Sali Shijaku’s Zëri i Masës and the Metaphysics of Albanian Socialist Realist Painting

The first in a series of posts in which I haphazardly analyze several of the incredible socialist realist paintings I looked at (chiefly in reproduction) and thought about this summer in Albania. First up is Sali Shijaku’s Zëri i Masës [Voice of the Masses], 1974


The innovative aspect of this painting is not that its author invited several other people into the studio, and depicted them alongside the painter. Its innovative, and national, character comes from the fact that it incorporates [class-]conscious workers, that their thoughts and their ideology are included within it. …the image’s novel quality stems from the artist’s attitude towards the working class and towards our new reality.” –Kristaq Rama, “Tablotë e Gjera të Jetës dhe Heroi Pozitiv në Artet Figurative,” Nëndori, May 1977, pgs. 227-228

Let us, for the moment, take Rama at his word, and accept that insofar as Shijaku’s painting represents an innovation, a new comportment towards artistic creation that accords itself to the ideological framework of the socialist ‘New Life,’ it does so because at its conceptual and compositional center stands the worker. This, of course, leaves open the question that Rama’s essay–which takes Zëri i Masës [Voice of the Masses], 1974, as its point of inception–never fully answers. Namely, what is the relationship between art, the working class and ‘our new reality’ as it actually appears in the painting? On the one hand, we must keep in mind that this ambiguity was not only endemic to the criticism of the socialist realist period in Albania, but was in fact an integral part of its functioning; it was just such an ambiguity that allowed the idea of ‘reality’ to remain so nebulous and elusive. At the same time we must accept that the socialist realist system possessed a great sense for metaphor, for the discovery of concrete hidden meanings–that is, it understood the possibility that the signs of subversive, revisionist ideology could appear anywhere, at any time, and thus that a heightened hermeneutical  sensitivity was always necessary, especially when encountering works of art. Thus, no matter how superficial Rama’s critical treatment of a work like Zëri i Masës  must seem at first glance, this should not prevent us from approaching the work as a complex system of meanings, and from accepting that that this complexity would have characterized the work in the context in which it was created and viewed. Of course, there is a right way to view and understand the painting–that is precisely what Rama’s description gives us–but that right way is not as reductivist as it might seem, for it involves  understanding how the totality of the painting’s diverse threads of meaning are to be united in the correct aesthetic comportment towards the new Albanian socialist reality.

To begin with, let me plainly state my argument: Zëri i Masës  depicts a system that encompasses the creation and reception of works of Albanian socialist realism. It describes a hierarchy of the materialization of ideas as well as of modes of perception and contemplation. In the depiction of this system, it engages with certain well-known tropes from the history of painting (the representation of the interior of the artist’s studio, of the creative process, of the absorbed reception of art, and of the blank back of the canvas, for example). One could say that Shijaku simply adapts these tropes to the conditions of socialist Albania, and to a certain extent this is true (which of course does not make the work any less important and informative as a document of that ideological territory). However, in keeping with Rama’s insistence that the work represents an innovation, I wish to proceed on the assumption that Shijaku has not merely changed certain thematic elements to make the painting at home in its political-historical context, but has in fact attempted to introduce a new structure–which is not to say that this structure is wholly innovative or without precedent, but rather that endemic to this structure is the production and sustenance of the new reality. The work does this by playing upon the same kinds of ambiguity that characterize Rama’s critical appraisal of the painting, by revealing the origin and reception of its reality without ever attempting to reflect or depict the reality itself. In this way, the work is perhaps one of the most honest works of Albanian socialist realism (a description that I will qualify below, for it certainly demands qualification), and one of the most successful, in that it understands the reality of socialist realism to be, as Dobrenko puts it, the image of production of socialist reality itself. In other words, the painting is a machine that produces socialist reality by showing the inner workings of the production of socialist reality.

At the center stands the worker, but for the time being we need merely note that the painting has a center, that all the elements and movements that make up the work as a whole take up their places around this center (which is, I will argue, not necessarily the only ‘center’ of the work in a phenomenological sense). So let us set aside the worker, caught mid-sentence, not because his role in the painting is merely formal (necessitated, for example, by the aesthetic demand for centrality in socialist realism) but because we will not fully understand his role until we examine the other elements of the painting.

There are, I think, two major movements in the painting. The first is a kind of ebb and flow that centers on the worker and his gesticulation, reflecting his own oratory back at him and then spinning it back out into the small groups of onlookers, and even into the canvas itself, seen only from the back. The second movement is the more quintessentially metaphysical one, the one that moves from the top of the canvas to the bottom and that, at first glance, seems to represent the movement from abstract ideas to concrete materializations of socialist reality. (There is also an element of the movement from the past to the present, to which I will return below.) Both movements pass through the worker, and as such he functions as the medium through which they become tangible and comprehensible to the viewer. However, both also ultimately draw the viewer’s attention down to the lower left of the painting, to the back of the painting that the onlookers are gathered to contemplate and discuss. Since the front of the canvas remains a mystery, it is left to the viewer to (re)construct the content of the work from the reactions and attitudes of the depicted viewers. The unseen painting within the painting thus functions as a second center, absorbing the viewer into its ambiguous space (since it occupies more than a quarter of the work) and then redirecting her attention back to the various modes of attention modelled by the onlookers in the studio. These onlookers display various levels of engagement with both the painting and the worker-orator at center. Two on the right (one of whom has a copy of Drita, the weekly publication of the Union of Writers and Artists, shoved in his back pocket, revealing a literary and ideological preparation to engage with works of art) gaze raptly back towards the worker who is speaking. Some of those to the left seem absorbed in their own activity, such as the man lighting a cigarette, while others either look to the worker, to the canvas at lower left , or–in one case–stare directly out of the painting. The artist himself stands unmoving just to the right of the speaking worker, his gaze fixed on the work that he has, presumably, just completed. His lowered hands, one holding his palette and the other his brushes, offer a counterpoint to the expressive gesture of the worker’s hands, and together the two suggest a definite parallelism: there is expression to be found in the work of the hands of both the artist and the laborer, both produce the kind of meaning that ecstatically pours forth (through the mysterious concealed image and through the worker’s narration) by means of gesture. Finally, at the lower right sits another worker, this one seemingly wholly absorbed in the contemplation of the canvas, his face cradled by a hand in turn braced upon his knee in an undeniably classical pose.

There is a sort of triangle formed by the central worker–the orator–the second worker–the contemplator–and the looming back of the canvas. In a certain sense, the canvas forms a second center to the painting. It not only conceptually anchors the gathering of figures in Zëri i Masës , it also visually holds sway over all other elements present, drawing the eye to its broad brown swath, even occluding part of the central worker’s body with its corner. Above all, the blank back of the canvas creates an air of mystery that pervades the experience of the painting: one wonders what is depicted on its surface. The final version of one of the sketches found on the wall behind the figures (one sketch, complete with color, is of Shijaku’s famous Vojo Kushi, another recalls his painting of Mt. Dajti)? Some other scene entirely? Perhaps even a depiction of the very people present in the room? (For one possibility is that the hidden canvas is a double of the work we are in the process of viewing, creating an infinite loop of viewing that includes both the viewer and all those present in the scene.)

