], even though this is not what we want. But we will choose the colors ourselves, because this is exactly what we want. And if you do not let us continue with our work, I will hold a press conference right now, right in this road, and I will tell people that the old censors of the communist era have been reincarnated as EU financial officers [laughter]. He was kind of troubled and asked me for a compromise. But I told him, I am sorry monsieur, compromise in painting, in colors, is always grey. And we already have enough grey to last us a lifetime. So it’s time for change. The greens and yellows and purples and oranges that we splashed around our formerly communist capital were not going to make people less hungry or more prosperous, but this first big act had to be something telling that the space they lived in was their space. So these colors did make them feel better about the place where they lived and it made them see possibilities in a space where there appears to be no space. It made them see that change could come in different ways, in spite of the city budget, being nothing comma something.

In times of austerity, of empty national and municipal pockets, what can a mayor do? Bring some colors into people’s lives, make them feel empowered (to do what, consume, enjoy?), and “better.” It is true that Rama became mayor of Tirana under desperate circumstances, in the years following a complete breakdown of the economical system, which itself was an immediate and disastrous effect of the shock doctrine imposed on Albania after the fall of the Soviet Block – a direct consequence of the economical policies of precisely those people that Rama now seems to court. But the problem is that the current state of affairs in Albania is incomparable to the state of economical emergency that existed in the early 2000s. The tale of colorful hope and rebellious attitude now seems more like an act of simple propaganda, aiming to make people feel “better” without actually improving their economical conditions. Rama is no longer mayor of Tirana, with very limited means to increase his budget; he is the prime minister of a country with ostensibly full control over the taxation system and government budget. What in his former function was an act of resistance and defiance, would in his current function just be a sugarcoating. It is thus typical that all the images in the slide show accompanying his speech, except for the image of his desk, are from his period as Tirana mayor. He continues to bank on this rebellious image, pleasing his audience with the depiction of canvases larger than they could ever imagine – to paint an entire city! But it would have been more honest if he would have also shown all the urban projects he and a number of affiliated contractors are undertaking in every major Albanian city. The audience would then perhaps be moved to ask questions about budget allotment and tender procedures, about corruption and nepotism. Nevertheless, all these thorny, pressing, and actual issues are effectively shielded behind the happy façades of Tirana city blocks.

The exchange with the figure of the French EU bureaucrat, who becomes a caricature of petty procedural nitpicking, complaining about the paint while the “pop star” artist–mayor is completing his latest “spectacular accident,” has a similar rhetorical function. Albania recently became candidate member of the EU, and Rama has been actively lobbying for it. EU MPs and ambassadors constantly and arrogantly interfere with Albanian internal politics, and are devoutly listened to. So Rama’s rather shocking comparison between EU bureaucrats and Soviet censors is either sincere, in which case Rama’s EU aspirations are purely opportunistic, or he is disingenuous and just aiming to please his audience of fellow politico-cultural travelers. Like myself, most of the listeners in his audience were probably skeptical toward the enormous bureaucratic apparatus of the EU, which remains largely outside of any democratic control. Siding with them against they the “drab and soulless” EU bureaucracy (and drab and soulless it is) is a safe choice, which masks the serious economic and political dependency of Albania on the EU.

When I was spending most of my time as an artist, mainly in Paris, I was anti-politics, at least politics of the Albanian–Balkan kind. I think most artists are. But is through the years as mayor that I understood, and as party leader and as prime minister, I became quite sure that politics at its best is a worthy and meaningful activity which makes the world a better place. And art does the same, in different ways. I have been so happy to be in a position to bring the two together. As an artist, as a politician, or as an artist and politician, I don’t just argue with EU bureaucrats. I once had an argument with a Worldbank guy too, when I told the Worldbank director many years ago that I wanted them to finance a new reception hall for citizens to engage with public services as part of a campaign against corruption. They did not understand me. They were quite confused when I was telling that beautifying and dignifying public space would be a great contribution against corruption. But people who are waiting in long queues, under sun and under rain, in order to get a certificate, or just a simply answer from two tiny windows of two metal kiosks. Their reply to the request was met by a voice coming from this dark hole and on the other hand a mysterious hand coming out to take their papers while searching through the documents for the bribe. The system was working for the corruption, not for the people, who, if they wanted to skip the queue, had to pay the bribe. We could change the invisible clerks within the kiosks every week, but we could not change this corrupt practice. Thankfully I finally persuaded the Worldbank to fund this idea. So we removed the kiosks, built the bright new public space of reception hall that made people, Tirana citizens, think they had traveled abroad, when they entered to make their requests. We created an online system of control and so speeded up all the processes. We put the citizens first, and not the clerks. And we proved something which was very helpful. It’s not about genes. It’s not about somebody being with a high conscience, and some others not having conscience at all. For example, we cannot imagine an Albanian emigrant in Germany driving without a seatbelt. But I have seen German embassy people in Albania doing so. It’s not about genes, it’s about environment and respect, and it’s about system and partnership.

