Tradhtia e Imazhit- PamorART June 1998, year 1, number 2

Today’s post is the second in a series of posts that will present scans of the historically and critically indispensable publication PamorART, a magazine published by the National Gallery of Arts in Tirana. PamorART began publication in 1997, and was a crucial reflection of the artistic and cultural  scene in Albania in the late 90s, providing a specialized venue for discussion and critical assessment of the visual arts in the country. This issue contains, among other things, articles on Edi Hila and Kristaq Rama, as well as an insert in English.

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The scans of the PamorART magazines are made possible by the tireless efforts of philologist Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei, who scanned the issues, and art critic Gëzim Qëndro, who made the issues available to us from his private collection. My deepest thanks go to both of them for making these texts available to us. 

Një Tribunë e Shumëpritur- PamorART March 1998 year 1, number 1

Today’s post is the first in a series of posts that will present scans of the historically and critically indispensable publication PamorART, a magazine published by the National Gallery of Arts in Tirana. PamorART began publication in 1997, and was a crucial reflection of the artistic and cultural  scene in Albania in the late 90s, providing a specialized venue for discussion and critical assessment of the visual arts in the country. The first issue takes up a theme that has seen heated discussion in recent months as well: the Onufri competition and its role in the Albanian arts scene. (Somehow the title of Edi Muka’s article on the subject, ‘Onufri ’97: Impas apo Shpresë?’ [‘Onufri ’97: Impasse or Hope?’] seems to describe the current state of Onufri as well as it might have described Onufri ’97. 

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The scans of the PamorART magazines are made possible by the tireless efforts of philologist Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei, who scanned the issues, and art critic Gëzim Qëndro, who made the issues available to us from his private collection. My deepest thanks go to both of them for making these texts available to us. 

“Gjithmonë i Ri dhe i Freskët”: Nëndori 1:1, 1954, and Nëntori 30:1, 1984

Today’s post is a brief interlude between the two rambling sections of my extended consideration of realism and contemporaneity in Albanian art. This post is also a ‘double feature’; it includes partial scans of the very first issue of journal Nëndori [later Nëntori], the monthly publication of the Albanian Union of Writers and Artists, and of the 30th anniversary issue of the journal.

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At the time Nëndori first began publication, it replaced Letërsia Jonë [Our Literature], the monthly journal-length publication primarily produced by the Albanian Union of Writers (although it occasionally featured content related to the visual arts). At the time, the Unions of Writers and Artists were separate entities, and Nëndori, like Letërsia Jonë, primarily focused on literature, poetry, and translation. By the 1960s, however (at which point the Unions had joined into one), the journal began to feature illustrations more regularly and to deal with issues related to the visual arts more frequently. From the beginning, however, Nëndori dealt with the broad spectrum of Albanian cultural production, including theater, music, and film, as well as literature and the visual arts.

As the introductory section of the journal makes clear, the year 1954 (as the tenth anniversary of liberation from fascism and as the fourth year of Albania’s first ‘5-year plan’ period) represented a particularly important year in the young socialist nation’s progress towards joining the transnational network of socialist modernity.

Thirty years later, in the January, 1984, volume of Nëntori, several of socialist Albania’s noted cultural figures (including Dritëro Agolli, Kujtim Buza, and Aleks Buda) published short reflections on the journal’s importance for the development of the discourse on Albanian arts and letters. The volume also contains the announcement for the 3rd Congress of the Union of Writers and Artists, as well as the notes from the Directory Council’s plenary session laying out points for discussion at the upcoming Congress.

Happy reading!

 

Some Thoughts on Realism and Albanian Art

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

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

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

  1. Beauty, Kitsch, Realism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Books Cited:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

History and Method: The Quest for Realism in Gëzim Qëndro’s Heronjtë Janë të Uritur

This post offers a review of art critic and curator Gëzim Qëndro’s Heronjtë Janë të Uritur (Tirana: Onufri, 2015, 115 pp.). It also serves as a sort of introduction to the two forthcoming posts, which will deal—in part—with the potential relationships between r/Realism and contemporary art, understood historically and critically, in Albania today.

Least of all can modern realism be characterized in conventional terms as a commitment to naturalistic resemblance. […] There is a clear continuity between the realism of late nineteenth-century experiments and creating more convincing portrayals of modern life and modernist or avant-garde attempts to invent artistic forms that challenged existing ways of picturing the world.—Alex Potts[1]

Spiro Xega, Ceta e Shahin Matrakut, 1930, oil on canvas, 108x130cm, National Gallery of Arts, Tirana
Spiro Xega, Ceta e Shahin Matrakut, 1930, oil on canvas, 108x130cm, National Gallery of Arts, Tirana

It is perhaps, finally, becoming a good time to be a Realist again. From the increasingly ubiquitous (if still frequently denigrated) philosophical efforts of the Speculative Realists, to the art historical recovery of global Realisms from social realism to socialist realism and beyond, there can be no doubt that notion of Realism has ceased to be associated with various cultural paradigms of the past and has become—again—something truly contemporary. This is a good thing for historians, critics, artists, and aestheticians for many reasons, and not only because it challenges the (undoubtedly decaying, but also undoubtedly still shambling) corpse of abstraction’s institutional victory in the second half of the previous century. Nor again is it a good thing merely because so many forms of Realism seem to explicitly challenge—with carrying degrees of efficacy—certain aspects of the postmodern love for ungroundedness and its dismissal of shared aesthetic judgments about the world. Indeed, if the ‘aesthetic’ as a category is gradually being returned to the postmodern configuration (after it first appeared that the postmodern left the aesthetic well in the past), it might also be said that r/Realism is returning as a central category of the contemporary.