The back of the canvas, placed so far forward in the scene, serves in some way to block off the space depicted within the work from the space of the viewer, but in doing so also employs the well-worn strategy of drawing the viewer into the work by just such a impediment. At the same time, the placement of the canvas (nearly, but not quite, reaching to the bottom of the painting) contributes to the hierarchical arrangement of space mentioned above, which maps the flow from ideas to their concrete materialization along the axis from the top of the painting to its bottom edge, which in turn suggests the transition to our space. At the uppermost level, the level of the artist’s sketches mounted on the wall, is the realm of ideas. The world of ideas is indistinct–devoid of color except in the case of the brilliant red and black of Vojo Kushi–and amorphous. Several different scenes form the white register, as if this ideal realm was coterminous with the artist’s mind. However, since the artist is not the central figure, I think it unlikely that the upper register of the painting merely offers a psychological snapshot, an inventory of creative ideas present for the artist, waiting to be (more) fully realized. Instead, I think that the upper level of the painting is meant to represent the metaphysical primacy of the images portrayed, and it is significant for this primacy that they are linked to the past. Images of war heroes (Vojo Kushi), of partisans, of the mountainous terrain of Albania itself: these images form part of a realm of primordial myth that both acts as the foundation for and is transformed by the ‘new reality.’ This transformation occurs through the artist, but his action alone is not sufficient to establish the full significance of the new reality–his bringing it to vision does not suffice to make it a part of the New Life. (This, I think, is one reason why we do not, and need not, see whether or not the images the artist has sketched find themselves realized on the canvas.)

Below the realm of myths and ideas is the space of the painter’s studio, where the motley group described above are gathered. In some cases (such as the man at far left) the transition between the sheet with the artist’s sketches and the figures present in the studio seems sufficiently ambiguous to warrant the assumption that there is an intentional and significant spatial bridge between the two; certain figures seem to occupy both spaces, or to be emerging from the upper space into the middle space (whose ambiguous flatness also suggests its continuity with the paper hung on the wall behind). It is in this middle space that the worker first enters the painting (and with him, Rama argues, his ideology and worldview, giving the work its revolutionary quality). Even the centrality of the worker who is explicating the canvas before him, however, cannot compete with the movement that draws the viewer’s attention down to the back of the canvas and, at the same time, over and down to the worker who silently contemplates the canvas.

As I have argued above, it is this third space or register that is meant to most closely relate to ‘our’ space. What is closest to us is most ‘real’–although I also want to suggest that it is meant to be more ‘real’ than us (a point I will return to below). Since we cannot see what is depicted on the canvas, we must default not only to the worker-orator at center, but also to the worker seated at lower right. In fact, if anything, we are more directly tied to this worker, since he models, in his rapt contemplation, the comportment towards the canvas that–presumably–we are meant to hold towards Zëri i Masës .

If the worker at lower right (who is also the final point of a sweeping diagonal beginning from the floating bust of the man at upper left), is meant to model our own engagement with the work (with a work of socialist realism in general), it is also important to note that his absorption in the work is not merely visual. After all, the very title of the painting–Voice of the Masses–reminds us that Shijaku’s painting is also about listening. Here again Shijaku references a rich tradition of images of people absorbed in listening (to music, to speech), and at the same time he creates an inner world for the worker who gazes at the canvas. This inner world is not one already populated with ideas and emotions; instead it is a world that exists only in relation to the prior to levels (the realm of ideas and the realm of the studio). (Here, we might observe, is the production of the space of the socialist subject, who can then be filled in with the ideological substance of the more metaphysically primary levels–not, we must say, with the substance of his own ‘world’).

To encounter a work of socialist realism–and thus to encounter socialist reality–the worker at right shows us, is both to look and to listen, to be shown and to be told. One need only consider the significant role played by radio and television, by speeches, in the life of citizens of socialist Albania to understand the phenomenological situation that Shijaku has translated into a strictly visual medium.

Allow me to restate some of the principal points outlined above, and hopefully to clarify my thesis about how Shijaku’s painting works as a paradigm of socialist realism. Put simply, and perhaps too bluntly, the painting shows that to understand reality is both to contemplate it and to listen to the explanation of what reality is. The image depicted upon the canvas is not just a mystery to us–it is also, insofar as we viewers imagine it is some recognizable scene of socialist life or history–but it is also superfluous in an important sense to the process Shijaku is depicting. This is what is most radical–and most honest–about Zëri i Masës : in this innovative example of socialist realism (if we take Rama’s description to be accurate) the artist has shown the futulity of comparing art to reality, as if we could examine the completed canvas with an eye towards its correspondence to some element of lived experience. Such an encounter with the image would be futile not because no such correspondence exists, but because we would learn little about the ‘new reality’ from such an encounter. The artist has chosen instead to show the new reality as a reality of mechanisms, the mechanisms of the metaphysics of aesthetic creation and interpretation. The reality of the painting is that it depicts the artistic process–both practical, in the sense of the physical production of the artwork in the space of the studio, and metaphysical, in the sense of the relationship between nascent ideas and myths and their materialization in the artwork–that gives rise to works of socialist realism. This artistic process is both visual and auditory, and it is both conceptual and ideological in addition to these aesthetic aspects. The outcome of this process is not simply the work of art depicted in the image but, by metaphorical extension, the whole ‘new reality’ occupied by the viewer.

I said at the outset that Shijaku’s painting was one of the most honest examples of socialist realism. I hope it has become clearer what I mean by this: that the work frankly depicts the production of a reality, its imposition and ideological strengthening, its genesis through different levels of metaphysical and ideological clarity to arrive in the world of the ‘new reality.’ Its truth is that the image of that reality is the image of image production, contemplation, and interpretation. To reflect this reality is not to reflect a finished object, but to reflect the mechanisms by which a viewer is produced who knows the ‘right way’ to encounter the world, to understand the interplay of authority and ideolgy as reality.


Conversation with Sculptor Muntaz Dhrami


Monumenti i Pavaresise, photo by P. Cici, from the November 29 issue of Zeri i Popullit

I recently had the pleasure of meeting with sculptor Muntaz Dhrami for the second time, and he was able to clarify several questions I had regarding the Vlore Independence Monument (relatively unimportant ones, but the answers to which nonetheless shed further light on the genesis of the artwork).

First, Dhrami explained that the initial maquette that was approved by the commission did in fact include the figure of the flag bearer. I had been uncertain about this detail, since the only photo I have found of an earlier version of the monument is cropped in such a way that the top of the boulder (and thus the flag/flag bearer) are not visible. However, Dhrami did explain that initially the flag itself had been much different–it was not, as Hoxha would later take issue with in his letter to the sculptors, “flamuri i betejave”. Furthermore, in the final version of the monument, the figure of the flagbearer was sculpted exclusively by Dhrami and Shaban Haderi, as Kristaq Rama had recently fallen and suffered a head injury that made it impossible for him to work on the flag bearer.

The pieces of the monument were cast in bronze in Tirana, then transported to Flora, where the sculptors mounted and welded them. Dhrami recounted that the final piece of the monument that needed to be mounted was Qemali’s head. When the sculptors completed work mounting the head, they quickly returned to Tirana to continue work on other projects, neglecting to remove the ropes that had been used to lever the head in place from around Qemali’s neck. A concerned official immediately called Tirana, claiming that the sculptors had symbolically ‘hung’ the national hero. The misunderstanding was apparently resolved without incident, but it demonstrates a humorous level of paranoia and a heightened sensitivity to any symbolism, no matter how ambiguous or unlikely…a kind of sensitivity that is still evident today (let us only recall the Skenderbeu i Qafe-Kasharit).