Repeating the tropes of artist-become-reluctant-politician (“I developed from what I was to become what I am”) and the “drab and soulless” bureaucrat who can only think in terms of monetary incentives, Rama again positions himself as out-of-the-box bigger-picture thinker, who in a seemingly innovative way considers architecture as an important influence on people’s behavior, and manages to convince the bureaucrat to think beyond his efficiency targets. This once again masks the obvious fact that architecture already for a long time, perhaps since its origins, has been used by those in power to influence human behavior and regulate populations. The entire restructuring of Tirana under the Italian fascist occupation would be an appropriate example, as well as the recent restoration of part of the city center along the lines of precisely this fascist template. The only difference in Rama’s example is that in his case he needed to get the funding to do so from the Worldbank, instead of from his “own” budget. If anything, this tale is therefore not a story of luminary insight into the role of art in society, but rather displaying his prowess as negotiator with institutions that practically hold the Albanian economy hostage.

So now as prime minister, I am once again trying to improve the environment in which people go about their daily lives. We are once again bringing down illegally constructed buildings, we’re once again trying to put art and culture at the heart of our economic and social renaissance, and to make culture part of our governance. And our ongoing project is to transform the Council of Ministers building into a mixed use [building]: first floor for culture, second floor for governance. And this I know, that just as politics can be a force of bad, so it can be a force for good. And at its very best it can be transforming for the world, as art can, because art encompasses the [inaudible] for change whilst it is about understanding, as Kafka once said. Artist must strive to interpret the world, being the changers of perspectives within it. So must politicians. Artists are providers of hope. So must be politicians.

Still no word about economic policies. We hear about cleaning up public space, mixed-use buildings, creative innovation (and don’t forget: economic precariousness)! Perhaps Rama is aware that artists don’t like economics, perhaps he doesn’t like economics, hell, I don’t like economics! But he is the prime minister of a country, and the Worldbank financed a whole lot more than his public reception building in Tirana, for example as a hydropower plant that threatens a protected nature reserve in Përmet. And no Kafka will be of any help in negotiating with them. Whether you like it or not, “changing perspective” and “providing hope” requires quite a budget, but again this is of no concern to his audience, which is right now imagining itself close to the real source of political power, just one floor below the prime minister’s office in a very modern mixed-use building, drafting plans in brotherhood with politicians to reshape the entire nation according to a sublime vision!

How often throughout the years have we heard political leaders talking about the need to focus on the big picture. What is the big picture? It is the vision we have for the world. What does this vision constitute? It is made of the big bold strokes that are combined to deliver the change we need for the world. What does the artists have in mind as he paints a picture? He has in mind a vision of a finished work. So today as he leader of my country, I have a vision in my mind for a country that is more modern. A country whose people are more prosperous. A country whose public servants serve the people, and not those who run them. A country where public space becomes a common space. I know what it feels like and through my leadership and decisions we now make I am trying to turn this vision into reality. These are the big pictures trying to grasp the right moment to create space where there appears to be none and even impossible to have one. Think about it and you will find a lot of examples in world history. The creators of the European Union are written down in history as people with a vision but also the ability to make it become real through politics as a force for good. We can see them as the painters of a very great tableau of nations and histories and people who put their own and their country’s narrow interests in the service of a very greater idea.

Rama here returns to his initial metaphor of “painting on the canvas of politics.” The “big picture” is a “vision […] for the world,” consisting of “bold strokes […] combined to deliver the change we need for the world.” This vision is “modern” and has to be turned “into reality.” But once again this turning into reality requires an act of interpretation. There is no immediate and self-evident link between the doodle, painting, canvas, vision, etc. and political reality. Rama gives us merely a political esthetics without ethics. He only tells us that he acts, not how he acts – the only hint of the quality of his action is prefigured in his doodling: crossing out, erasing, coloring in – bureaucratic text as palimpsest. Or in his own words “to create space where there appears to be none and even impossible to have one.” This is not an emancipatory politics of creating new “truths” or following “ideals,” this is a politics that cleans up and makes way: open the bunkers, open the archives, open the country! The only reference point I can summon here is Walter Benjamin’s text “The Destructive Character,” inspired by his banker (sic!) friend Gustav Gluck:

The destructive character knows only one watchword: make room. And only one activity: clearing away. His need for fresh air is stronger than any hatred. […]

The destructive character has no interest in being understood. Attempts in this direction he regards as superficial. Being misunderstood cannot harm him. On the contrary, he provokes it, just as oracles, those destructive institutions of the state, provoked it. The most petty bourgeois of all phenomena, gossip, comes about only because people do not wish to be misunderstood. The destructive character tolerates misunderstanding; he does not promote gossip.

A separate article would be needed to hold Rama against the description of Benjamin’s banker friend. But his continuous emphasis on breaking down buildings and bold strokes, combined with the utter disregard he has for his political enemies, other country’s prime ministers, and the terrific amount of slander he faces on a daily basis make it difficult to ignore the parallels. If anything, Edi Rama continuously “tolerates misunderstanding.” Benjamin makes the other suggestion that “[t]he destructive character does his work; the only work he avoids is creative.” We should take this qualification of the destructive character seriously, especially since Rama continues to claim he is an artist. But if we were to inspect his doodles as we would inspect a regular work, how much of it would withstand artistic scrutiny? Indeed very little. As simple art works his drawings are as significant or creative as George W. Bush’s shower paintings, and the latter may even show a higher level of artistic introspection. In fact, except for the enormous compulsion and drive they are a witness of, they are hardly different from the doodles we all make in our notebooks.