However, the recent return of/to the r/Real (and not only in Hal Foster’s Lacanian sense,[2] but in fact in many different senses of the term) and its ‘isms’ is not only significant as a category of culture in the current moment but also of our understanding of the writing of 20th-century (and of course also late 19th-century) art history. The hope—at least for myself, as a historian of Eastern European art—is not just that widespread yet regionally distinctive styles like Socialist Realism will be unquestioningly introduced into the field of acceptable subjects for art historical investigation. (Although much ground has been gained, a great deal more remains to be gained in this area alone.) The hope is also that other specific Realisms (such as Photorealism) and less easily delineated kinds of Realism (academic realism, historical realism, the vast and extremely globally significant category of social realism) will be understood as crucial to the development of art in both the West and elsewhere (in Eastern Europe, for example). Of course, in many cases, too much attention to stylistic categories does not do much justice to works of art, but the focus on Realism as a category (it seems to me) is foremost a way to re-orient attention towards how artists were engaging with the social and material world—as opposed to solely either investigating their own subjectivity or the institutional confines of art and aesthetics. (Of course, these are in no way exclusive; artists were frequently doing all of them, and it perhaps one of the weaknesses of Qëndro’s study that it does too little to emphasize the potential diversity of Xega’s aims in the work discussed.) As such, the foregrounding of Realist aspirations in historical/critical investigations of artworks is a way to learn about how artists made works that were meant to actively intervene in and comment upon material systems of labor, empire, spirituality, sexuality, and so forth.

There are (at least) two ways to consider the approach to Realism taken by Gëzim Qëndro in his recent book-length essay Heronjtë Janë të Uritur [The Heroes Are Hungry], which focuses on a single painting by Spiro Xega (one of the artists of the Albanian National Awakening period), Çeta e Shahin Matrakut [The Warrior Band of Shahin Matraku] (1930, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Arts, Tirana). The first is as an art historical investigation of the significance of Realism in modern Albanian art; the second is as a critical method meant to deepen our understanding of cultural production’s relationship to society not only in Albania during the late Ottoman Empire and early post-Ottoman period, but also in the present day. For a number of reasons, the book is rather unsatisfactory from the former viewpoint (as art historical inquiry), but incredibly rich and compelling from the latter viewpoint (as critical method).

Qëndro is without a doubt one of the most astute and creative commentators on Albanian art, and it is a pleasure to see him looking closely and thinking closely about a work (and an artist, and indeed a period) that has received relatively little attention in studies of Albanian art. The course of Qëndro’s thought is emphasized by the tone and narrative of the book itself, which begins with a first person account of the author’s enduring fascination with the painting in question and his attempts to uncover some of the historical circumstances surrounding its production. Eventually, the book moves away from this narrative style, and in a way this is to its detriment: the argument is at its best when its flaws are revealed as endemic to the individual critic’s forever-partial encounter with specific details about the artwork; as we follow Qëndro’s path of discoveries, we are taken down a number of interesting paths of speculation. However, when the author comes back around to making strong statements about the significance of the painting (as I will discuss below), these statements seem unconvincing precisely because the immediate historical circumstances surrounding the painting seem to be so ambiguous and uncertain. To some degree, the conjectural nature of the study is made clear at the outset: a brief introduction to the book makes clear that, as part of Onufri’s Khora series, the text “attempts to be a liminal space, generating interpretations that are never exhaustive, to be a fortuitous meeting of the sensory and that which can be grasped by the intellect.” Books in the series are intended as exercises in the “understanding of the interstitial spaces, so frequently disregarded, between the cultural and the natural” (7). In this light, it is almost certainly forgivable that the book raises far more questions than it answers—that is its most ideal function, no doubt. For this very reason, however, the book’s assertive conclusion and Qëndro’s rhetorical framing of these conclusions as the product of a kind of matter-of-fact logical argument ultimately undermine the text’s most satisfying element—its inherent open-endedness and speculative quality.

Through the course of the book, Qëndro argues that Spiro Xega’s painting is far from the heroically Romantic image of Albanian brigands as national(ist) heroes that it has long been framed as being (especially by the discourse of the socialist period, which sought to strengthen national emotion by treating all Albanian paintings of Albanians, especially figures from the Ottoman period, as examples of the highest values of the Albanian people). As Qëndro points out, in the socialist historiography, even a painting of a band of notoriously violent and lawless bandits was held up as revealing the character of the Albanian people as “brave, hardworking, and freedom-loving” (trim, punëtor dhe liridashës) (63). Unlike Xega’s undeniably Romantic portrait of Skanderbeg on horseback[3]—painted the following year—Çeta e Shahin Matrakut is, according to Qëndro, fundamentally a Realist work. All the details of Xega’s painting (from its scrupulous depiction of the apparent social equality of the two captains—Shahin Matraku and Leftenar Nuriu—seated next to each other on the same gunë [cloak], to the depiction of the band engaged in the everyday act of eating dinner), according to Qëndro, represent the artist’s commitment to observing and recording straightforward and optical facts about the event and persons in question. Ultimately, Qëndro claims that Çeta e Shahin Matrakut is not just a key example of Realist painting in early 20th-century Albania, but also the first and only example of historical realism.[4] That is, not only is it a realist scene with known historical characters, but it is also a scene whose content challenged the social and historical understanding of its time; its emphasis on the realities of brigandage exposed the heterogeneity and also the trauma in Albanian society under the Late Ottoman Empire. Far from aiming to create a r/Romanticized portrait of freedom-fighters, Xega (as Qëndro argues) treats the theme of hajduks because it is in these marginal and violent figures that the vicissitudes, dangers, shortcomings, and also possibilities of Balkan society at the time could be most completely depicted.