I also asked Dhrami about the accuracy of Hektor Dule’s characterization of the four warriors as a Tosk, a Lab, a Kosovar (or simply a northerner), and a Myzeqar. He confirmed my hunch that the figure of the Myzeqar was not intended to be read with as much specificity, and that while the idea of alluding specifically to the four different regions of Albania (as Dule interpreted the monument) was–in his opinion–quite logical and in the spirit of the work, it had not been the specific intention of the artists.

Additionally, Dhrami informed me that after Hoxha’s visit to the studio of the three sculptors–during which time he made the observations and critique that he would later elaborate in his letter to the artists, published in Drita in June of 1969–the artists completely reworked the maquette of the monument from scratch, taking into account Hoxha’s suggestions, which Dhrami considered to be well-reasoned and productive. Hoxha never saw the reworked version of the monument until the final work was installed and inaugurated in Vlora in 1972. Dhrami interpreted this as a sign of the dictator’s faith in the skill and experience of the three sculptors; he explained (as we had discussed briefly when I met him last summer, that Hoxha’s suggestions had been just that–suggestions–and that the dictator had left the final decision about how to carry out any changes that seemed necessary or appropriate in the hands of the artists. When the monument was inaugurated, Hoxha congratulated the sculptors on the work they had done, saying that they had done well.

There are two interesting aspects to Dhrami’s description of the exchange. The first is that he was still able to quote to me, verbatim, lines from Hoxha’s letter (although of course it was reprinted in last year’s MAPO, with an introductory text explaining that it had been ‘discovered’ in the state archives–a truly ridiculous assertion that both Dhrami and I chuckled over). The second is that Dhrami considered the exchange between the dictator and the artists to be relatively two-sided; in the studio (as referenced in his letter) Hoxha seemed to have implied the need for the presence of a partisan, which the sculptors protested at the time, and which Hoxha later clarified-he did not wish for a partisan to be included, merely for the monument to link the past struggles of the Albanian people together, to unify these conflicts into a single narrative. This, as I have argued elsewhere, is one of the aspects that makes the monument so significant, and it was interesting (and self-satisfyingly encouraging) to hear Dhrami characterize the exchange as significant precisely because it offered an example of how Albanian artists could best engage in the visualization of Albanian history through the medium of socialist realist monumentality.

My conversation with Dhrami also touched on other topics, including the Mother Albania monument, but as these observations will feature in an essay for the upcoming Albanian Lapidar Survey catalogue, I will direct the reader to that publication (due out late this year).

Ilirian Shima: “Farajon” – A Frank Assessment, Or, The Eroticism of Nationalism

My take on the recently opened “Farajon” exhibitionGKA Farajon

“Farajon” [roughly, “OurSeed”—”fara jonë”], an exhibition of works by Albanian sculptor Ilirian Shima at the Galeria Kombëtare e Arteve [National Gallery of Art] in Tirana, presents an interesting paradox. The exhibition, curated by Ylli Drishti of the GKA, opened on May 29 and will remain in the gallery until June 22. It contains works of varying size and material—primarily carved wood, marble, and bronze—created by the artist from the 1990s to the present day. Thus far most media response and commentary on the works in the exhibition has been focused precisely where one would expect: on the forthright eroticism of many of Shima’s sensual sculptural forms. I would like to examine the exhibition with a slightly different critical eye, to go beyond discussions of the works as a challenge to norms of Albanian society (implicitly assumed by much of the media response to be prudish and conservative, and likely to be shocked by the display of erotic material, however abstract). If I set out to explicitly problematize the exhibition, it is not because I find it entirely in poor sociopolitical taste, nor because I have any issue with the quality of the works (a discussion I wish to leave completely aside). Rather, I simply wish to consider some of the more potentially insidious aspects of eroticism—and an explicitly aesthetically Modernist realization of eroticism—when explicitly envisioned alongside ideas of historical recovery of national(ist) roots, nostalgic longing for the ancient past of the homeland (as well as diasporic longing), ethnic and genetic identity and the drive to reproduce that identity so it might flourish in contemporary society. If the show raises these kinds of more challenging questions in the minds of viewers, it will have done the job of confronting its audience (Albanian and non) on multiple levels, of provoking debate both about certain conservative Albanian values vis-à-vis sexuality and about the ways these values cannot be transformed simply by exposing the public to artfully presented eroticism.

There are two primary points I wish to discuss: first, the treatment of the female form in the exhibition (and the ways in which it interacts with the male form); and second, the implications of the interaction between eroticism, virility, and national-cultural heritage apparent in Shima’s works and Drishti’s curatorial statement. The first point raises the question of whether “Farajon”‘s implicit challenge to Albanian attitudes towards the body’s sexual nature (I will forego putting the term in scare quotes, since I take it that the discourse of the body’s ‘nature’ is still widespread in Albania) truly attempts to alter perceptions of the female body and, by extension, women. I would argue that the answer is “no,” and not because the female nude sculpted by the male artist can no longer function as a critical tool, but because the primary trend of the works exhibited associates the female form with the wild mystery of both the ancient (through references to myth and legend) and the carnally unknown and often treats the whole of the female body as analogous to the vagina. There are works, such as Eternity [wood, 2014] and Aenaon [wood, 1990], that explicitly reference the ying and yang, positing an eternal—and equal—convergence of the male and female, situating both as active forms in a circle of recurring metaphysical, sensual relationships.

Far more striking, however, is the depiction of the headless female torso, with thighs spread apart, split by a darkened crevice extending up from the vagina through the chest (as in works such as Satir [bronze, 2014]). Elsewhere, in Untitled [2002], two semicircular pieces of carven wood resting on the floor, separated by the thin gap, resolve into buttocks from one angle and thighs and a vaginal opening from the other. Shehrazad [“Scheherazade,” red marble, 2000] is a languid vaginal form. Genesis [wood, 2006] presents a full, pregnant female torso, the lines of the wood accenting its protruding round belly and curved back. Most significant is that these works present not people but bodies, or more specifically parts of bodies. (While one could read this deconstruction of the form as a kind of violence directed at the female body, I think it more likely that this is simply a result of Shima’s orthodox Modernist style, especially since nearly all of Shima’s figures and torsos are headless, regardless of sex[1]). Furthermore, the eroticism of the parts stands as a surrogate for the eroticism of the entire body—the vagina traverses the female torso and in so doing it becomes the entire body cavity, the inner life of the body imagined as the source of sexual ecstasy.

So, the female body appears in the guise of its component parts, and these parts materialize in objects imbued with a pure and mysterious sexual force. An article by Fatmira Nikolli reviewing the exhibition calls Shima’s forms “provocations.” But the question is: provocations to what? Is it not possible that these ‘provocations’ do not so much challenge a patriarchal attitude towards female sexuality as reinforce it, taking a particular pleasure in revealing secret, uncontrolled sexual urges rooted in female physicality (rather than in the lives of actual women)? Let us not forget that it has been 14 years since “PostEva,” the first retrospective exhibition of nudes by Albanian artists, opened at the GKA. One might have expected that Albanian attitudes towards the female body would have changed, and that the discussion surrounding an exhibition like “Farajon” would focus not on the potential controversy of erotic art but on the relationship between social systems of power and the politics of said art. However, lest someone protest that in fact Albanians truly remain in the midst of a deep sexual repression—the Victorians that we further-Westerners once thought ourselves to be, until we read Foucault—let us look no further than Tirana’s streets for a sort of counterexample. As usual, capitalism has already made certain that the fragments of the female body are hyper-sexualized: one can barely walk down a single major street in Tirana today without encountering one of a recent slew of new advertisements, which show a pair of bare female legs in red high heels alongside the caption “E re. Seksi. E freskët. E zhveshur. E kuqe…” [Young. Sexy. Fresh. Undressed. Red…].