The metaphor of the political canvas here threatens to break down. How to actually link his own doodles with the bold strokes of politics? How are we to think the erasure of bureaucratic texts with the creation of a new beachfront walkway in Vlorë? And how are we to see the grand vision of the European Union if indeed it is now made up of petty bureaucrats? Benjamin, once again: “The destructive character has the consciousness of historical man, whose deepest emotion is an insuperable mistrust of the course of things and a readiness at all times to recognize that everything can go wrong. Therefore, the destructive character is reliability itself.”

Another part of my picture is of a new Balkans, a peaceful, prosperous Balkans. Now that surely would be a space such as never existed before. But think, this year, we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the First World War, but also this week there is the commemoration of the end of it. A war which started the Balkans, which spread across continents heralding death and suffering that is hard to imagine for our generation. And this year, 2014, we have the first year of peace in every border of our region, as never before. And I come to you here today in the same week as I became the first Albanian prime minister in more than sixty years to visit Serbia. The peaceful, prosperous Balkans, a strong Albania as part of a strong European Union. These are big bold strokes that I long to make part of our big picture. It is a vision that inspires me, inspires me to work, day and night, to make it happen. And these two parts of the same vision hang together: a peaceful, prosperous Balkans would be good for the European Union, just as the European Union, despite the occasional overzealous bureaucrat, is good for the Balkans.

Think of the forces that have led to the scaring of Europe: racism, nationalism, xenophobia. Together we can beat them. Together we can create a space for a multiplicity of cultures, beliefs, and identities, to live side by side. And here is where my life as painter and my life as a politician diverge. When you do a painting, or when you do a doodle, when I doodle in my agenda, there comes a point where it is done. The job is finished. But in politics, the picture is never fully completed. Trying to paint we never have complete control of where the brush may leave. So, still we must hold on to the vision and persevere. And when people say, as far too often they do, that politics can never bring change, I say they are wrong. It can and it does. But of course we know that just as politics can deliver change, so politics can hamper change. Just as politics can bring peace in between peoples, it can bring conflict. Every step on the way we face choices, just like the artist: This color or that color? This brush or that brush? This space or that space? What is the picture we’re trying to paint?

In this penultimate section, after some quotes for international news agencies, we witness the final breakdown of the “big picture” theory of art and politics, namely on the decisive question of finitude: a picture is finished, politics never is. The “bold strokes” of the founders of the European Union, Edi Rama’s grand “vision” of Albania, all of it depends either on some version of the mistaken idea that politics is a finite process, in other words, utopia, or reduce politics to the very bureaucratic, results-oriented processes with manageable targets that Rama seems to despise. Therefore, it only seems fair to once again pose the question how he reconciles the finite with the infinite, the work of art with the work of politics, the creation of an image and the creation of a state – both are finished with a final stroke, but in case of the latter, the cost will be in human lives. Rama seems unable to pull himself out of this conundrum as he ends this paragraph with a series of rhetorical questions which on the one hand suggest bureaucratic procedure (“This color or that color? This brush or that brush? This space or that space?”) and a utopian vision (“What is the picture we’re trying to paint?”).

And if ever any of you would come to Albania and you come to see me in my office and you notice me doodling, please do not be offended, as that man once was. It is part of who I am, the hand that moves freely, creating space where there appears to be none. That is not a bad way to think of how we make progress. Thank you.

The “And” of this final paragraph is misleading. There is no continuation here, nor a logical conclusion, but rather an attempt to cut through the entire problematics encapsulated by the skewed “big picture” metaphor in art and politics: a complete regression to the subjectivity of the artist, “the hand that moves freely, creating space where there appears to be none.” It is no longer a question of communal canvas painting. Instead the bold stroke of the single artist creates the canvas, the doodle creates new policy, the hand creates the vision. “It is part of who I am”: Edi Rama is essentially this authoritative, modern, freely moving hand, making way no matter what: “What exists he reduces to rubble – not for the sake of rubble, but for that of the way leading through it.” Is this indeed not a bad way to think of how progress is made?

‘Dëshmi e asaj që ishte por që s’mund e s’duhet të jetë’: Bunk’Art, History as Touristic Itinerary, and the Infantilization of Collective Memory on the 70th Anniversary of Liberation: A Placeholder

I call this a placeholder in the sense that it represents a set of very preliminary ideas about a topic that I think no one can effectively respond to only a day after it happened. Still, all analyses have to begin somewhere, at some point. Call it a rant, but one that is intended to spur conversation—and to further my own thoughts about the issue—and by no means to exhaust the rather vast number of things that could be said about Bunk’Art. As always, insights are welcome.

