“Criticism Should Open Up Horizons for the Future”: The Albanian Union of Writers and Artists and the Status of Art Criticism in the People’s Republic of Albania
This article presents part of the history of the Union of Writers and Artists—the official organ devoted to literature and the fine arts in the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania—and examines (in an incomplete way, of course) the contours of art criticism produced in accordance with official doctrine in Albania, especially in the 1970s decade. Like much Socialist Realist criticism, the output of the Union of Writers and Artists was frequently formulaic, but it also offered a field for artists working beyond the visual (and the union’s critics were almost invariably also practicing artists) to navigate Albanian art’s place vis-à-vis the rest of the socialist world. I argue that this critical project can best be understood in terms of its inability to establish a stable framework in which artistic criticism should operate, or indeed to determine the stable object of aesthetic criticism itself. There are many reasons for this: some were philosophical, and relate to the ongoing ontological challenges faced by postwar realism, while others were essentially political, and derived both from Albania’s shifting international alliances and the vicissitudes of life under a Stalinist dictatorship.
During its roughly 45 years of existence, virtually no attempts were made to write a comprehensive history of visual art in the People’s Republic of Albania, from either a nationalist or a socialist perspective.(One late exception to this almost complete absence of an art history was a two-volume edition written by Kuqali himself and published in the late 1980s: Andon Kuqali, Historia e Artit Shqiptar(Tirana: SHBLU, 1988).) However, members of the Union of Writers and Artists did generate a relatively substantial body of aesthetic criticism. This corpus of highly ideological writing set out to position Albanian Socialist Realism against both Western modernisms and—perhaps even more importantly—against the cultural production of the country’s onetime mentor, the Soviet Union. Albania never possessed a robust avant-garde modernist tradition of the variety that many East European countries did,(The lack of a historical avant-garde with an abstractionist teleology and a desire to fundamentally transform social conditions means that narratives such as the one famously developed by Boris Groys—in which Socialist Realism emerges out of the political-aesthetic project of the avant-garde—cannot really be applied to art in Albania. See Groys, The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant-Garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship, and Beyond, trans. Charles Rougle (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992). In Albania, it would be more accurate to say that Socialist Realism in Albania developed in the framework of the creation of a global art initiated by numerous socialist nations (including the USSR and China, both of which were relevant for Albania’s cultural development) in the postwar period. On this global context, see Jérôme Bazin, Pascal Glatigny, and Piotr Piotrowski, eds., Art beyond Borders: Artistic Exchange in Communist Europe (New York: CEU Press, 2016).) and its socialist art criticism faced the task of outlining an amorphous and open-ended Socialist Realism. Although it is of course difficult to evaluate the success of such a project in retrospect, it would seem that this effort to produce such a critical definition failed.(Art history and historiography were of little interest to the cultural apparatus of Albanian socialism, and certainly their relative absence contributed to the failure of a critical definition of Socialist Realism. Assessing why these endeavors were absent, and what role this played in the development of postwar art in Albania, is a much broader endeavor than this article can encompass. They are dealt with at greater length in my book-length manuscript, currently in progress, entitled The Monumentality of Our Socialist Life: Realism, the Cold War, and Globalization in Postwar Albanian Art.) We can see the awareness of this failure in the observations of figures such as Albanian artist and art critic Andon Kuqali, who in 1972 reflected, “It seems to me that the reports of the committees [on arts and culture] are too burdened with the adverb not. […] Their authors are full of observations about what works of art or literature do not have and in the end they never manage to arrive at a characterization of the work’s content, understood as a unity […].”(Andon Kuqali, “Kritika të Orientojë e të Hapë Horizonte për të Ardhmen,” Nëntori 19:4 (1972): 82. Bold-faced emphasis in original. All translations from Albanian to English are by the author, unless otherwise noted.) Speaking at the plenary meeting of the Union of Writers and Artists devoted to the subject of aesthetic criticism, Kuqali’s evaluation succinctly characterized the challenges facing cultural producers and critics alike in Albania at the outset of the 70s decade.