Qëndro offers this argument by way of a thorough reading of what the painting shows us and, to some degree, of the formal means[5] used by Xega to convey its subject to us; and by way of a broader investigation of the way brigands (or hajduks, as they are known; hajdut in Albania) like Shahin Matraku’s band functioned in the society of the Late Ottoman Empire. Qëndro draws much of his evidence for the latter investigation from another primary source, Gjerasim Qiriazi’s Rrëmbyer nga cubat (Zagreb: Illiricum, 1921, published in an earlier version in 1902; in English: Captured by Brigands), which tells of how the author—a member of the Istanbul Bible Society and publisher of several religious books in the Albanian language during the National Awakening period—was captured and held ransom in the mid-1880s by Shahin Matraku’s band until, eventually, his associates were able to muster the ransom money and he was freed. Noting the difficulties in taking Qiriazi at his word about Matraku’s band—who were, of course, both Godless and lawless, and thus for many reason’s the subject of Qiriazi’s disdain—Qëndro nonetheless uses Rrëmbyer nga cubat as the primary source of information for much of the book, alongside some histories of brigandage in the Balkans and general histories of the region and period.

Although there is nothing wrong with this particular limited focus, it is also the case the Qëndro draws essentially all of the painting’s context from a book published much earlier. Furthermore, given that Xega (who did know the band in question, although it is a bit unclear how many times he has contact with the group and when he might have had occasion to sketch or paint them) had direct contact with the subjects of his painting (44), it is curious that Qëndro does not spend more time talking about the artist himself. This would not necessary be part of a mission to install the artist’s intention as the primary source of the painting’s meaning, but would rather be a quite essential part of understanding what the painting meant in its time and to contemporary viewers. This latter aspect is almost entirely neglected, which makes it difficult to make the art historical link Qëndro repeatedly asserts between Courbet’s desire to “paint the historical portrait of my closest friend, the man of the 19th century” and Xega’s painting of Matraku’s band. To call Xega a Realist in Courbet’s sense, at the end of the of day, requires us to understand something about Xega himself. How, for example, does Xega’s participation in Çerçiz Topulli’s çeta [band][6] affect the way we read Çeta e Shahin Matrakut? What does it mean that Xega was most likely primarily self-taught, and that his works were seemingly only exhibited in his studio during his lifetime, only after his death being shown together in group exhibitions?[7] What does it mean, socially, that he was first of all a trader and only later an artist? All of these are questions that Qëndro avoids because his inroads to the painting’s historical context come from a quite separate set of historical documents, ones that treat the same subject matter but not necessarily the same situation of cultural production and reception.

This avoidance of dealing with (even by way of expressly saying that they are beyond the author’s scope) certain kinds of historical details is made more frustrating by the rhetorical flourishes that make the book’s argument seem logically complete (even if it supposed to be open-ended). Qëndro is a master of titles (how could one ask for better than the title of the book itself, Heronjtë Janë të Uritur?), and the section headings benefit from his own poetic brand of intellectualism: “Transparenca e subjektit,” “Primo inter pares,” “Ndërlikimet estetike të tranparencës së subjektit,” “(Pa)mundësia e transhendentimit të situates,” “Opaciteti ideolojik i subjektit realist,” [“Transparency of the subject,” “Primo inter pares,” “The aesthetic complexities of the transparency of the subject,” “The (im)possibility of transcending the situation,” “The ideological opacity of the realist subject,”] and so on. However, there’s a way in which all this apparent display of theoretical and philosophical elan is a bit at odds with the claim that the book is making; after all, Qëndro is, at bottom trying to make a claim for the simplicity of the painting: far from being some metaphysically elaborate example of metahistorical idealism (of the kind socialist realism would subsequently produce in Albania), and far from being a lofty Romantic image, it is a painting that represents Xega’s attempts to lay out just the facts. Of course this attempt is deeply sophisticated and interesting, but Qëndro repeatedly reminds us that Xega is really trying to show us a simple scene—a dinner among brigands—and that in this simplicity and honesty we in turn come to understand the wider social web of interactions that Xega wants us to see. Why then, is the philosophical language accompanied so strongly by the claim to a kind of abstract logical structure (one that seems ‘transcendentally’ at odds with the concreteness Qëndro claims for Xegas painting)? For Western students of Realism, the easiest explanation might be the following (and, given Qëndro’s constant reliance on Courbet as the exemplar of Realism, it is an appropriate one): despite the book’s initial narrative kinship with a book like T.J. Clark’s The Sight of Death, what Qëndro has written is quite far from Clark’s Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution, and is in fact something much closer to Michael Fried’s Courbet’s Realism (a work that Qëndro cites several times in the text).

There is nothing inherently wrong with writing this kind of book—for many, it might be a welcome approach. However, in many ways, it makes the book of secondary interest in an art historical sense: it seems by the end of the book, that almost everything we could have gleaned about the social complexities of the period in question could be gleaned from Qiriazi’s Rrëmbyer nga cubat, since that book is used as the basis for many of Qëndro’s observations about what is going on in the painting. Thus, the book is a cipher for the painting, but what is left unclear is what the painting tells us about its time. Ironically, after introducing the painting with a quite close visual reading of it, Qëndro proceeds by spiraling outwards not only to the painting’s wider social context, but also to other sources of information, and in this sense the book—as a study of a particular painting—is a bit disappointing. However, Qëndro’s method of setting out to investigate the painting as a manifestation of Realism is productive as a critical method, even if it falls short as a pathway to certain kinds of (art) historical understanding.