E Kuqe

If this is the image of the female body that pervades the streets of the capital city, then the eroticism of Shima’s female forms can be little more a naïve attempt to return some dignity to sexuality by retreating from capitalism’s explicit re-production of the spectacle of eroticism by adopting both Modernism’s aesthetics and its metaphysics.[2]

Indeed, the show does perhaps accomplish that social and metaphysical task which has long been perceived as the purview of Modernism (in contrast, for example, to Socialist Realism—a contrast to which I shall return later): it allows the audience to exercise taste. As a review of the exhibition in Panorama notes: “In these 23 years [since the end of Socialist Realism] a public has emerged that can judge [mund të shijojë] an artwork” (my emphasis).[3] However, this judgment remains at an abstract, formal level (appropriate to Shima’s pseudo-abstractions); one wonders what might be discovered by an audience who read the works not merely in terms of their forms but also—after Arendt—in terms of their political aesthetics. Just such a political reading, however, would raise more questions than have generally been asked about the story “Farajon” tells about the relationship between male and female sexuality.

I said above that I took for granted—in keeping with Shima’s Modernist bent—that the exhibition believes in a natural sexuality, in the immutability of sexuality materialized unambiguously in the male and female reproductive organs.It is not, therefore, my intent to critique this questionable stance, but rather to examine what its political implications are in relation to the ways certain works in the show are displayed and described in the curatorial statement. “Farajon” is most politically duplicitous in its construction of the relationship between the male and the female, and its association between these two forces and the Albanian nationa itself. The entire exhibit takes its name from the work Farajon [bronze, 2014, created especially for the show], a gleaming, stylized erect penis 141 cm in height, inspired (according to Drishti’s curatorial statement) by a phallic image on a 4,000-year-old Illyrian earring. Drishti explains that “this erotic male artwork symbolizes, for the artist, the great reproductive vigor of the Albanian nation.” Thus, the primary thrust of the exhibition (to use a perhaps unfortunate metaphor) is that of the association between the phallus, the nation, and virility required to reproduce this nation through the centuries (from the time of the ancient Illyrians to the present day).

Farajon looms large in the exhibition space, placed on the slightly raised platform (which in turn leads to the awkwardly blocked stairway to that wing’s second level). It is certainly not the most imposing work in the show—that honor certainly belongs to the multi-piece instrument-artwork Briharpa [multimedia, 2014], which lends the entire exhibition space an additional Dionysian tinge—but it does assert itself visually over neighboring works, and especially over the feminine forms of Untitled and Genesis. Indeed, there is a distinctive sense in which many of the feminine forms in the exhibit seem to place themselves in a passive relationship with Farajon. Untitled seems almost to prostrate itself before the emblem of the phallus, the languid form of Shehrazad (the reclining nude reduced to reclining vagina) complement’s the penis’ verticality. Even Genesis is diminutive in size, placement, and therefore meaning in comparison with Farajon‘s glistening shaft. (One almost longs for a vertical, monumental vaginal form in the exhibition, an Ilirian-Shima-after-Georgia-O’Keeffe, for example.)

A microcosm of this relationship between the male form (the penis) and the female form can be found in the three small bronze figure of Satir [2014]. Two female forms, one black and one gold, cavort with vaginal openings wide before a burnished green phallus on two feet (presumably the eponymous satyr). Here the male body, like the female one, is reduced to its most ‘basic’ component, but there remains a quite definite valuation of the male over the female. After all, it is the male member which is seen to express the continuity and fecundity of Illyrian-Albanian culture and, ultimately, national identity. Female sexuality is openly celebrated, certainly, but under the aegis of male “reproductive vigor.” Thus, intentionally or not, the erotic longings for homeland, history, and nation become longings that are fulfilled by the masculine materialization of sexuality, not the feminine. Perhaps even more problematically, this masculine erotic drive is linked not to some general condition of the search for continuity in the era of globalization and uncertain national boundaries; rather, it makes an explicitly ethnic claim to the purity of genetic continuity. Shima’s works are, in a sense, Modernism-as-genetics, and as if this were not problematic enough, it is also a genetics that transfers the power structures of both nationalism and genetics onto the erotic qualities found in the (universal, but also ethnically specific) body. In short, they partially conceal an ascendant biopolitical power behind the ‘life of forms.’

We might ask, in the exercise of taste that the show seems to see as its most fundamental goal: Why is Modernism the appropriate language for a statement about both the universal, fundamentally erotic character of human existence while at the same time promoting essentially the fecundity of a particular ethnic group (the Illyrians), which is assumed to have passed down this reproductive vitality to a contemporary ethno-national group (the Albanians), if not as practice then certainly as a model for the preservation of its culture? Quite simply because it allows the focus to remain primarily on the forms of the works, rather than upon an explicit sociopolitical networks of power that they reinforce or reproduce. At the same time, the qualities of the forms—their contrasts, their sensuality, their polysemic representational properties (grounded in their most-often-merely-pseudo abstraction)—retain the claim of universality for any associations they make (between the erect penis and an image from an Illyrian earring, for example). This has nearly always been both the saving grace and the danger of Modernism, that it leaves itself open to various political readings—and indeed often does not deny them—even as it presents its critique as a critique of perception in general (or, in this case, a critique of taboos and conservatism).

This is perhaps to insist too much upon the political valence of a Modernism that seeks to be apolitical (though not, of course, asexual)—except for the fact that a) the seeming neutrality and/or universality of Modernist aesthetics has always been what allowed it to be duplicitous in the political machinations of states and organizations, and b) the potential political content of Shima’s works does not seem to be hidden that deeply (since one can no longer, I think, consider references to the Illyrian ‘genesis’ of the Albanians is in any way apolitical, if indeed one ever could consider such ideas to be apolitical). Furthermore, I do not think that Ilirian Shima’s works are truly trying to ‘hide’ this ideology beneath a veneer of formalism and ‘provocation.’ However, the discourse around what an exhibition of Modernist works like Shima’s really have to say contemporary Albania will almost certainly need to go beyond endless circling about taboos, lingering ‘Victorian’ morality vis-à-vis sex and sexuality, and the degree to which Albanian audiences are ‘ready’ for abstract art. It will need to grapple with the real sociopolitical implications of the convergence of eroticism, reproduction, the body, and nationalism, to consider what kind of ‘taste’ is needed to see Modern art as truly critical of social norms, and above all to enter into a much more nuanced discussion of what social norms in Albania are in terms of sexuality.[4]

I want to return, in order to cast a different light on the political significance of Shima’s Modernism, to the contrast presented by the Panorama review of the exhibition, that between Socialist Realism’s attitude towards sex and that which is available to Albanians 23 years later. So the argument goes, the system of Socialist Realism clearly delineated what was moral and immoral, and it made certain that the immoral was not even to be thought, much less materialized in art. Thus, female sexuality was not allowed to be imagined, much less to appear. The problem, of course, is that Socialist Realism never denied the importance of female sexuality and the essential role women played in reproducing (for) the nation. It merely hid certain aspects of this sexuality, brought others to the fore, and made the task of reproduction explicitly political and patriotic. Its was an eroticism of duty, and it subsumed the individual to the collective Eros of the New Life.