Writers like Kuqali struggled to move beyond a primarily negative or reactive definition of socialist art in the midst of Albania’s shifting geopolitical alliances and cultural points of reference. And indeed, the status of aesthetic criticism remains uncertain in the field of contemporary art in Albania today, where artists frequently lament the lack of a robust art-critical vocabulary and express frustration about the insufficiency of efforts to discuss contemporary cultural production in the country as an aspect of global artistic currents. Of course, art criticism confronts unique problems when facing global contemporary art,(The problem of a critical definition of contemporary art gained traction as the explanatory utility of the category of postmodernism waned. The question of contemporaneity is deeply intertwined with the question of the globality of art (as we now understand modernism to have been as well), and it seems impossible to understand contemporaneity without also understanding certain global projects of the past—including colonialism, for example, but also including socialism. For two different efforts to theorize the contemporary, see Terry Smith, What is Contemporary Art? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), and Peter Osborne, Anywhere or Not at All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art (New York: Verso, 2013).) and the struggles of contemporary art criticism in Albania cannot be succinctly pinned on the lack of an established tradition of socialist-era aesthetic thought. My contention is simply that the failure of socialist art criticism in Albania was in many ways analogous to the failure of modernism and modernist criticism across the globe in the postwar years: not that it failed to generate a vocabulary that could survive beyond its own context, but that it failed to fully elaborate how its own context was generated.(For one account of this particular conflict vis-à-vis modernism and its criticism, see T.J. Clark, Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 299–306.) It failed to fully articulate an aesthetic ideology that could credibly transcend the fragmentation of global geopolitics during the Cold War (which in Albania’s case resulted in shifting its cultural allegiances from Moscow to Beijing), or perhaps more precisely: it failed to realize that it was precisely that fragmentation and continual re-orientation that generated both the creative and the interpretive context for Socialist Realism.(It might be most fair to say that this was the context that generated Socialist Realism after Stalin’s death, but indeed debates on socialist modernism—as an alternative to Socialist Realism—in countries like Yugoslavia might also be seen as debates on precise what Socialist Realism could and couldn’t be, in the shifting context of late socialism. On Yugoslav socialist modernism, see Bojana Videkanić, Nonaligned Modernism: Socialist Postcolonial Aesthetics in Yugoslavia, 1945–1985 (Chicago: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020).) In addition—as Kuqali’s concerns about criticism in his day reflect—it failed to clarify what really constituted the unified set of characteristics (formal, thematic, or otherwise) that might be called the work of art.
This same uncertainty persists in debates on contemporaneity in the field of visual art today, across the globe, although of course in different ways. The definition of a kind of “unity” for the work of art—and the constituent or marginal role that geopolitics plays in establishing that unity—remains a conflicted staple of some meta-narratives of contemporary art,(I have in mind Peter Osborne’s attempt to adapt the Kantian notion of “distributive unity,” which he sees as fundamental to the contemporary artwork’s photographic conditions. See Osborne, Anywhere, 123.) and geopolitical shifts continue to shape the interpretation of global contemporary art. But perhaps more significantly, these meta-narratives still attempt the same kinds of definitions that Socialist Realism—at least in Albania—failed to credibly provide, and indeed that many modernisms of the 20th century failed to provide. As such, the present examination of art criticism in postwar Albania constitutes a small element of a broader examination of how prior art critical projects might serve as blueprints—or cautionary tales—for current efforts to critically respond to artistic production in a global framework.
In the absence of a documentary archive of the Union of Writers and Artists,(Such an archive presumably once existed, but seems to have been completely lost after the end of socialism in Albania. On the situation of socialist-era archives in Albania in general, see Elidor Mëhilli, “Documents as Weapons: The Uses of a Dictatorship’s Archives,” Contemporary European History28:1 (2019): 82–95.) a record of the intellectual life of the organ can perhaps be best extracted from Nëntori (November, named for the month of Albania’s liberation from fascist forces, and also the month of its declaration of statehood that marked the end of the period of Ottoman control). Published monthly beginning in 1954, Nëntori supplanted Letërsia Jonë (Our Literature), the journal-length publication issued by the Albanian Union of Writers. In 1954, the Unions of Writers and of Artists were separate entities (which had been founded respectively in 1945 and ’49), and Nëntori, like Letërsia Jonë, primarily focused on literature, poetry, and translation. In 1956, however, the two unions joined,(The merger of the two unions is outlined in Nëntori 3:11 (1956): 6–18. Andon Kuqali was among those selected for the directorial committee of the new single union.) and Nëntori began to feature illustrations more regularly, and to deal more frequently with issues related to the visual arts.(In addition to Nëntori, the Union of Writers and Artists published Drita (The Light), a weekly newspaper devoted similarly to all aspects of culture in the socialist republic. For reasons of space, this article deals primarily with Nëntori, and considers Drita only in passing.) As it developed over the ensuing decades, the journal dealt with the broad spectrum of Albanian cultural production, including theater, music, and film, and it developed over four decades from a publication that primarily featured translations to one that highlighted the viewpoints of Albania’s own writers, playwrights, musicians, artists, cinematographers, and architects.