Yesterday, so the official story goes, Albania took another step on a long and painful road of transition, out of the obscure darkness of its communist past and into the light of transparent democracy. A vast underground bunker constructed in 1978[1]—during the country’s socialist period—to house the leaders of state in the event of an atomic attack by the Soviet Union or America has been transformed into museum and artistic installation space that will be open to the public until December 30. The installation opened yesterday, with a ceremony that included speeches by Minister of Defense Mimi Kodheli and Prime Minister Edi Rama. The American ambassador Arvizu and German ambassador Hoffman were present, among other dignitaries.[2] Today some 2,000 visitors (including, as the Albanian media and the Bunk’Art website excitedly proclaim, numerous foreign tourists) made the trip to Tirana’s periphery (in a special, free bus leaving from alongside the National History Museum) to visit the site. The event (again, as enthusiastically reported by the Albanian media) has already begun to receive attention in the foreign media.

Perhaps the most salient image from the opening event was of Rama delivering his speech, standing on a stage littered with four concrete domes that recall the thousands of concrete bunkers that inhabited (and in some places still inhabit) even the remotest reaches of Albania’s communist landscape. These concrete domes were colorfully decorated with painted images recalling children’s drawings—floating flowers, puffy clouds, and simple boxlike houses with picket fences.[3] On a backdrop behind Rama loomed the logo for the installation, a semicircle fractured into irregular planes of pure, bright color, with a red door at its center topped by the red star of communism. Below this logo, the name of the exhibition, BUNK’ART, was accompanied by the phrase “70 vjet pas çlirimit” [70 years after liberation], a reference to the liberation of the country from fascist occupation. If the connection between the country’s more than 40 years of socialist history and a stage with several concrete bunker-forms covered in childish imagery was not immediately apparent, I can only assume that this was part and parcel of the confusing and confused spectacle orchestrated at the opening (and, it seems, endemic to the installation as a whole). There are certainly any number of insightful analyses to be made of Bunk’Art, and the present discussion is meant to focus on only a few: the diagnosis and treatment of past traumas through the model of the touristic itinerary and the infantilization of the notion of collective memory in the process of navigating this itinerary.

Insofar as I find it difficult to find a spot to begin an analysis of Bunk’Art, even having set the above limits upon my investigation, I would like begin rather arbitrarily with a curious translation. During his speech, Edi Rama made the (tremendously fraught) statement, “Sot, ne jemi dëshmitarë se kemi çelur derën e një thesari të kujtesës sonë kolektive.” [My translation—certainly a bit awkward: ‘Today, we are witnesses to the opening of the door to a treasure of our collective memory.’] When the BBC reported on the event, Rama’s speech was glossed with this quotation: “We have opened today a thesaurus of the collective memory that presents thousands of pieces of the sad events and life under communism.” Now, the term ‘thesaurus’ does literally mean ‘treasure’, so that the translation of the word ‘thesar’ (Albanian for ‘treasure’) is understandable, if awkward and not, I think, true to Rama’s intention. Nonetheless, this confusion—emblematic of the whole confusing scenario of the opening and the installation in general—is a productive one, since it invites us to consider Rama’s quotation more closely. For what could be more appropriate than the image of past not as treasure but as a treasure-house of words, of concepts, and what more fitting counterpart to the confusion of the installation’s concept than he image of flipping through a thesaurus, looking for the right words, getting lost in a sea of synonyms and losing any straight line of thought.

The most cynical response to Rama’s statement—and the obvious one—is to pass it off as evidence an undisguised and callous greed: Bunk’Art, already a hit with Albanians and especially with foreign tourists, if we can believe the media, is a ‘treasure’ in the most banal sense of the word: a source of actual and symbolic/cultural capital on the world stage.[4] Cynical though it may be to take this reading, it is also, I think, very much what Rama is getting at. In his speech, he asserts, “Këto mjedise janë trashëgimi e një kulture të jetuari që, ju siguroj, do të tërheqin shumë herë më tepër turistë sesa ç‘mund të tërheqë ajo Shqiponja e tmerrshme që kanë vendosur tek rrethrrotullimi i doganës.” [‘These premises are the inheritance of a cultural way of living that, I assure you, will draw a good deal more tourists than that awful eagle at the traffic circle at Dogana [imports].’] On Twitter, the day of the opening, Rama declared “Bota e nendheshme e diktatures do kthehet ne nje haperise atraksioni historik, kulturor e turistik pa asnje dyshim” [‘The underground world of the dictatorship will, undoubtedly, turn into a historic, cultural, and touristic attraction.’] Thus, the language used by Rama (who has, in the media, already become the de facto curator and author of the exhibit, despite the fact that the idea has numerous sources and has been under discussion in a number of circles for some time) describe the opening is that of history-as-touristic-attraction. This is the ‘treasure’ of the bunker and the collective memory it supposedly embodies.