For Qëndro, seeking the r/Realism of Xega’s painting is a necessary (and significant) step in responding to the vision of history created by art of the socialist period in Albania (much of which could be categorized as socialist realism). As he puts it, “Xega’s painting can’t help but be seen today as a ‘struggle’ against socialist realist painting, which viewed everyday life [such as the act of brigands sitting down to eat a meal] as something subversive when it was removed from the context of the rituals and political framework of the totalitarian system” (105). However, even this opposition seems a little strained. Qëndro is known for his observations about what is absent in Albanian socialist realist painting (Enver Hoxha’s shadow, rainy weather, and—in the present study—protagonists eating meals). However, in juxtaposing the positive content of Xega’s painting (its overwhelming wealth of details resulting in Barthes’ ‘reality effect’) to the negative content of socialist realism, Qëndro seems to be making too easy a contrast. Is it really the case that socialist realism functioned in Albania primarily in terms of absence, while Xega’s painting (as a one-off example of historical realism) functions only in terms of presence? What about what was really there in socialist realism, and what is really absent (violence, looting, death, laughter, joy, desperation, to name a few things) in Xega’s painting? Here, again, one yearns for a more robust art historical framework in which to consider the work, for this would not detract from the critical and aesthetic possibilities Qëndro is seeking but would, rather, expand and multiply them. However, these possibilities would involve not just the relationship between Xega’s r/Realism and socialist art, but something much more

No, in the end, it isn’t really the critical lens that Xega’s painting (very certainly) can turn on subsequent Albanian realism of the socialist variety that makes Qëndro’s quest for Realism as critical method in Heronjtë Janë të Uritur compelling. Rather, I think, it is the lens that the painting might turn on contemporary Albanian art and life. Even if Qëndro’s investigation of the work lacks all the historical details we might wish, it nonetheless establishes Realism Although Qëndro himself does seem to make the connection between Xega’s project and the contemporary moment explicit, it is easy to see the parallels given Qëndro’s insistence on realism as a project of contemporaneity—that is, as a project concerned with understanding how its own time exists and what its own time truly is. This is even more clear in Xega’s case, since the emphasis (at least if we follow Qëndro’s reading of the work) is on a consciousness of history rather than a simple chronicling of the conditions of everyday life. As Qëndro argues, there were many Realist painters in Albania during the period of National Awakening, but they lacked Xega’s attempt to link the genre painting aspect of Realism with the movement’s history painting aspect. In Çeta e Shahin Matrakut, Xega attempts to link the careful observation of everyday life, in its most mundane aspects, to larger flows of social time and interactions of economics, religion, and politics. It is the attempt to figure this interstitial space between individual and collective direct experience and the consciousness of a broader time that makes the painting historical.

This returns us to the questions that Qëndro’s book raises, even if its author does not seem to register them as fully as art historians such as myself might wish. First of all, what does this say more broadly about the relation of socialist realism to earlier realisms in Albanian painting? While it is certainly not the case that (as socialist criticism tried to claim) there is a smooth transition from one to other, it is perhaps possible to say that—in a way—socialist realism in fact learned from Xega: it tried to make the earlier tradition Albanian Realist painting historical.[8] Granted, it did so in a very ideologically specific way, and many elements of Realist subject matter dropped away in this quest, which passed through historical understanding into metahistorical mythmaking (and sometimes back again), and in doing so it tried to grasp even more robustly the character of the present.[9] The failures of this attempt to grasp the present, its absences, are still being elaborated, but many have been noted, especially by authors like Qëndro. However, it seems to me that what both Xega’s historical realism (as elaborated by Qëndro) and socialist realism call for as critical models of cultural production is the careful understanding of the historical quality of the present. In other words, with Qëndro’s particular interpretation of Xega as a model, we might imagine a practice of contemporary art in Albania that would be both deeply engaged in documenting its social conditions and in understanding the historicity of those conditions. It would not necessarily strive for avant-garde status, although—as the passage from Alex Potts quoted at the outset of this essay suggests—it might very well pass into avant-garde experiments with vision and representation. It would do so, however, only on the basis of a close observation of the world, an engagement with (and, perhaps, a real belief in) facts and materiality. This art could look like many different things: it might look like kitsch, it might not; it might be performative or installation-based, or it might continue the tradition of painting; it might embrace its own ‘ideological’ status, or it might avoid that status as a way of searching for a new ground for experience. No matter what it looked like, however, this would be an art that made us think about how we see the world, and what that world really is as a historical phenomenon. It would make us question what times we share with the world, and which ones escape our experience, Qëndro’s Heronjtë Janë të Uritur reveals the necessity of understanding Realism in Albanian painting as a historical phenomenon, even if the book itself does not fully take this task on. It remains to us to carry on both the speculative futures and pasts that come to light when we search for Realism in the history of Albanian art. One hopes that others will take up where Qëndro has left us at the close of the book.

The next two posts will be devoted to some further—and broader—considerations of how art made in Albania today might make claims to either ‘contemporary’ status or to ‘realist’ status.

[1] Experiments in Modern Realism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), pp. 23-24.

[2] As laid out in his now-famous study The Return of the Real (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996).

[3] One crucial question that Qëndro never addresses—because he is not engaged in providing an art historical context for the wok he examines—is also an important one: what does it mean for Xega to have created a deeply Realist work in one year and, the following year, a deeply Romanticist one? What are the Romantic aspects of Çeta e Shahin Matrakut, and how do they interact with the painting’s Realist aspects? These are questions that must be dealt with if the investigation is to be anything but a sort of thought experiment. The answers would not necessarily defeat Qëndro’s reading of the painting, but they would suggest an event richer relationship between the work’s representations and its conditions of influence and production.