Nëntori was one of the key locations where Albanian Socialist Realism was defined, not only in the visual arts but in literature and cinema as well, and defined through critical writings that were often—as noted above—authored by practicing artists. As such, Nëntori is a not only a record of ideologically charged reflections on art by professional critics, but also a record of artists attempting to offer meta-critiques of artistic practice (generally by commenting upon the work of their colleagues, who were sometimes also their rivals).(An important and unavoidable aspect of any history of socialist-era art must take into account not only ideological and aesthetic concerns, but also interpersonal ones—since these often crucially shaped changes in cultural hierarchies and networks during socialism. The scope of the current article, unfortunately, does not allow for an examination of these interpersonal relationships in the Albanian context.) As was the case in many countries, Socialist Realism was established in Albania during its alliance with the Soviet Union. Throughout the 1950s, the development of Soviet socialist art served as a guide for changes in the Albanian fine arts; it provided an “exemplary wellspring of revolutionary experience,” as Albanian critics called it.(See the discussions of Soviet art in Nëntori 2:3 (1955).) During the 50s, Albania developed the set of cultural institutions that would establish the norms of practice under socialism: in 1954, the same year that Nëntori began publication, the national Gallery of Figurative Arts opened in Tirana. Until the close of the 1950s, the Soviet Union remained a dynamic and influential educative force in Albanian culture: many painters and sculptors were sent to Leningrad to study at the Ilya Repin Institute, and conferences devoted to figures such as Repin and Vera Mukhina were organized in Albania by the directory committee of the union. Beginning in 1956, exhibitions of Soviet art were held in Albania. Delegations of Soviet artists visited Albania, and groups of artists were sent to various nations across the USSR.(“Kronikë Kulturale,” Nëntori 3:11 (1956): 175–178.) These exchanges are chronicled—albeit briefly—in Nëntori’s pages, most often in the “Cultural Chronicle” section at the very back of the journal.
By the early 1960s, however, the situation had begun to change markedly. No longer willing to tolerate Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization, the Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha broke with Moscow in 1961 and moved towards a closer alliance with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). This shift was not easy, either in a practical or an ideological sense. Although Hoxha insisted that Khrushchev desired to retain Albania as a provincial and underdeveloped agricultural supplier, the reality was that technicians and experts from a vast range of Soviet Bloc countries had been placed in Albania during the 1950s.(Elidor Mëhilli, “Defying De-Stalinization: Albania’s 1956,” Journal of Cold War Studies13:4 (Fall 2011): 4–56.) The PRC was forthcoming in sending their own experts to replace them, and these changes caused Albania to shift from a nation following the Soviet example to—by the early 70s—a nation seeking to project an identity as the last true bastion of Marxist-Leninist principles in Europe.(On Albania’s influence on global socialist culture through the medium of film in particular, see Elidor Mëhilli, “Globalized Socialism, Nationalized Time: Soviet Films, Albanian Subjects, and Chinese Audiences across the Sino-Soviet Split,” Slavic Review 77:3 (Fall 2018): 611–637.)