I am being more than a little unfair, for I am attributing to Rama’s rhetoric a confusion it may not really contain, that between history and memory.[5] However, it is undeniable that the two intermingle in Rama’s speech, sometimes emerging as interchangeable and other times as separate. The question of collective memory will concern me below; what I wish to examine first is the idea of traversing history (one’s own history, or another’s) as a touristic endeavor—for that is precisely how Rama characterizes Bunk’Art. “Është vetëm fillimi sepse ne kemi një projekt për të krijuar një intenerar historik dhe turistik të nëndheut komunist dhe njëkohësisht për ta kthyer këtë intenerar, në një intenerar të imagjinatës krijuese, duke synuar nga njëra anë çlirimin dhe nga ana tjetër pjellorinë e kujtesës sonë kolektive.” [This is just a beginning because we have a project to create a historical and touristic itinerary of the communist underground and at the same time to turn that itinerary into an itinerary of the creative imagination, with the goal of both liberating and harnessing the fecundity of our collective memory.’] The project of coming to terms with the past is the project of establishing a touristic itinerary—what could be more profoundly and problematically Modern than this project? Were not many of the exemplary Modernist projects (we need only think of the relationship between the colonial, the primitive, and the past in so much Modernist cultural production) precisely the projects of ‘tourism of the creative imagination’? Now, Rama emerges as the quintessential Modernist-as-statesman, a role he has long courted (though I think he has never been forthright about its modernity—for it is, I think, in no way ‘post’-modern).[6]

The Modern touristic itinerary is certainly open to a number of different ‘tourists’—from foreigners, to Albanians living (or born) outside of Albania, to those who live within in the country, and who may or may not remember the Hoxha years—but what is unavoidable in this model is the transformation of history—lived or otherwise—into capital fueling the global tourist industry. Tourism has been an important aspect of Rama’s time in office—his policies have often been focused on Albania’s coastal regions, but here the language of touristic development falls squarely in line with a project to mine the imaginary of a people (here conceived as having such a unified imaginary, or ‘unconscious,’ if you prefer). As he puts it, the hope behind Bunk’Art is ‘to create new spaces: new spaces of the imaination, of thinking, of living together, through the power of art.’  [“…për të krijuar hapësira të reja [:] Hapësira të reja të të imagjinuarit, të të menduarit, të të bashkëjetuarit përmes fuqisë së artit.”] This is certanly a worthy goal, and one in keeping with Rama’s prior projects, at least at the level of its rhetoric—what is new is the idea that the primary way to orchestrate this encounter is through the vague distance and ignorant enthusiasm of the tourist: not just the tourist of someone else’s past (that is an easy enough position, I can tell you, as someone who has often been a tourist in Albania), but as the tourist of one’s own past.

It is not only the transformation of the encounter with (communist) history  into a touristic itinerary that is key to Rama’s project—it is also held together (insofar as it holds together) by a psychoanalytic model of collective memory, as I have already mentioned. Thus, traversing the itinerary of history is more than a simple hermeneutic exercise; it is self-diagnosis, self-diagnosis of the collective of its own imaginary, through the consumption of the past-as-commodity (in this case, the communist past as commodity). The ideal consumers for this commodity, however, are not so much adults—in Rama’s rhetoric—as children. Here (what I can only imagine to be) the logic of bunkers decorated with childlike drawings becomes clear. Rama makes it very clear in his speech that Bunk’Art is, in an important way, ‘for the children’—for those who cannot remember the time of communism, who cannot understand what the isolation of communism was like.[7] Thus, in a way, Bunk’Art as an itinerary is not only about the Modernist project of tourism—it is also about the Modernist ideal of a return to youth, to innocence, to ignorance of the past that only adults can know. And yet here we come to the impasse: if Bunk’Art is about coming to terms with history, how can it also be for those who did not live that history, who do not remember it, unless the goal of its diagnosis is to make its tourists children, so that they may both forget and be taught again how to remember?[8] In other words, collective memory will be most effective when it returns to the imagined zero-point of childhood, among the flowers and puffy clouds and box-houses,  and then consumes history as touristic itinerary.[9] From this perspective, what seems ‘infantile’ about Bunk’Art—the fanfare, the bright colors, the bright lights, the confusion, the desire to do everything all at once—must be considered quite intentionally so: part of its explicit goal it to infantilize the collective memory of the Albanian people.[10]

Having been at pains to find a place to begin, I am also at a loss as to how to end, so I will simply say that this analysis—provisional, as I have said before, all too desperately retreating from saying anything really controversial—is meant as one attempt to think critically about Rama’s project and the real and symbolic appropriation of the communist past in Albania. One hopes that other, more thoughtful and thorough, analyses are already being written. [Thanks to certain acquaintances more well-read and attentive to the discussion of this issue than I am, I would like to draw attention to two thoughtful analyses of the issue: here at Postbllok and here at Peizazhe të fjalës.]

I intend to return to these thoughts in the coming week(s), but for now they stand as they are—a call to think critically about Bunk’Art and what it means to treat the past as tourism, to infantilize memory.

[1] The tunnels were begun earlier, in 1972.

[2] Several news clips show Rama guiding Arvizu through the various rooms of the bunker, explaining them (in English to Arvizu).

[3] One can only assume that some pun on communist dictator Enver Hoxha’s assertion that Albania was a “fushë me lule” [field of flowers] was intended.

[4] This is not the place to enter into a deep discussion of the way the communist past has been and is being appropriated as cultural capital in Albania. Suffice it to say that—unsurprisingly—this practice is very much ubiquitous at the moment. There are others more qualified to comment on this at length and in detail than I am.