[4] The claim—asserted in the final sentence of the book—that the work represents the sole example of this kind of painting in the history of Albanian art makes the study seem suddenly much more closed than it did at the outset (113).

[5] Although Qëndro’s reading of the painting is thorough, it focuses almost completely (with the exception of some discussion of color and composition) on the recognizable aspects of the painting, and indeed primarily on the people in the painting (as opposed to their environment, which gets rather short shrift and is treated as somehow just a setting for attention to social issues, instead of an integral part of them). Although Qëndro at one point mentions the naivety of Xega’s compositional strategies, it would be worth examining the painting’s formal qualities much more exhaustively. This is especially true given Qëndro’s repeated references to Courbet as the paradigmatic Realist—Courbet knew, as many of the Realists did, how to paint ‘badly’ or awkwardly precisely in order to emphasize the socially (and academically) traumatic character of his subject matter and the emotional charge of his paintings. Although it might be difficult to make an entirely analogous case for Xega, who was largely self-taught, it seems like it would have been worth Qëndro’s time to pay more attention to how the painting is painted, and to consider how Xega’s naïve aesthetics might have contributed to the painting’s meanings in its own time and now. After all, what if the lack of convincing naturalism in the painting was not primarily the result of lack of skill or experience on Xega’s part, but rather the intentional avoidance of academic naturalism (in the way that Alex Potts describes as endemic to modern realism in the epigraph to this essay)?

[6] See the entry on Xega in Ylli Drishti, Suzana Varvarica-Kuka, and Rudina Memaga, Monografi: me Artistë Shqiptarë të Shekullit XX (Tirana: Galeria Kombëtare e Arteve, 1999), p. 115.

[7] For more on Xega, and on the art of the Albanian National Awakening period, see Ferid Hudhri, Arti i Rilindjes Shqiptare (Tirana: Onufri, 2000), especially pp. 202-203.

[8] This is perhaps an overstatement, but it has long been my conviction that socialist realism in Albania was part of the first truly successful conceptualization of a history of the Albanian people (in art, but also in society as a whole), and although I am not sure that Qëndro would agree, I think that socialist realism does in fact try to take up where Xega’s painting leaves off, to build upon earlier realisms while also developing (perhaps, beyond recognition) the historical contemporaneity of a work like Çeta e Shahin Matrakut.

[9] This is an argument I try to make in my “Sali Shijaku’s Zëri i Masës and the Metaphysics of Representation in Albanian Socialist Realist Painting,” in Workers Leaving the Studio, Looking Away from Socialist Realism, ed. Mihnea Mircan and Vincent WJ van Gerven Oei (New York: Punctum, and Tirana: Department of Eagles, 2015), pp. 25-39, available from: http://punctumbooks.com/titles/workers-leaving-the-studio/.

 

Mbi Rritjen e Rolit të Letërsisë dhe Arteve në Edukimin Komunist të Masave— Nëndori 11, 1965

Today’s post contains selections from the November 1965 issue of Nëndori, which features Ramiz Alia’s report delivered at the 15th general Plenum of the Central Committee of the Albanian Workers Party. Given on the eve of the most intense period of Hoxha’s cultural ‘revolutionization,’ which extended from 1966 till 1969 or so, Alia’s report clearly lays out guidelines (though of course the instructions for their actual realization are left vague) for the coming transformation of the arts and letters in relation to the masses.

Nendori_Nentor 1965_cover

Among other issues, he stresses the importance of the cultivation of aesthetic taste, since the everyday totalized experience of the socialist state is fundamentally an aesthetic one. As Alia explains,

The problem of conceptual-aesthetic [ideoestetik] education is not merely a problem for a few specific organizations, but rather for our entire society. In fact, people, throughout their entire lives, constantly encounter problems that relate to their education in understanding the beautiful—from their families and work environments to art institutions, from the construction of villages and cities to the creation of handicrafts in wood and knitting. […] Wherever we go, we encounter buildings, parks, flower gardens, monuments, and even the arrangements in store windows—all of these have no choice but to influence the aesthetic education of our fellow citizens. (42)

The issue also contains some reproductions of artworks and brief notes about cultural events, including a short report on an exhibition of graphic art, caricature, and poster design that travelled to socialist Albania from the People’s Republic of China.

Happy Reading!

Për Një Hov të Ri: The Proceedings of the 1965 Plenum of the Albanian Union of Writers and Artists

This is the thirteenth in a series of posts containing PDFs of texts that may be of interest to those studying Albanian socialist realism. More posts with critical content are in the works, but for the time being I’m too busy to do anything except scan more documents…

Nendori 1_1966

Today’s post is the January 1966 issue of Nëndori, which contains the proceedings of the 1965 Plenum of the Albanian Union of Writers and Artists. The opening speech for the plenum, which took place on December 3-4, 1965, was delivered by Shevqet Musaraj, author of the satirical poem “Epopeja e Ballit Kombëtar” [1944]. The writer and poet Dhimitër Shuteriqi, director of the Union of Writers and Artists at the time, also delivered a lengthy speech related to the proceedings of the 15th plenum of the Central Committee, which called for “an increase in the role played by literature and the arts in the communist education of the masses.”

The issue also contains summaries and excerpts of the talks and discussions held by other members of the Union in attendance, including Andon Kuqali, Foto Stamo, Odhise Paskali, Kristaq Rama, and Pandi Mele.

Three of Pandi Mele’s graphic works are reproduced in the issue, including the dynamic (and undeniably Modernist) linocut Thatësira po mposhtet [The Drought is Being Defeated]. There is also a review of Mele’s October 1965 solo exhibition written by Vangjush Tushi, which gives a partial picture of the early reception of Mele’s painting and graphic works.