In the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, Albanian commentary on global socialist art shifted in both subject and tone, and the frequency of East Asian cultural coverage increased markedly. The idea of socialist society as one still characterized by class conflict—and thus still in need of ongoing class-conscious cultural upheavals—characterized many texts published in venues like Nëntori. The overwhelming quantity of these brief pieces focused on highlighted artistic exchange and the efforts to build a narrative of international and mutually reinforcing socialist culture between Albania and geographically distant nations such as the PRC and North Korea. This culminated in the late 1960s, when Albania declared its own “Cultural and Ideological Revolution” in solidarity with Mao’s (although the Albanian iteration would not last much beyond 1969).(On Albania’s Cultural and Ideological Revolution, see Ylber Marku, “China and Albania: The Cultural Revolution and Cold War Relations,” Cold War History 17:1 (2017): 1–17, and Peter R. Prifti, Socialist Albania Since 1944: Domestic and Foreign Developments (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1978), 143–149.) The 60s decade also culminated in one of the most famous events of Albanian art criticism (this one took place on the front page of Drita, but its reverberations echoed through numerous essays published in Nëntori over the next decade): the dictator Enver Hoxha wrote an open letter to Kristaq Rama, Shaban Hadëri, and Muntas Dhrami, the three sculptors engaged in creating the massive Independence Monument that would commemorate Albania’s independence from the Ottomans.(Enver Hoxha, “Në Gurrën e Pashtershme e Jetëdhënëse të Krijimtarisë së Popullit, Do të Gjejmë atë Frymëzim të Madh për të Realizuar Vepra të Bukura e Madhështore për Popullin Tonë,” Drita, July 13, 1969.)
Hoxha’s letter to the “Monumental Trio” (as the three sculptors were known) intervening in the process of the monument’s creation was vague in many respects, and his tone was comradely: he called upon the artists to reaffirm the monument’s connection to the socialist present, to make it a contemporary work rather than merely a historical representation.(For a lengthier discussion of the significance of Hoxha’s open letter, see Raino Isto, “The Dictator Visits the Studio: The Vlora Independence Monument and the Politics of Albanian Monumental Sculpture, 1962–72,” Third Text 32:3 (2018): 500–518.) This intervention had two primary effects. First, it reminded artists in Albania that visual art was meant primarily to function in relation to the current ‘reality’ of socialist life—and more specifically, the revolutionary transformations supposedly endemic to that life—even when it ostensibly represented the past. More importantly, however, it placed the process of art criticism (since the dictator himself had publicly partaken therein) at the center of official interest. It explicitly thematized aesthetic discussion in the studio in new way in Albanian art, while at the same time reinforcing Hoxha’s own unassailable authority as both a political leader and an intellectual.(An overview of Hoxha’s career and cult of personality is given in Bernd J. Fischer, “Enver Hoxha and the Stalinist Dictatorship in Albania,” in Bernd J. Fischer, ed., Balkan Strongmen (London: Hurst, 2007), 239–268.) The years of the late 60s and early 70s, then, were not simply a time of geopolitical reorientation; this was also a period in which the notion of art criticism acquired a new significance. The precise role that criticism was supposed to play in joining artistic representation to socialist reality remained uncertain, however.
Nëntori, and the titles of these papers alone indicate some of the challenges facing cultural producers and commentators: “We Are in Need of a Criticism with Authority.” “Let Us Pay Close Attention to the Efforts of Our Artists.” “Criticism Should Orient Us and Open Up Horizons for the Future.” “We Must Use a Precise Terminology.” “We Must Also Develop a Critique of Criticism.”(The authors and titles of these short essays are, respectively, Fadil Paçrami, “Kemi Nevojë për një Kritikë me Autoritet;” Pandi Mele, “Të Ndjekim me Vëmendje Përpjekjet të Artistëve Tanë;” Floresha Haxhilaj, “Të Përdorim një Terminologji të Saktë;” Andon Kuqali, “Kritika të Orientojë e të Hapë Horizonte për të Ardhmen;” and Llazar Siliqi, “Ne Patjetër Duhet të Zhvillojmë edhe Kritikën e Kritikës,” all published in Nëntori 19:4 (1972): 64–96.) They range, in other words, from the presupposition that an aesthetic criticism with “authority” was lacking, that criticism lagged behind concrete developments in artistic practice, to the quite different assertion that criticism had advanced so far as to require its own meta-critique. This slightly chaotic attitude towards the state of artistic commentary would be perhaps less noteworthy were it not for the political timing of the plenum. It occurred in the more or less immediate wake of Albania’s effort to join—spiritually and symbolically, at least—in China’s Cultural Revolution, and immediately before Enver Hoxha’s famous speech “We Must Deepen Our Ideological Struggle Against Foreign Influences and Liberal Attitudes towards Them” at the Fourth Plenum of the Party’s Central Committee in 1973.