[5] This too is a debate that I prefer not to enter into here—so I will instead merely gesture at its existence and go blithely about my way.

[6] Most recently, at Creative Time, Rama trotted out his now rather repetitive tale of his time as mayor of Tirana and his artistic projects there. One (read: I) feels an almost painful nostalgia for those days, looking at the image of him standing before flowery bunker-forms.

[7] “…që s’e kanë jetuar atë kohë. Nuk mund ta imagjinojnë, edhe duke ua treguar me fjalë, sesi Shqipëria e vogël mund të ishte një botë e tretë e izoluar nga dy botët e tjera, nga Perëndimi dhe nga Lindja, që luftonte, në mënyrë imagjinare, me imperializmin amerikan dhe me social-imperializmin sovjetik.”

[8] Apologies are no doubt in order for the truly egregious use of italics.

[9] I am reminded of a quote often attributed to the author Henry Miller: “The thing is to become a master and in your old age to acquire the courage to do what children did when they knew nothing.”

[10] In case it is not clear, I am quite suspicious of all claims of collective memory, and I am not claiming that Rama’s project ‘distorts’ some ‘true’ collective memory—rather, it is one way of most assuredly creating it. the problem is that this is not how it is being discussed.

Ta Vlerësojmë Drejt Letërsinë për Femijë si Mjet i Fuqishëm i Edukimit Komunist- Nëndori Mars 1971, Plenumi për Letërsinë për Fëmijë

This is the fifth in a series of posts containing PDFs of texts that may be of interest to those studying Albanian socialist realism (and 20th-century art in general, because socialist realism is some of the 20th century’s most intriguing art). Initially I had planned to write thorough descriptions and analyses of the content of the documents, but I barely have the time to scan them, much less write extensive commentaries. 

Nendori 9_Mars 1971 coverToday’s volume is an excerpt from the March 1971 volume of Nëndori, featuring the discussions at the Plenum of Albanian Union of Writers and Artists devoted to children’s literature. This topic is particularly interesting (to me, at least) because it gives us a glimpse of the function of socialist realism functioning as part of the education of ‘pioneers’ (as children of the socialist era were called in Albanian communist discourse). The essays are by authors, poets, and artists including Bleri Dedja, Naum Prifti, Kolë Jakova, and Agim Faja. Agim Faja’s essay, “Illustrations in the World of Children,” will be of particular interest to scholars of the visual arts. Faja writes:

Illustrations, the companions of a story, are stations that help the reader to expand his imaginings of the people and settings described in a book. They are necessary for both novels and for volume of short stories, and I believe that the time has come for us to publish well-illustrated books as well, just as elsewhere such volumes have recently achieved new successes. But illustrations are even more necessary for children’s books; the dynamic flow of life, with all its complexities, should be represented not only in children’s literature, but also in the illustrations for such books. […] For our illustrations to reach a worthy level of realism, I believe that our illustrators must spend time wandering from school to school, from schoolyard to schoolyard, from nursery to nursery, from neighborhood to neighborhood, drawing different types of children and gathering raw material. (39, 42)

I’ve also scanned a photo essay by Petrit Kumi called Fytyra të Grave Tona [Faces of Our Women] that appears in this issue, as well as a review of the Portraiture Exposition that opened on February10, 1971 (written by Andon Kuqali).

Happy reading!

“Për Një Pasqyrim më të Thellë e të Gjithanshëm”: Nëntori, March 1986: Plenum of Albanian Union of Writers and Artists

This is the fourth in a series of posts containing PDFs of texts that may be of interest to those studying Albanian socialist realism (and 20th-century art in general, because socialist realism is some of the 20th century’s most intriguing art). Initially I had planned to write thorough descriptions and analyses of the content of the documents, but I barely have the time to scan them, much less write extensive commentaries. 

Nentori 3 1986

Today’s volume is an excerpt from the March 1986 volume of Nëntori, featuring the keynote address and excerpts from the discussions at the Plenum of Albanian Union of Writers and Artists held on January 27, 1986. The keynote address was given by sculptor Muntaz Dhrami, and is entitled “Për Një Pasqyrim më të Thellë e të Gjithanshëm të Realitetit Socialist në Pikturë.”

Of particular interest is Agim Faja’s ” Kërkesa më të Mëdha Ndaj Gjinisë së Peisazhit” [“Greater Expectations of the Landscape Genre”], where he argues:

The reflection of our socialist reality presupposes a full and beautiful interpretation of our new landscape, of mines, factories, work yards, and industrial complexes, of out new cities and our transformed nature. This interpretation must be all the more emotional, all the more diverse, executed with a deep artistic understanding. When the painter, like a true poet, chooses to depict simple motifs, studying and fully understanding the scope of nature, he brings [to his art] a fineness of detail, brings facts and original impressions. Even if he returns to the same motif, he always discovers new nuances. …The true artist never conceptualizes nature as an inorganic body. (44)

It is interesting to compare and contrast Faja’s ideas with another statement on the ‘landscape’ of socialist Albania, from more than a decade earlier, by Kujtim Buza in Përmendore të Heroizmit Shqiptar (1973):

Wherever one looks in Albania, one sees a landscape of stone, of marble, a landscape of bronze. It is the new landscape of the fatherland.