Perhaps most interesting (and most frustrating in the lack of information given) is a short note in the back matter of the issue describing an exhibition of works by the Korean painter Lju Hien Suk (in the Albanian transliteration), held in November of 1965 at the Puppet Theater. Liu Hien Suk was, the note informs us, vice-director of the central state Gallery of the Fgurative Arts in the Korean Democratic Republic, and his month-long stay in Albania (part of the still woefully understudied cultural exchange between socialist nations in the mid-20th-century) had included time spent in the Albanian Riviera—the landscapes of which inspired his painting. The exhibition opening was attended by officers of the Union of Writers and Artists such as Foto Stamo and the note in Nëndori contains excerpts from Rama’s speech. Although much of the study of Albanian socialist-era art has focused on the specificity of the conditions in Albania during its increasing isolation, and although much of the commentary produced within the country during the socialist years does not readily acknowledge the role of international cultural exchange in shaping Albanian art, it is precisely events like Lju Hien Suk’s exhibition that deserve our close attention and our greatest efforts in attempting to recover documentary evidence. These events, if we could trace their genesis and impact more fully, would give us a more fully rounded picture of how Albania related to international networks of socialist culture, and how artists from other nations participated in the formation of the narratives socialist Albania told about itself.

Happy reading!

Some Notes on the Apparently Mutually Exclusive Status of (M/m)odern (A/a)rt and Socialist Realism

I have recently—and finally—had the time to read Art and Democracy in Post-Communist Europe (London: Reaktion, 2012), by the great (and unfortunately now deceased) art historian Piotr Piotrowski. For many, like myself, in the field of Eastern European art history, Piotrowski’s attempt to model and facilitate what he calls a “horizontal art history” remains a continued source of methodological and theoretical inspiration. Piotrowski’s scholarship always seems—to me, at least—to admirably walk the line between overarching regional and even global syntheses and, at least in those geographical areas where he had expertise, engagement with the specificity of local conditions and traditions. Of course, Art and Democracy in Post-Communist Europe is, like Piotrowski’s In the Shadow of Yalta: Art and the Avant-Garde in Eastern Europe, 1945-1989 (London: Reaktion, 2009), a survey, and as such it is engaged in the methodological project of understanding broad narratives and trends as opposed to delving deeply into particular, concrete situations.

One of Piotrowski’s key goals in mapping out these narratives and trends is to come to terms as fully as possible with the geographical (and geopolitical) implications of art history—both its limitations and its possibilities. With this geographical sophistication, however, comes a certain theoretical bluntness. Piotrowski embraces this—he declares at the outset that he is “not a political theorist” (even as he explains his use of Chantal Mouffe’s notion of agonistic democracy as a frame for the book). Additionally, he declares the book to be far more concerned with contemporaneity and its disjunctures than with providing a history (as In the Shadow of Yalta aimed to do). Nonetheless, as all historians are ultimately constrained to do, Piotrowski must start somewhere, and his starting point is a swift yet nuanced reiteration of the map sketched out in In the Shadow of Yalta.

In a way, what I want to do next is completely unfair to Piotrowski, but I will proceed regardless precisely because I believe that—in selecting a very specific moment in Piotrowski’s text, indeed a single sentence—we can grasp a vast and complicated problem that evidences the power of Piotrowski’s methodology. It also presents us with precisely the kind of problem that any “horizontal art history” should—indeed, must—be able to confront, if never resolve. Discussing the dubious merits of treating Eastern/Central European art history according to the model of “colonization,” Piotrowski suggests that the obvious angle would be to treat Soviet culture as the occupier, but points out that this dissolves in concrete cases, since Socialist Realism was only “an official ideological façade” in many countries in the region. He then declares, “In fact, one could say that it was modern art, not Socialist Realism, that defined the cultural identity of Central Europe [a term Piotrowski uses to encompass areas often described as either ‘Eastern’ or ‘Central’ Europe] between 1945 and 1989” (46).

Above all else, I think this sentence is a fair summation of Piotrowski’s In the Shadow of Yalta, which charted many of the Modernist movements in postwar Eastern Europe against the foil of a (/n always unfortunately un-illustrated and therefore amorphous and spectral) Socialist Realism. (One chapter, on the significance of figuration, is even titled “Un-Socialist Realism”.) It also raises the difficult problem that I alluded to above, namely: What is the relationship between “Socialist Realism” (let us note the capitalization) and “modern art” (let us note the absence of capitalization)?

Having raised this question, and moving in the spirit of Piotrowski’s desire to decenter hierarchical art history, we can almost immediately imagine a number of related, yet deeply different questions: What is the relationship between socialist realism and modern art? What is the relationship between socialist realism and Modern art? What is the relationship between socialist realism and Modern Art? What is the relationship between Socialist Realism and modernism? What is the relationship between socialist Realism and Modernism? What is the relationship between Socialist Realism and Modernism? What is the relationship between socialist realism and Modernism? What is the relationship between socialist realism and modernism? Etc., etc. This list of potential questions is not a fanciful play with the ambiguities presented by the un-codified (or, differently-codified) norms of capitalization. It is, instead, a very serious interrogation of the relationship between style, periodization, and ideology. It suggests the truly exhausting number of potential topologies that can be developed by really considering the question of Socialist Realism in Eastern/Central Europe (and remember, we have not even moved—as Piotrowski demands that we do—beyond a crude and generalized global-regional frame of investigation).