(Enver Hoxha, “Të Thëllojmë Luftën Ideologjike kundër Shfaqjeve të Huaja e Qëndrimeve Liberale ndaj Tyre,” Mbi Letërsinë dhe Artin(Tirana: 8 Nëntori, 1977), 375–443. On the genesis of this speech, and the debates that took place in the Union prior to and immediately after it, see Ermir Hoxha, “Nga artikulli i Alfred Uçit te fjalimi i Enverit, si nisi fushata kundër kulturës e artit pas Festivalit të 11-të,” Panorama, February 1, 2020, http://www.panorama.com.al/nga-artikulli-i-alfred-ucit-te-fjalimi-i-enverit-si-nisi-fushata-kunder-kultures-e-artit-pas-festivalit-te-11-te/ (accessed September 10, 2020).) This latter speech would become the inception of a new period of centralization and ideological strictness in the country, in which many prominent artistic figures were censured and in several cases imprisoned.(See Fjoralba Satka Mata, “Albanian Alternative Artists vs. Official Art Under Communism,” in Cristian Vasile, ed., History of Communism in Europe, Volume 2 (Bucharest: Zeta, 2011), 79–94.) The key event of this attack on so-called “foreign influences” was the condemnation of the Eleventh Festival of Song, which in turn led to the trial and subsequent imprisonment of then-Minister of Culture Fadil Paçrami and the director at the time of Albanian Radio-Television Todi Lubonja.(As Nicholas Tochka notes, the condemnation of these two figures and the general upset around the Eleventh Festival of Song were also opportunities for a new generation of artists and critics to solidify their own careers and ideological credentials by effectively toppling the current leadership of cultural institutions. See Tochka, Audible States: Socialist Politics and Popular Music in Albania(New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 101–103.)
The situation of art criticism in the first three years of the 1970s was one poised against the backdrop of the shifting geopolitical configurations of late (that is, post-Stalinist) socialism. The Socialist Bloc was fragmenting, and the once-vital dream of global communist revolution seemed less tangible. Kuqali, who had been educated in Sofia during the period of Soviet alliance, and who had traveled to the PRC to observe life there in the early period of the Sino-Albanian alliance,(Andon Kuqali, “Në Zhongghuo,” Nëntori 6:4 (April 1959): 178–203.) was a key figure in the intellectual artistic development of this period. He was also a graphic artist, and his drawings and prints appeared both on the covers and in the pages of Nëntori, although his most significant contributions were as an art critic. Kuqali was an astute observer of trends in Albanian art, although later in the 1970s he was forced to resign his position as an editor of Nëntori.(Satka Mata, “Albanian Alternative Artists,” 87.) Among other things, Kuqali helped define (in a way he seemed to lament in 1972) what Albanian Socialist Realism was not. Specifically, it was not the trends that had begun to appear in Soviet painting around this time. In 1971, Kuqali published an essay entitled “Art and Revisionists: Notes on Recent Soviet Art.” Despite the rather bland title, the essay is a quite detailed critique of the Soviet “severe style” (surovyi stil), its genesis, and the artistic transformations that followed in its wake, engaging with the works of artists like Viktor Popkov, Tair Salakhov, and Dimitri Zhilinski.(Andon Kuqali, “Art dhe Revizionistë: Shënime për Artin Sovjetik të viteve të Fundit,” Nëntori 18:5 (May 1971): 94–112.) Free from any concerns about angering particular artists in his own milieu, Kuqali is open to explore the intertwining of neoclassicism, realism, and surrealism in post-Stalinist painting. What Kuqali finds most frustrating in both the severe style and the turn towards more private, familial, and subjective themes that painters like Zhilinski and Popkov took up in the late 60s and 70s(For an overview of the severe style, and the turn away from it in Soviet painting, see Matthew Cullern Bown, Socialist Realist Painting (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 389–397, 425–437.) is what he perceives as their mysticism, their “timeless character” in an “eternal world,” which is so wholly at odds (for him) with the socialist viewpoint. What. For Kuqali (who also willfully misreads the severe style’s effort to confront contemporary socialist life bluntly and without heroization), this painting has lost any sense of history, and it has done so by taking up medieval (icon) art as one of its models.(It is worth noting that Kuqali’s attack on the influence of icon painting in contemporary painting was challenging in the Albanian context, since the 16th-century icon painter Onufri was one of the few artists that Albania could claim, nationalistically, as evidence of a long tradition of well-regarded visual artists among the Albanian people.)