I think it is important to consider how these two landscapes reinforce each other, and work against each other, in the history of Albanian communist (and post-communist) art.

The Nëntori volume also includes Sterjo Spasse’s essay “Epoka që më Ndriçoi Udhën e Krijimtarisë [The Epoch that Lit My Creative Path]”, and a review of a retrospective show dedicated to the painter Sali Shijaku.

Happy reading!



Shadows of Hands, or, The Dictator Born From the Sign: Brief Comments on the Representation of Enver Hoxha’s Body in Spiro Kristo’s Shoku Enver Hoxha Gjatë Luftës Nacionalçlirimtare

As part of a recent project, “Talking Back to Dictators: Reading Art and Culture In, Through, and Against the Writings of the Great Leaders,” I’ve been spending more time thinking about representations of dictatorial bodies—and particularly the body of Enver Hoxha, Albania’s communist dictator. This observation grew out of this research. As always, thoughts are welcome!

In this brief essay, I would like to nuance a commonly made observation about the representation of Enver Hoxha in paintings produced during his regime, namely: that he does not cast a shadow. This observation, on the whole, is quite accurate, and my purpose is not to dismiss it, nor to suggest that it does not raise a plethora of important questions about the material and metaphysical status of the body of the dictator. However—like all good observations—it is not absolutely true, and I think we may learn just as much by looking at these cases in which it is not true. In particular, I want to consider the significance of the shadow cast by Hoxha’s hand in Spiro Kristo’s Shoku Enver Hoxha Gjatë Luftës Nacionalçlirimtare [Comrade Enver Hoxha During the National Liberation War], of 1974 (originally in the Museum of the Ministry of Internal Affairs; I am unaware of its current location).

Before I discuss Kristo’s painting, however, I want to begin by considering how the phenomenon of Hoxha’s immateriality manifests itself in Albanian socialist realist painting. Let us a classic image of Hoxha: Zef Shoshi’s official portrait, which was frequently reproduced in official publications, especially in the editions of Hoxha’s writings. In Shoshi’s image, Hoxha sits at his desk, dressed in his familiar grey suit and red tie. Hoxha’s upper body forms a stable pyramid, his hands resting gently—weightlessly—on the surface of his desk, which holds a number of carefully placed and clearly delineated administrative accessories. We come upon Hoxha as he is about to write: his right hand holds a pen to a blank sheet of white paper laid out before him on the desk. He appears either deep in thought or else suddenly distracted: his gaze looks out of the image to our right, missing us. The moment is uncertain: is he composing the first word of a letter, an official memorandum, an entry in his diary, mapping out the text in his mind before he begins to write? Or has he been distracted by some stray thought, some sound, perhaps even by the entrance of someone who has come in behind us to bring news to the Dictator of the Proletariat. In either case, Hoxha’s poise is exemplary: his face betrays neither the strain of thought nor surprise. His eyes are open and attentive, their darkness in contrast to the muted grays of his suit, hair and the wall behind him drawing us to ponder the purpose behind his look. On the desk before him, his left hand gently holds the upper left corner of the page in place, while his right hand rests just as gently upon the paper, holding a pen close to the surface of the center of the sheet.zef shoshi_enver_hoxha

In no small part, the perceived weightlessness of Hoxha’s figure comes from the fact that he casts no shadow. True, the light that bathes the room comes from no definable source (though it illuminates the right side of the dictator’s face more than the left), but nonetheless there is no trace of a shadow cast on the wall behind Hoxha, either by his body or his chair. Furthermore, at the point where Hoxha’s hand meets the paper, pen gripped firmly and purposefully, there is only the vaguest hint of a darkening in the white surface of the paper. Even at the very edges of Hoxha’s right hand, Shoshi’s soft and meticulous shading gives virtually no hint that the dictator’s hand exists as a material form obeying the laws of illumination. That Hoxha casts no shadow places him in a world apart from us, either more or less real than ours (or both at the same time).[1]

This is, undoubtedly, the standard for images of Hoxha produced during his regime: a brief survey of portraits and history paintings by Vilson Kilica, Sali Shijaku, Shaban Hysa, Kujtim Buza, and others will confirm that Hoxha never casts a shadow. Or doesn’t he? The first thing to be said, an issue I think is extremely important but which I do not wish to dwell upon here, is that figures in socialist realist paintings more often than not do not cast shadows in general.[2] Thus, Hoxha is part of a general rule. However, it is more fruitful to consider the counterexamples that prove this rule, one of which is Spiro Kristo’s Shoku Enver Hoxha Gjatë Luftës Nacionalçlirimtare (1974). Here, we see Hoxha as a young commander,[3] presumably in the headquarters of the resistance: he stands at left, a map at his back and a table before him, where his left hand rests on yet another map. A rifle and binoculars hang on the grey wall to his left, and documents, a lamp, an ashtray, and notebooks clutter the surface of the table. The lighting here is once again quite vague, but the source clearly comes from the upper right side of the canvas, high over both our and Hoxha’s heads (not at all from the lamp at the desk). The map on the table disappears out of the frame at lower right, while its bottom edge is folded over the edge of the table against which Hoxha stands. A magnifying glass rests on the map, and black and red arrows mark the movements of the occupiers and the resistance. Hoxha holds a red pencil in his right hand, lax, while his left is firmly planted on the map, at a swirling cluster of arrows (presumably near Tirana). And there is the shadow.