Allow me to elaborate what I think is deeply problematic about Piotrowski’s statement, and to attempt to present some of the ways we might both be more careful about our use of the language of style and periodization, and gain a more comprehensive picture of what “the cultural identity of Central[/Eastern] Europe” was in the years between 1945 and 1989. Juxtaposing “Socialist Realism” to “modern art” posits three related conceptual moves, both—in my opinion—fundamentally flawed. First, it assumes the monolithic (and therefore capitalized) quality of Socialist Realism, which we are invited to assume is clearly defined as the Soviet variety (which we are in turn invited to assume was a clearly codified and unified phenomenon, without meaningful ambiguity or internal, chronological strife). Second, it invites us to treat Socialist Realism as a movement or style that is straightforwardly and exclusively distinguished from the already vastly general term “modern art.” Third, instead of aligning “Socialist Realism” against a clearly (or at least what I would interpret as a clearly) stylistic alternative—namely, Modernism—it aligns it against a term that seems (again, at least to me) more clearly chronological—namely, “modern art.” The lack of capitalization in “modern art” implies the absence of an emphatic ideology (it is not even “Modern art,” or “Modern Art”); that is, it is the art that comes after pre- and early-modern art, and yet before post-modern art. This implies that Socialist Realism, a stylistically unified category belongs to a different chronological period, presumably an earlier one, yet this is never elaborated. The fact that both Modernism and “modern art” are generally considered to begin in the late 19th century (at least in the Francophile model Piotrowski implicitly critiques) means that the conventional way to read Piotrowski’s statement would be to say that Socialist Realism is a retrograde return to some pre-modern form of art-making, and thus—by implication—that it offers little of art historical significance.

Of course, this is precisely the kind of interpretation that Piotrowski’s “horizontal” art history would want to reject. Therefore, even if Piotrowski himself continues to use “Socialist Realism” as a convenient historical foil (and to use both “modern art” and, as is more frequently the case in In the Shadow of Yalta, “Modernism”), this should not prevent us from thinking critically about the ideologies at play here, and from rejecting the apparent premises and implications of a sentence like “In fact, one could say that it was modern art, not Socialist Realism, that defined the cultural identity of Central Europe between 1945 and 1989.”

I would like to offer, as it were, a series of both theoretical and polemical guidelines for thinking the relationship between Socialist Realism (I will retain the capitalization, but—as I note below—reject any implications of unified ideology or style) and both “modern art” and “Modernism.” These are, of course, methodological directives steeped in ideology, and not meant to be universalizing; they are intended quite explicitly to move away from the “hierarchical” art history Piotrowski critiques but does not fully escape. They are also the result of my own engagement with 20th-century Albanian art, much of which relates fundamentally to (a decidedly, I would argue, diverse and stylistically conflicted) Socialist Realism even if it cannot be subsumed under that label. As such, the applicability of these guidelines will vary geographically, just as do theories of psychoanalysis, postcolonialism, and postmodernism.

Edison Gjergjo, Lavdi Deshmoreve, no date [before 1969], oil on canvas
Edison Gjergjo, Lavdi Deshmoreve, no date [before 1969], oil on canvas
So, then, a kind of incomplete methodological manifesto, and a challenge:

1) We must resist the urge to treat “Socialist Realism” as an a priori factor in our analyses of “modern” or “Modernist” art (to say nothing of our analyses of Socialist Realism itself). In other words, it is never enough to simply assert that such-and-such an artist, or a movement, rejected “the official doctrine of Socialist Realism.” As tempting as this summation may be, it tells us little, and even less when we have left the demarcated sphere of Soviet cultural policy. (Even there, especially in the absence of close visual analysis and illustrations supporting the point, the assertion that a work of stands opposed to Socialist Realism has little obvious meaning. We must think about what a particular group of artists understood by “Socialist Realism,” and about how that understanding might have played out in discourse, in material manifestations, at the time of the creation of a particular work. If we lack the resources to make these distinctions, then we are just as well off to avoid the statement that a work or an artist stands opposed to Socialist Realism.)

This is not a matter of ignoring what official documents and discourses claimed Socialist Realism to be, in particular locations. Nor is it a matter of ignoring stylistic, functional, and philosophical similarities between works typically described as “Socialist Realist.” It is simply a call to do what the best scholarship of Modernism does: enact a marked suspicion towards generalizations and a priori assumptions about the well-formed character of particular styles. (In a discussion of Antimodernism, for example, we would never take the term “Modernism” to be a self-evident (and stably codified) factor. )

2) As a continuation of this first point: We must resist the urge to straightforwardly oppose Socialist Realism and either “modern art” or “Modernism.” Whatever might be gained by such a general opposition, too much is lost. In short, what is lost is the status of Socialist Realism as a form of Modernism. The “modern,” and “Modernist” aspects of Socialist Realism—in nearly all of its manifestations—range from a stylistic indebtedness to schools of Impressionism, Expressionism, and Cubism on to philosophical affinities with Futurism, Surrealism, and Conceptualism. Just as it would be strange to starkly oppose Expressionism (as a particular strand of modern art) to “modern art” in general, so do we accomplish little of worth when we oppose Socialist Realism to modern art.

This is not a matter of obscuring the ideological, aesthetic, and historical clash between many manifestations of Modernism and many manifestations of Socialist Realism. The perceived conflict between the two was, of course, fundamental to the official rhetoric that grew up in many countries around Socialist Realism; it often represented itself as the enemy of “bourgeois revisionist” Modernism, and set out to distinguish itself from much that Modernism stood for. But this differentiation was not only a temporal process that changed over time (as the character of both Socialist Realisms and Modernisms changed) and an exercise in the unstable process of identity production. Taking the word of Socialist Realism’s theorists that the style was not Modernist would be as pointless as proclaiming that it really is the true style of the future simply because they asserted it was so.

3) We must recognize that, insofar as it was a Modernist style, Socialist Realism was not a single “ism” but rather a constellation of the “isms” mentioned above, combined in new ways and in many cases incorporating new elements.

This is not a matter of throwing as many “isms” at a particular work of art or set of works of art as possible, but rather a matter of getting at the complex assemblages hiding behind the monolithic terms “modern art,” “modernism,” and “Modernism.”

4) We must pay close attention to how we periodize Socialist Realism, and avoid treating it as a simple (and naïve) throwback to pre-modern or early-modern ideologies, styles, and practices of artistic creation. (This is precisely what is risked by Piotrowski’s juxtaposing it to “modern art.”) Elsewhere, I have discussed the potential significance (narrowly speaking, in the context of Albanian 20th-century painting) of Boris Groys’ assertion that Socialist Realism was “a style and a half,” falling somewhere between Modernism and Postmodernism. This is one approach, but there are of course elements of Socialist Realism in particular cases and geographies that escape this chronology.

This is not a matter of returning to a kind of Wölfflinian art history that is concerned with the careful delineation of different periodic styles and eras of thought. (Though in actuality a truly Wölfflinian history of, say, Socialist Realism in Eastern Europe, would be much more subtle and stylistically and psychologically sophisticated than Wölfflin’s detractors would insist.) However, it does mean being more honest about what kinds of factors we are truly focusing on when we periodize artistic movements and styles, and thus about what we are claiming is innovative as opposed to that which we claim is conservative, traditional, or retrograde.

5) When we consider Socialist Realism, we must also grapple honestly with the heritage of Romanticism, Realism (more on this below), and (Neo-)Classicism in the 20th-century. Again, the problem often arises in the case of a double standard: we would seldom deny the influence of Romanticism on many Modernisms (if indeed we would even set the two apart so sharply), but are often far more willing to set, say, the “revolutionary romanticism” of Chinese Socialist Realism over against the development of “Modernism.”

This is not a matter of historicist devotion to the continuity of discrete concepts or movements through time, nor is it methodological devotion to the elaboration of a particular venerated “tradition”; it will suffice to point out that in many cases (and this is undoubtedly the case in Albania), the presence of a strong ‘tradition’ in the visual arts was absent in many fields. In other words, we are not speaking of the continuation of Romanticism, of Greek or Italian ‘schools,’ of Classicism or Neo-Classicism, of some primitivism archaism—we are speaking instead of the emergence of these styles, ideologies, and tendencies in the context of modernization and Modernism. Of course, Socialist Realism did look to particular elements of past art history, such as 19th-century Realism and Classicism, for inspiration, and it did so because they preceded the “decadence” of Modernism. However, the lesson that this teaches us is not so much as lesson about a backwards-looking ideology, but about the continued (re)invention of certain styles and philosophies in the 20th century. Modernism participated in this (re)invention, and—as a Modernism—so did Socialist Realism, in a number of temporally and geopolitically specific ways that bear further investigation.

6) Finally, we must take the engagement with Socialist Realism as an opportunity to re-evaluate the status of Realism(s) in both 20th– and 21st-century art and culture. “Realism” (and its sometime partner, “materialism”) have recently enjoyed a resurgence in cultural theory, and this has—to some degree—triggered a re-evaluation of R/realism in art historical narratives. However, some of the recent efforts at this, such as Alex Potts’ survey Experiments in Modern Realism (Yale University Press: New Haven, 2013) do not fully address the problem, since they often simply embrace already canonical figures (like Pollock) as ‘realism’ and continue to dismiss styles that have already been too often dismissed, such as Socialist Realism. We owe it to ourselves to write a history of the relationship between Real/ism and the 20th-century (neo-)avant-garde that does not simply reiterate the geographical and artistic foci of, say, Hal Foster. Part of this history must be the histories of various Socialist Realisms, and these Realisms must be acknowledged to be as diverse as the Realities they denied, reflected, distorted, emerged from, and constructed.

Në Dritën e Partisë…

This is the seventh 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. 

ScreenHunter_173 Apr. 03 18.53

Today’s text is the complete volume Letërsia dhe Artet në Dritën e Partisë (1975), by Razi Brahimi, one of the principle literary critics during the time of socialism. The work won the first prize in the literary-artistic competition devoted to the 30th anniversary of Liberation.  For historical purposes, the timing of Brahimi’s sweeping analysis of socialist culture in Albania is interesting because it appears relatively soon after the (in)famous 4th Plenum of the Central Committee, in 1973—an event which is traditionally understood to represent the end of a period of relatively liberal ideas on culture and politics, marking the beginning of a shift towards a decidedly stricter dichotomy between Albanian socialism and “foreign influences.” (Hoxha’s oft-quoted speech on the occasion was entitled “Të Thellojmë Luftën Ideologjike Kundër Shfaqjeve të Huaja dhe Qëndrimeve Liberale Ndaj Tyre” [“To Deepen the Ideological Struggle Against Foreign Influences and Liberal Attitudes Towards Them”]. One way to read Brahimi’s book, which concludes with a bibliography mapping Hoxha and Ramiz Alia’s relevant works on culture up till that time, is as a kind of guidebook for post-4th-Plenum aesthetic criticism. As such, its overarching summary of the role arts and letters have and should play in the context of socialist Albania is decidedly valuable for historians.

Happy reading!

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 http://www.e-flux.com/journal/from-the-issue-of-art-to-the-issue-of-position-the-echoes-of-socialist-realism-part-i/ (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.