In the face of these external shifts however—which of course were easily characterized as bourgeois decadence—it was harder to put forward the positive role that art criticism was meant to play in the Albanian context. The scattered titles of the talks presented at the 1972 plenum evidence the lack of consensus on this issue, at the same time that they endeavor to assert the importance of art criticism as an enterprise. One solution, proposed by Kuqali, was almost modernist in character. It did not turn towards formalism—although the formal qualities of the work of art were an ongoing concern(Painter Vilson Kilica—at the time, general secretary of the Union of Writers and Artists—interestingly included only a brief, two-page attack on formalism in his lengthy speech (more than 30 pages, when published) at the 1972 plenum. See Vilson Kilica, “Për një Ngritje Cilësore të Kritikës Sonë Letrare dhe Artistike,” Nëntori 19:4 (1972): 4–39.) (since an overdependence on formal experimentation indicated the perennial danger posed by bourgeois art, understood as Western European and American modernism).(The most extended attempt to grapple with aesthetic modernism (characterized in socialist Albania primarily in terms of “subjectivism,” “abstractionism,” and a turn towards themes and content considered decadent and bourgeois) is Alfred Uçi’s Labirintet e Modernizmit: Kritika e Estetikës Moderniste (Tirana: Naim Frashëri, 1978).) Rather, it presented a curious version of the modernist notion of the artwork’s autonomy by placing an increased stress on the “artistic unity” of the individual work.(Kuqali, “Kritikë të Orientojë,” 80.) The claim that art criticism’s key role was to grasp the unity of a given artwork seems almost banal, and innocuous enough. But it cannot be a coincidence that precisely as Albania’s own alliances with the socialist world were beginning to erode, and indeed when the whole socialist world seemed to be broken, Kuqali would turn against a “fractured” version of criticism, one that leapt from technical observations to ideological evaluations to psychological ponderings as if these were all separate concerns.(Kuqali, “Kritikë të Orientojë,” 80.) Again, it is necessary to keep in mind what would happen next: in 1973, Enver Hoxha would effectively foreclose on the notion that Albania had achieved a smoothly-functioning socialist model society by re-asserting that its body politic was still rent by conflicts between communist, proletarian elements and foreign, revisionist influences. Kuqali’s vision for art criticism is effectively the opposite of this: it calls for the critic not to dissolve the work of art (as both a formal and a social object) into conflicting streams of influence, but to present it to the public in terms of a resolved whole, a kind of tautologically complete vision(On such a tautological or “nonepistemological” definition of Socialist Realism, see Petre Petrov, “The Industry of Truing: Socialist Realism, Reality, Realization,” Slavic Review 70:4 (Winter, 2011): 873–892.) of harmonious social and cultural influences held together seamlessly by the artist’s creative power.
This is not necessarily new: such a harmonious vision had long been part of Socialist Realism’s purview. And surely Kuqali’s own position as a practicing artist also contributed to his own desire to reify the work as some kind of identifiable whole, something that could not be dissolved into conflicting influences or ideological countercurrents. But Kuqali’s plea for a criticism that would emphasize harmony and unity in this particular historical moment must surely be significant: in the wake of the Cultural and Ideological Revolution, it must surely have been a call for declaring victory and moving on, for freeing criticism from the goal of discovering perpetual conflict. Yet such a hope was naïve precisely because art criticism in Albania was facing so many questions about what might constitute an artistic unity: Could it include “foreign” influences as well as domestic ones? Was its audience transnational, or national? Did it express an individual style, or a collective one?(On this question in particular, see Kujtim Buza, “Puna Krijuese Kolektive në Fushën e Arteve Figurative,” Drita, September 27, 1970.) Were modernist works (in the pejorative sense used by socialist critics) somehow disunified, or were they simply examples of the wrong kind of unity?