Spiro Kristo_Enver Hoxha gjate luftes ncl_1974_1

It is slight, let us make no mistake, but also distinct: here, at the tips of Hoxha’s fingers, Kristo has used the deepest black found in the image, present in only a few other places (the black arrows on the map, a few folds of Hoxha’s shirt, the shadows in his hair…). The shadow is quite necessary aesthetically, for it differentiates the flesh of Hoxha’s hand from the colors on the relief map. At the same time, it accentuates the tips of his fingers, which end the dynamic diagonal downward movement of his straightened left arm; the fingers are pressed so firmly against the map that their joints bend inversely, the index finger concavely and the knuckle of the middle and ring fingers convexly. Even the tip of his thumb, pressed to the map, casts a small but distinct dark shadow. If the hand, and its shadow, are necessary to link Hoxha’s monumental body to the map itself, this is also the case because his gaze (in some ways, similar to Shoshi’s portrait) is not focused on the surface before him, but gazes off the right side of the canvas, looking at something we cannot see. As above, Hoxha seems to pause suddenly in the midst of an action, caught up in thought, looking at nothing. Here, however, his body is anchored to the map, and it takes on a material aspect through its connection to the map, where it casts a shadow.

Spiro Kristo_Enver Hoxha gjate luftes ncl_1974_2

Spiro Kristo_Enver Hoxha gjate luftes ncl_1974_3

            Why the map? I want to argue that Kristo’s emphasis of Hoxha’s hand as a material object touching the map is not accidental. What Kristo depicts is the becoming-material of Hoxha’s body in the presence of the representation of Albania. If we place the image alongside a host of paintings in which Hoxha’s feet, planted firmly upon the soil of the fatherland, cast no shadow, the significance will become clearer. The dictator does not become material when his feet touch the earth, he becomes material out of that most simulacral of simulacra: the map of the territory that does not yet exist (the future socialist ‘utopia’ of Albania). In this case, we might say that it is the map that precedes the dictator: out of the swirling represented motion of troops on the map, out of the flat surface made to mimic dimension, Hoxha emerges as something tangible. He is not simply historicized (his role in the war made the key element of the so-called National Liberation War [WWII]); his ‘reality’ (in the haptic sense) is a function not of the nation itself (whatever that might mean), but of the sign for the territory of the nation. is existence becomes material not at the level of interaction with everyday objects so much as at the level of meta-representations of the world. Kristo’s painting, and his depiction of the dictator’s hand with its shadow, gives us a glimpse of Hoxha taking material form in the higher realm of maps, the realm of surfaces and images that precedes our own.

Is it any wonder that amongst us, before us, at his desk about to write, he casts no shadow?

[1] For one discussion of the metaphysical significance of Hoxha’s body and the realm of appearances, see Gëzim Qëndro, Le surréalisme socialiste: L’autopsie de l’utopie (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2013).

[2] Stylistically, this is no doubt in part due to the tremendous debt owed to Impressionism, where intense light and dark give way to light as pure colors. This cannot of course fully explain the ideological significance of a world without shadows.

[3] This is also, I think, important: we see Hoxha here before his apotheosis: he is nothing superhuman, or beyond human, quite yet. Of course many images depictng Hoxha in the war years show him without a shadow. Some however, like this one and Guri Madhi’s Formimi i Shtabit të Përgjithshëm, portray parts of his body casting a shadow.

“Do të Kapërcehet e Shembet e Vjetra edhe në Art”: History of Albanian Socialist Realist Literature

This is the third in a series of posts containing PDFs of texts that may be of interest to those studying Albanian socialist realism (and 20th-century art in general, because socialist realism is some of the 20th century’s most intriguing art). Initially I had planned to write thorough descriptions and analyses of the content of the documents, but I barely have the time to scan them, much less write extensive commentaries. 


Today’s volume is Historia e Letërsisë Shqiptare të Realizmit Socialist [History of Albanian Socialist Realist Literature], edited by Koço Bihuku and published in 1978. While the text deals exclusively with literature, it is nonetheless invaluable for a consideration of socialist realist visual culture in Albania, since it establishes both general principles regarding the elements of he socialist-nationalist narrative, and identifies the canonical works of this narrative. I’ll give the last word to Comrade Enver, quoted in the introduction:

The new content that gives our socialist realist literature its force is found in the reflection of the new socialist reality in its revolutionary development within the contradictions of the times, which give literature and art their necessary drama and conflicts.” (14)

Through the positive hero, the new triumphs in life; therefore, it triumphs in art. The old is overcome and destroyed in life; therefore it is overcome and destroyed in art. A living symbol of creative labor comes into existence; therefore, in art as well a hero will be born to inspire the masses with love of labor, with the spirit of sacrifice and selflessness in the service of socialism.” (18)

Happy reading!

…I promise the next post will actually be an analysis of something.