However, is “Farajon” really so different? Certainly, in that it celebrates the recovery of erotic experience in art as something to be explored, savored, ‘tasted,’ as abandonment to and in a deeper, more timeless level of existence. Certainly not, in that it urges viewers to recover the sexual as the vigor of the ethnically delimited nation, to seek the ancient past of that nation in the sensual, to love and reproduce for the sake of national History. As Slavoj Žižek is so fond of saying, Coca-Cola tells you “You must enjoy.” Here, “Farajon” is perhaps not quite so demanding, nor quite so empty in its promise, but its insistence on the recovery of erotic pleasure is most certainly not without the call to fulfill the national duty of reproduction.

[1] The single significant contrast comes from a pair of bodiless heads locked together in a kiss.

[2] One might argue that the “taboo” Shima is breaking is that against the depiction of the reproductive organs,  specifically, and not any taboo against eroticism (a taboo which certainly continues to exist in some circles but which has been thoroughly assaulted by advertising and global/Western culture in others). (This is the claim implied by an article in Panorama.) This may be the case, and Shima’s works are to be praised for initiating this debate. However, the fact remains that Shima’s sculptures so explicitly graph their eroticism onto the entire body—the bodies not just of individuals, but the entire enthno-national collective body—and indeed onto the soul. Thus, I maintain that whatever taboos Shima’s works break at the level of representation of parts of the body, they nonetheless reiterate more discourses than they disrupt at the level of the body as a whole, in society.

In any case, the “provocation” in terms of the male gaze upon the female body parts depicted in “Farajon” seems to be quite straightforward: it is the provocation to possess the female body in the throes of passion, because that body—in its sexual fragments—yearns for an ecstasy that takes no account of distributions of social power. But is male sexual power really privileged in the exhibit? Yes, quite simply by the fact that conceptually the whole show centers on the virility of the male reproductive organ, which I will discuss below.

[3] Since the Albanian word for the exercise of taste in the cultural sense is also “to taste,” the statement retains a sensuous aspect lost in English.

[4] Implicit in this, I hope, is the assertion that global capitalism’s use of eroticism to sell products in Albania cannot be uprooted until it is confronted, and it cannot be confronted by a naïve embrace of Modernism paired with a nostalgia for the ancient past. At worst, this course of action only further hides the inequalities and abuses that masquerade as a ‘free’ and ‘liberal’ embrace of typically masculine (and typically consumerist) sexuality.

Albanian Communism and Norwegian Black Metal: Missed Connections?

In light of the recent workshop I facilitated on “Creative Writing in/and Art History,” I think it may be worth returning to this blog, if still quite sporadically. In the course of researching for my thesis on the Vlora Independence Monument in Albania, I’ve been reminded of a number of different almost-completely-unrelated themes and topics which might be of interest, especially to those working on the Balkans and on Albania in particular.

Almost a year ago, I came across a truly bizarre congruence: that between communism—especially the dictatorial variety which characterized countries like Albania and Romania—and Norwegian Black Metal. In an interview in the eight issue of Slayer magazine (Spring 1991), Euronymous (Øystein Aarseth), the lead guitarist for the (in)famous black metal band Mayhem responds to a question about his opinion of the situation in Eastern Europe at the time. He says,

The question is a bit difficult because there are two answers. All the revelutions [sic] you have seen in E.E. are just as they could be taken from MARX/LENIN/MAO, and the party I’m in is totally supporting it, because communism means total freedom, and that it should be people who decide things, not the government or the capitalists. But on the other hand, I’m personally very fascinated by countries like Albania, North Korea, or Kampuchea, which have been running a very hard line and which have been closed for the rest of the world. I really regret that I didn’t get the chance to go to Romania while it was like in the old days, but at least I’ll be going to Albania soon.[1]

Earlier in the interview, Euronymous notes, “No, that [writing about his political viewpoint in the lyrics of Mayhem songs] will never happen. Even though I’m active in the most extreme communist party here (Albania inspirations), I leave to the Punks to write about that in the lyrics.”[2] (According to later interviews, he never made it to Albania.)

Euronymous’ interest in extreme, dictatorial communist states in Eastern Europe and elsewhere has already been noted. However, I think that—while there is certainly still a great deal of thinking to be done about Euronymous’ communist leanings—it is more interesting to take examples such as this one as an opportunity to rethink the significance of Hoxha’s communist model. Hoxha is so consistently identified with Albania that it is easy to forget that there are still ‘Hoxhaist’ parties elsewhere in the world which look to the example of communist Albania for inspiration. The fact that Euronymous was a member of one such party reminds us that Hoxha’s heritage is not significant only in Albania, nor even only in the Balkans more widely.

More specifically, what would it mean to think about Hoxha’s Albania as a truly global phenomenon—one which served and serves as a point of reference for the conceptualization of political ideas as seemingly unrelated as those of Mayhem’s guitarist? This is emphatically not to suggest that Albanian communism should be treated as merely an example of a universal (or global) phenomenon—whether it be ‘communist dictatorship’ or ‘totalitarianism’ or any other framework; the insistence on the specificity of the Albanian context is entirely warranted. Likewise, it is not to say that we should somehow take quite seriously the idea of Hoxha’s Albania as the last bastion of ‘true socialism’ in Europe, surrounded by the ‘imperial-revisionist blockade’ (although it might be worth taking Hoxha as a thinker of communism more seriously than authors like Arshi Pipa have done). It is to insist on the inapplicability of ‘authenticity’ to the question of (the experience of) Albanian communism—that is to say, to insist that Hoxhaist communism is really known only by those who lived it, or that their experience is the only experience of it. Of course it is true that the most significant Hoxha leaves behind is in the memories and actions of those who lived in Albania while it was under his control. However, this fact should not exclude from consideration the ways in which Hoxha’s Albania was perceived from ‘outside’—the ways in which it became an important (if starkly ‘inauthentic’) point of political and existential reference.

Part of this external experience, of course, is premised upon a lack of encounter—the fact is, Euronymous never went to Albania. (One can imagine that, if he had, he would have arrived in time to see this, which might have been a rather bitter welcome to a zealous follower of an extremist communist party.[3]) This position of externality does not, I would argue, make the significance that Albania (and Romania, and North Korea, and so forth) held for Euronymous any less worthy of consideration and scrutiny.

What would it mean to look at Albanian communism, particularly that of the Hoxha years, not as something concentrated and bounded in space and time, but rather as something dispersed, distorted, reinterpreted, misunderstood, spread thin across the world and picked up in the strangest of places: Helvete, the record from which Euronymous contributed to the short and controversial rise of black metal, another ‘national’ phenomenon which would take on a decidedly transnational character in the wake of his own death.

[1] Jon Kristiansen, Metalion: The Slayer Mag Diaries (New York: Bazillion Points, 2011), 210.

[2] Ibid., 209.

[3] The idea of the shock of the ‘reality’ of Hoxha’s Albania encountered for the first time by foreign sympathizers is explored in one of the narrative threads of Diana Çuli’s Diell në Mesnatë. 

Interview with Renee Couture, Part 2

This is the second part of an interview conducted via email with Renee Couture, an artist working and teaching in Douglas County, Oregon. Her work often deals with issues of productive and/or repetitive work and its connection to our lives, as well as the relationship of human communities to the environment. Couture’s website is: .

I am fascinated that you have in a way divided your work (in terms of how you present it on your website at least) into works about work and works about (land) use. The work/use dichotomy seems to me to raise a lot of interesting points. The cautionary reminder that seems to me to be present in works like “Kindly Use” and “In the Quiet of These Great Distances” sets up a tension between “using” and “using up” resources. Do you see the artist as a person who is uniquely positioned to appreciate the need to “use” materials without “using them up”?

I actually see the themes as more related than separated, despite their separation on my website. I see the works of land use as an extension of my works that are specifically about work.  Where Marx spoke of a worker’s alienation from his/her job and jobs [being] comprised of dismembered gestures, bioregional ethics explores the other side of that coin. Through the lens of bioregional ethics, I’m starting to explore how one can work in an engaged way, full of thoughtful gestures. I’m thinking about places where a mindfulness is added to one’s action.

For me, the dichotomy between work and use is a modern invention, if you will. It is the issue of scale. On a small scale, we can use resources, and we can be engaged with our actions. On a large scale, we use up resources and tend toward dismembered gestures. This division between work and use is possible due to series of networks that have made our lives easier. But these same networks have produced a disconnection between the individual and resource at the beginning of the system [and] from the individual and commodity at the end of the system.

I see the work “kindly use” as simultaneously cautionary, but also celebratory. The locations where those signs were placed were near privately owned ranch lands – family-owned businesses run by people who are engaged with their work/labor actions. With the body of work, “In the Quiet of these Great Distances”, I am exploring a gray area of use.

I think artists are certainly in the position of needing materials for the purposes of producing their work. Considering that artists now will often select a material specifically for its cultural connotation, or its meaning, artists are able to see past a material’s usual or typical use. And hopefully using as much of a material as needed to experiment and produce the (art)work he/she is producing. There is also the idea of exploration of intellectual material, of making many works exploring a theme or exploring something deeply – to generate instead of simply consume. There’s also that notion of where the artist can be generous, and where to hold back – to not “use everything up”, to leave space for the viewer.

Do you think art also potentially “uses up”? For example, is there the danger that art “uses up” its subjects by bringing them into the light and thus laying on the table all the meaning they had as parts of our everyday lives? Or does art give its subjects a new kind of vivacity in bringing them to light?

I hope not art doesn’t “use up” its subjects. But it’s certainly possible, both on an investigative/intellectual level, and on a materials level. I mean, how many themes are there really that artists work with? It seems there are a couple dozen general themes. It would be incredibly limiting in that once a theme would be explored, it couldn’t or wouldn’t be explored again by other artists in different ways. Is it that the artist and the art uses up its subject, or does the artist exhaust the subject for him- or herself? Perhaps that’s sort of the same thing. I think that art can explore the various meanings or lines of inquiry of a subject. Expand what it is until it collapses (or until the artist collapses).

In terms of materials, there is no such thing as a “pure” material or medium. All have histories and are imbued culturally in some way. The way in which the materials are used is another conversation. Materials or modes of working which may have, at a certain point in (past or recent) history, been avant-garde can become a modes of working or materials that are commonly used.

I guess I would say that if art “uses up” its subject, material, mode of working, it would do so for a period of time, but they will emerge again. I also think that an artist needs to honor him- or herself, that is, to do what he or she feels compelled to do. An artist can give bring new life or vivacity to a subject, material and way of working, exposing something hidden within the subject and within the artist. There’s an exchange. It’s a dialogue. A dialogue between artists of different eras, artists in different places with similar and different thought processes; a dialogue between the artist and the subject; a dialogue between the artist and the material and process; a dialogue between artist and viewer.

I’d like to touch briefly on how viewers might encounter your work. How important is “making a statement” to the experience of/encounter with your work? What I mean is that, given the fact that a great deal of your work comes from everyday activity, it seems possible to encounter things like dryer lint, floss, potato chips, firewood, etc. without linking them to broader political implications, but simply pondering them as things and materials. Do you feel that your work “must make a statement” in a political or social sense? Or is it sufficient that it simply allows people to contemplate their relation to things and activities?

I think artists make work for different reasons. Some artists want to make beautiful objects, functional objects, a record of a place or moment, a record of a thought, or to make a statement, among other reasons. My work is usually driven by a curiosity, something I’m trying to make sense of, or come to some sort of position on. My work is a record of thought and investigative actions.

That said, I think our lives are political, whether we know it or not. Often we think of politics as something that happens in Washington DC, or among politicians. But I think how we live our lives is political. So, while I don’t necessary think that art must make a statement, I think I am interested in exploring the political within my work and attempting to communicate something to the viewer.  Is wanting to “make a statement” the same as wanting to communicate something?

Since post-modernism, the relationship between viewer and artists, viewer and work has shifted. The viewer has more responsibility. The viewer has to do more work in the viewing process – to ask him- or herself questions about materials, about how they are used and displayed, about the title, about the work’s relationship to other that artist has made or other objects that share its same space. Each viewer brings his or her own subjectivity to a work when viewing. Roland Barthes, in his essay Death of the Author – a basic read for all grad students – explores this idea. As an artist I have to trust the viewer to make their own understanding of the work, whether the viewer looks at the pieces purely in terms of its formal sensibilities, or if the viewer will engage on a deeper level with the work, and whether or not my intention comes through.

Finally, I’m curious about the idea of art as “gesture” (as in your work “Small Gestures”). How do you conceive of the idea of “gesture”? Would you say that all art represents a “gesture”, or is it one kind of activity which art/the artist can engage in? In describing “Small Gestures”, you called it a way of acknowledging “work” that people do, so in some way it completes a circle back to work. In some ways I get the sense that the gesture “says a lot but produces little” while work “produces a lot but says little” (or at least we don’t usually listen to what it has to say). Do you see a sort of reciprocal relation between work and gesture? Between art as work and art as gesture?

The idea of “gesture”… if you look it up in the dictionary, its definition as a noun refers to movements that express thoughts and emotions, and any action of courtesy. In that way, “Small Gestures” is both because it is a record of movement and a courtesy.

Why not acknowledge the work people do? It seems as though, as much as we may work, that it becomes invisible because it’s taken for granted, or because we operate on auto-pilot, or because it’s an expectation within our work-based society. Do we really see the “fruits of our labor” anymore? Within some jobs, certainly, within others, no. Have you ever gone home after a day of work and wondered what you did that day?

Your assertion that “gesture says a lot but produces little while work produces a lot but says little.” is interesting to think about. Some gestures “speak” more “loudly” than others, just as some work produces more, while other work very little. Maybe work and gesture actually need each other; that there is not just a reciprocal relation between work and gesture, but that there is a symbiotic relation, too. Without one, what happens to the other? Where is the overlap, or convergence of the two?

Art is so many things. Art as work, art as actions, art as gesture, art as thought, art as leisure, art as community, art as history, art as work, art as commodity…  I do view art, the making of and the final product (if one exists) as the accumulation of movements, and as an action intended to communicate with or affect the viewer.


Interview With Renee Couture, Part 1

This is the first part of an interview conducted via email with Renee Couture, an artist working and teaching in Douglas County, Oregon. Her work often deals with issues of productive and/or repetitive work and its connection to our lives, as well as the relationship of human communities to the environment. Couture’s website is: .

In encountering your art, one of the first things that comes to mind is a question Duchamp posed: “Can one make works which are not works of art?”. Many of your “works” are about work; do you see a strong distinction between art (the kind you do, or any art) and work? Is the relation between the two a kind of continuum? And if so, what makes the “art” end of the continuum different?

I think this might be a question of intention, and the artist’s or viewer’s willingness to consider a work as art, or not. For example, the Walker Art Museum in Minnesota had an exhibit of Eva Hesse’s sketchbooks, working notes, diaries, and experiments on display. What did Eva Hesse think of these objects? What did the museum think of these objects? How are these objects displayed, and how did the display impact the way in which viewers engaged with these objects? Another example is Gabriel Orozco’s first solo show at Marian Goodman Gallery where he presented Yogurt Caps. The work consisted of four yogurt caps; each wall consisted of a single cap placed in the center of the wall. During the opening, viewers walked in, and then left. And then they came back and really interacted with the space.

In my case, questions surrounding  work and labor – such as our cultural relationship to work – are where my intellectual inquiries begin. So what is work? In my mind, work is anything that we spend our energy on – which is great because my life and my studio practice overlap; I draw from my life for my artwork. Where does one stop and one begin? Sometimes I don’t know. Sometimes I question myself; sometimes my practice reveals my own biases. Maybe the only difference between one end of the continuum and the other is how I’m thinking about it, what my intention is, whether or not I’m documenting it.

That said, I do think of one’s studio practice as a practice and as work. A studio practice can be bliss, can be fun, can be drudgery, can be painful. Thinking back to Bruce Nauman, who asked the question, “what is art?” shortly after he finished with graduate school and he decided that he was an artist and therefore anything he [does] is art. That revelation expanded his studio practice in exciting ways. Think of what Mary Kelly did with her Postpartum Documents, Merle Ukeles Laderman with her Maintenance Art project, or the work of many artists in the 60s and 70s, where their art was their work and their work was their art. Today Santiago Sierra continues this, though thematically a bit different, but the idea of exploring labor is present.

My husband and I got an exhibit postcard in the mail from a friend once. He said, “gee, I wish I could send out a postcard for when I go to work this coming Monday. It would say my name, and then : reviews timber contract.” On the one hand, he has a point in questioning why the work of an artist should be “celebrated” when everyone else’s work is not. But on the other hand, much of the work artists do is hidden until it’s shown in a gallery, online, on the landscape, etc. Even then, within the final product or object, much of the work involved in the conception and making is missed or hidden. The artist may or may not “get paid” (i.e., sell) the work he/she produces. Does that mean the artist has worked for free?

Does the work have to be shown in a gallery to put it on the “art” end of the continuum? But that would take us into the territory of discussing the Artworld, with a capital A. What I will say is that I know I don’t consider all the work I do each day to be considered “art”, but there are times that I will document work I do with the intention of it becoming art. So I suppose the answer to the last question is a combination of variables of the artist deciding what will or won’t be art, a gallery owner/manager/collector deciding if something is or isn’t art, and the viewer deciding if something is or isn’t art. I mean, we’ve all been in a museum or gallery where a viewer questions whether or not object in that space (gallery, museum) is art, or “something a six-year old could make.” That said, I suppose the continuum shifts depending upon who you speak with.

In your statement about your “work-related” art, you note that “we live in a work-based society”. I wonder to what degree your art might constitute a critique of that society or a reinforcement of it. On the one hand, your emphasis on the product of daily activities stands in contrast to what we might produce in “jobs”. On the other hand, these works seem to be part of the pressure exerted on members of society to accumulate and produce something no matter what. Do you see your art as simply a commentary on this situation, or a step in changing it? If a step towards change, how so?

I think my work is an attempt to understand something and/or to call attention to something. I don’t think of my work necessarily [as] trying to change things. I think of myself as an observer, a record keeper, a researcher, a critiquer, a maker, among other things. My role shifts during different parts of the process and studio practice, and perhaps my role changes with each work or body of works. I suppose some viewers will see the work as a critique, while others might see the work as reinforcement, and other might see the work as observation.

I do think that people have the desire to feel productive, and to do something they can feel good about or are happy doing. But there is also this pressure, for people who have a wage-job, to produce and be productive, to be able to measure the productivity, to earn their pay. This is especially true now in our current economic time.

Also, our jobs are such a large part of our identity, not just how we see ourselves, but how others see us. I suppose the questions now is, what do we produce? Are the things that we produce necessary? As a society, we’ve certainly mastered accelerated obsolescence. And creating specialized objects for everything. How does that impact our creativity, our ability to repurpose objects within in our lives, to see another or hidden potential within an object? Since the industrial revolution and most definitely in our post World War II society, most people no longer work for themselves, that is, they work for an entity that pays. There is an even greater separation between work and leisure, work and pleasure. The home has become a site of consumption as opposed to production. There is a greater distancing between our professional lives and our private lives. Also, the advent of “specializing” we’ve lost generalized knowledge. We lost a seasonality that used to be present…now, instead of working in a seasonal way, completing activities that shift throughout the year, we do the same activities each day. How does that impact how we engage with these activities? These are some of the things I’m thinking about when I’m working.

What do you see as being the difference between work and labor? What about “activity”? How would you relate the concepts of work, labor, and activity to art?

Certainly when I think of “labor” I’m think of something that involves a physicality – an activity where the body is a tool, an activity where muscles are engaged, an activity that physically tires or strains an individual, an activity that is physically engrossing. “Work”, I suppose, involves the mind; it’s also a place where one does one’s job (“I have to go to work”). Of course, these are not entirely separate. Even though I’ve described them as quite different, I believe there is an overlap, like in a Venn diagram. And a “job” is something one does for a wage. Of course, an “activity” is some sort of action that one does when working, laboring, or at one’s job. It is the activity, or more correctly, the output of that activity this is measurable and measured to determine one’s productivity.

But I think that artists work and labor within their practices, each in his or her own way, and perhaps with a different amount of emphasis placed in these areas. Part of the process is researching, thinking, writing, and planning; and then physically making the work. The end result is the accumulation of the various activities that the artist employs within his or her studio practice.

Another theme that I see reflected in some of your works (“Blind Flicker of Nerve”, “Over and Over”, “Labor Day’s Labor”, etc.) is the theme of repetition and habit. These works seem to touch on a kind of obsession related to the repeated act, but to me they also recall Michel Foucault’s analysis of how, in society, the individual/subject is created through habits/activities that are part of a network of power. Do you feel that the sort of repetitive activities your art deals with are a product of the individual, or do they form the individual? Or is it somewhere in between?

Am I allowed to say both? Because I think the relationship is cyclic. I think Louis Althusser points to this in his discussion on Ideological State Apparatuses.

I think perhaps a factor is how engaged the individual is when completing the activity. Is the individual completing the activities with the sort of dismembered gestures of one who is alienated from the activity or mentally disengaged; or is the individual completing the activity in a way that is thoughtful and focused?

There are most definitely habits/activities that are part of a network of power that shape the individual in a variety of ways – how we think about things, our muscle memory, ……. Our body becomes an archive of the activities we do – we see it in the body of retired ballerinas or football players, workers having carpal-tunnel syndrome, or chronic headaches or ulcers due to stress, for example.

Also, studies have shown that the more education one has, the more one’s identity is derived from his/her job.

Our bodies are also not entirely our bodies. Our bodies “belong” not only to us, but also to our culture on a national, state and local level. We see this all the time in legislative acts on women’s reproductive rights, the Death with Dignity Act and objections to it, to name a couple of the more polarizing examples. They belong to families.

In connection with the above question, do you feel that art has a shaping effect or a shaped effect in relation to the artist? Does art come from the artist, or does the artist come from the artwork?

I think what you’re really asking here is what the relationship is between the artist and the work, and the question implies that the relationship is hierarchical. Really, this relationship is a dialogue between the artist and the process. The artist and the process are partners in creating a finished work. So, to answer the question: I believe that both happen within an artist’s practice, a give and take, so to speak, of shaping and being shaped.

But I think it depends upon one’s approach to that particular work, or why one is making the particular work of art. If the artist already has a firm position on the theme or content that he or she wants to present within the work, then the artist has a shaping effect on the work. If the artist is using the work to explore or investigate a question in an attempt to find a position, then the work shapes the artist. Work comes from the artist, and work makes work.

Part 2 will follow shortly. –Raino Isto

Risatti and Craft After Heidegger’s Critique of Traditional Ontology, Part 4

Wish you knew what was going on in this post? Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 will confuse you more.

IV. Conclusions and Implications for the Study of Art and Craft

It might be said that I have, in focusing my critique on what is only part—though an integral part—of Risatti’s discussion of the craft object, been unduly harsh in my criticism of his theory. I therefore wish to reiterate that my intention is not simply to argue that Risatti’s characterization of work of craft is “wrong” and that we should instead be in search of the “right” one. On the contrary: Risatti’s interpretation of craft using the lens provided by Heidegger and Gadamer is extremely fruitful. His Husserlian model of the craftsperson’s relation to the meaning of the craft object is likewise fruitful, and the tension between the two, which has been the object of my discussion, raises questions which are rarely raised in art historical enquiry. It is my contention that to take Risatti seriously is to see this tension and his struggle to resolve it, and to see beyond that struggle to the new horizons opened up by it.

The truth of the matter is that Risatti’s Husserlian model of objectifying intentionality as a (or the) source of meaning in the art or craft object is common in art historical methodology. Likewise, the view which Risatti rejects—the view that “all meaning resides outside the object” and that meaning is imposed not by the creator but by the viewer, is common in art history and criticism (255). I believe that Risatti senses the limitation of both these models, which adhere to the idea of an object which a subject invests with meaning, and thus draws upon a post-subjective model, though without complete success. What I believe Risatti is seeking for is precisely “the excess of meaning that is present in the work itself”, as Gadamer says (“Aesthetics” 102). This “excess of meaning” is precisely what speaks to us in the work beyond and before what is “put into” it by creator or viewer. Openness to this meaning, allowing the work to speak to us, is something which demands a kind of thinking no longer tethered to the division of meaning-giving subject and object.

Perhaps what is most difficult about looking at the work of art or craft in this new way is that it seemingly forces us, as viewers, to abandon all investigation of the artist or craftsperson’s relation to the creation of the work. If we must leave behind intentionality and “the intention to mean”, what is left to see in the act of creation? Are we not forced into merely passively contemplating the work as it stands before us? And does not this passive contemplation lead us back towards a problematic emphasis on Kantian aesthetic experiences aroused in the subject, and therefore back into the heart of the subject-object model? The answer, I believe, is no.

There is at least one way of thinking about the meaning of the work of art or craft in terms of “receptivity to meaning” without simply adopting the standpoint of a passive viewer. This way of thinking is suggested by the writings of some contemporary Heidegger scholars, principally Hubert Dreyfus. Dreyfus’ discussion of Heidegger and Husserl’s differing concepts of intentionality in his essay “Heidegger’s Critique of Husserl’s (and Searle’s) Account of Intentionality” examines precisely the tension that Ristatti’s struggle reveals. Dreyfus offers an account of Heidegger’s notion of intentionality, which is a pre- or non-objective intentionality (2-4). In other words, there is a kind of intentionality characterized by receptivity (of the kind Risatti wants to cultivate in our encounter with the craft object) which has no defined object. This kind of intentionality, as Dreyfus explains, underlies the Husserlian model of objective intentionality and makes it possible. This is to say that Heidegger gets around the issue of transcendence (which is so problematic for Risatti, as we have seen) by revealing transcendence as the ground for deliberate, intentional object-oriented action, rather than a result of it (“Heidegger’s Critique” 10). Thus, in any encounter with the world, we are always already “absorbed” in some way in a situation, and the situation calls upon us to “get into the right relation to it” (“Heidegger’s Critique” 6). This quite accurately describes what Risatti’s entire book aims at: it wants us to “get into the right relation” to the work of craft, and thus come to understand more fully what it is and how it is.

All that said, Risatti is clearly interested in the connection between craftsperson and created work of craft. Can we examine this relationship in terms of Heidegger’s account of pre-objective intentionality and receptivity to the world? Again, Dreyfus suggests a way of doing this. In All Things Shining, Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly examine how those living in our present age can understand and engage in meaningful action and understanding. Their enquiry includes a lengthy discussion of the way in which the maker relates to the object created—interestingly enough, using the example of the craftsperson rather than the artist. Dreyfus and Kelly see, in the activity of the woodworker, an example of how to think post-subjectively about the maker’s act of making. In contrast to Risatti, Dreyfus and Kelly are very much interested in skill, though they have a very different idea of what skill might mean in this context. “The master’s skill for working with wood … involves intelligence and flexibility rather than rote and automatic response. This does not mean that the master is constantly planning out his actions; his ingenuity is practical, embodied, and in the moment” (209). Thus, the craftsperson “sees meaningful distinctions in the wood—distinctions of worth and of quality—that in no way find their source in him” (208-9). “The task of the craftsman is not to generate the meaning, but rather to cultivate in himself the skill for discerning the meanings that are already there” (209, emphasis in original).

This characterization of the craftsperson’s act of making might seem a far cry from Ristatti’s investigation, which ultimately seeks to avoid basing a definition of craft on either skillful creation or the material used. However, what Dreyfus and Kelly reveal is that this renewed and re-formed characterization of the significance of skill and material allows us to think about the creation of the work of craft (or of art) in a way that avoids simply falling into the subject-object dichotomy. This phenomenological approach suggests a range of meanings—physical, material, situational—that are overlooked or at best distorted if we merely examine the craft object in terms of the deliberate intention to mean on the part of the craftsperson-subject.

This new way of looking at works of art and craft is precisely what Risatti is seeking in his book, with all the new and difficult horizons that this new way of looking opens up for art historical enquiry. Taking Risatti’s task seriously means seeking this new way, seeking an alternative to the model of objective intentionality present in Kant and Husserl, and bringing this new method to bear on ourselves and our encounter with works of art and craft.

Cited: Howard Risatti, A Theory of Craft: Function and Aesthetic Expression, University of North Carolina: Chapel Hill, 2007.

Hans-Georg Gadamer, “Aesthetics and Hermeneutics”, Philosophical Hermenuetics, trans. David E. Linge, Unicersity of California, Berkeley: 1976.

Hubert Dreyfus, “Heidegger’s Critique of Husserl’s (and Searle’s) Account of Intentionality”, Social Research, Vol. 60, No. 1, Spring 1993.

Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, All Things Shining, Free Press, New York: 2011.

If you’ve read this far, thx. –Raino Isto