If there were ever a single painting that imaged the contradictions of this conflicted moment in Albanian art criticism, it is without a doubt Sali Shijaku’s massive canvas Zëri i Masës (The Voice of the Masses). Shijaku (an artist whose writings Kuqali cites in his 1972 plenum talk on criticism) painted it in 1974, one year after Enver Hoxha’s condemnation on “foreign influences” in Albanian culture (resulting in one of the most extravagant show trials of Albania’s socialist years). The canvas almost could not help but reflect an upheaval in the evaluation of the visual arts, and to model the—after 1973, much more strictly enforced—‘correct’ method of aesthetic and historical interpretation. Shijaku’s canvas is an homage to a certain trajectory of realist painting, and at the same time a subtle commentary on the possible relationships between Socialist Realism and socialist reality. It is also a quite apt examination of the state of criticism: in a composition midway between Velazquez’s Las Meninas and Courbet’s The Artist’s Studio, Shijaku has depicted himself in the studio, surrounded by the ‘artworld’—models, critics, intellectuals, and, most importantly, workers. The worker at the center of the composition, gesturing as he speaks, is as clear an acknowledgement of the ideological viewpoint of the working classes (and their views on art) as one could ask for. And yet Shijaku himself stands to one side looking decidedly uninspired, lost in a reverie that markedly avoids engagement with the speaking worker—there is a palpable undercurrent of elitist resentment, and this from one of Albania’s celebrated “People’s Painters.”(The title “i Popullit”—“of the People” was given to artists working across a variety of media in socialist Albania; it constituted an extremely high honor, and Shijaku was among relatively few to receive it.) Perhaps most tellingly, Shijaku has emphasized the disjuncture between criticism (or commentary) and the artwork itself, leaving only the back of the canvas visible to the observer, intrusive in its blunt materiality. There is a kind of closing circle here: without anything ‘outside’ (geopolitically or otherwise), Albanian art criticism in the socialist era becomes something like wrestling with an image one cannot actually see, but about which one is compelled to say something, for fear it will lose its reality.
The full closure of this circle comes almost a decade later, in 1981, in the final years of Enver Hoxha’s life and the beginning of the last decade of socialist Albania’s existence. In this year, the National Gallery of Art in Tirana held a retrospective of Shijaku’s work, and Enver Hoxha was photographed—together with a gathering of artists and critics—in front of Shijaku’s Zëri i Masës. The meticulous staging of the photo is astounding: it carefully replicates Shijaku’s composition, so that a semicircle of figures are gathered to either side of the dictator, whose hands mirror the gestures of the worker in the painting. The painting itself, hung on the wall of the gallery, has become a stand-in for the sketches that appear, in the work, mounted on the wall of the artist’s studio. Of course, in the photograph, there is no looming blank expanse, no empty back of the canvas that begs the viewer to imaginatively bridge the gap between representation and reality. Instead, to the left in the approximate location of the back of the canvas in Shijaku’s painting, we can see the intrusion of cameras and microphones recording the staged event. The context for Socialist Realism here—and thus also the “artistic unity” that criticism might discover in the work—has become the most narrow and elite one, one characterized by hierarchies and one which reinforces itself simply by replicating its own gestures.
This, surely, was not the kind of unity Kuqali had in mind for art criticism to identify in the work of Socialist Realism. In this photograph of Shijaku’s work as a backdrop for dictatorial power, all the questions raised by the uncertainties and differing ideological directions of the 1972 plenum on criticism have been effectively expunged. Nonetheless, it matters that such uncertainties existed, and it is important to recognize that the Union of Writers and Artists in Albania was not always the source of a clearly established and reified vision for socialist culture. Its gaps and conflicts reveal the shape of socialist art in Albania not as a straightforwardly authoritarian structure, but as a stage on which the existential fears of a fragmenting socialist world played out in specific ways. If these fears failed to produce a unified vision of what Socialist Realism was—and what it was credible for criticism to say about works of Socialist Realism—then this failure is nonetheless illustrative for the present. Today, the Prime Minister of Albania—the son of one of the same sculptors to whom Enver Hoxha addressed his famous open letter—occupies an office wallpapered with his own drawings. What can art criticism say about this?
Other articles in the issue include: