Constructing a Dream: Socialist Realism in Albanian Style (Part 3)

“Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now you begin to understand me?” George Orwell, 1984

Author: Ermir Hoxha

Socialist realism was established in Albania after the end of World War II under a totalitarian regime during the years when the Communist Party (transformed into the Labor Party) held power. This was a period when, more than ever, the conception of art with the ideology was presented as the only creative process. Albanian socialist realism developed within the physiognomy of the state, being implemented through the ideology, absorbing from the tradition what it could, and bypassing the dysfunctional. It was a conscious expression of the leadership of the country to use all possible materials and spiritual resources in the service of its power. It was not an original Albanian attitude in itself, but part of a “mother” phenomenon, imported from the schools of the East and then implemented into domestic reality with the blessing of the state. Paradoxically, at the time when socialist realism in Albania began to be formed within the standard canons, in the Eastern Bloc, after the conviction of the Cult of the Leader (during the 1950s), it was slowly being abandoned, leading to a more personal interpretation of the phenomenon. As such, it can be defined at once as part of a global phenomenon, but also strongly developed within a local matrix, whereas its form was determined by both inherited art and didactic influence absorbed from Eastern countries. This brought an overlap of multiform values that coexisted as fragments of the same aesthetic contemplation, which essentially kept the message and the doctrine intact – basically this was what interested the state most.

Title: The first meeting in Peza”
Artist: Guri Madhi

Date:1972, Dimensions: 98 x 130 cm, Medium: Oil on canvas, Collection: Family

Over four decades (roughly 1950–1990) the Albanian communist state never ceased to endow massive amounts of money in art. At the beginning, during the 1950s, it provided for the education of a new generation of artists from Eastern countries, so that their creativity would be in line with the ideological matrix. Later on, by launching professional institutions, it thereby ensured a whole generation of artists who conceived and created art in accordance with the principles of socialist realism. Thus, hundreds of amateur and semi-professional artistic groups emerged in every corner of the country, producing a great deal of art but seriously damaging artistic quality and value.

Throughout its duration, socialist realism here experienced “shocking” stylistic changes always for the same reason: the state, the sole owner of the artwork, was interested in a militant art, worthy of materializing the state ideology, in which the message was not to be harmed in the name of its primary purpose. From the Marxist point of view, its core, realism, remained a method, style, or tendency that expressed in the most complete way the politics of social conditions; but in fact, it remained more functional as it provided more and more didactic interpretive ease and less and less room for misinterpretation, both in its message and in its ideas. The stylistic changes and transformations that this realism had undergone over the decades, such as geopolitical humor, are the best reflection of the use of art first as a tool and then as a goal.

However, in no other era in the history of the country had the relationship between the artist and the state not been so open and sanctioned by law, the cooperation between them having been so frequent and dense as in the employer-employee relationship. The artists, real actors with their works, were part of a state-of-the-art platform – conscious, often zealous, and sometimes fanatical – but time showed that their role in supplying the mega-machine with images was efficient and inevitable. They were to serve the ideological revolution – in other words, the “spiritual nourishment” of the masses – and to materialize the ideology into an understandable “truth” based on sanctioned principles. The government directed them to take positions clearly in support of the cause, otherwise they risked being deemed unnecessary, or in the worst case, enemies. Painters, sculptors, filmmakers, and writers all helped to materialize the ideology, turning it into a bridge of communication between the leadership and the people. The stronger and more effective their voice, the more convincing and dominant this “alliance” became. Their mission as conductors of the ideology and propaganda of the party’s word brought privileges to Albanian artists, translated into paid creative license and reduced working hours. And, as a fragment of a vertical power structure, where the closer the center, the greater the privileges to the most devout, the state would also grant studios, creative furloughs, and senior management positions to the executive committee, ministry of culture, or parliament. Meanwhile, the endless discussions between intellectuals, attempting to understand themselves, remained emblematic while the state dictatorship stood incontestably, with most of the artists merely executors of Hoxha’s iron will.

On the other hand, there was room for artists who stayed away from creating political art. Conscientiously pro, neutral, or opposed, these artists were indisputable proof that not every element of the life under totalitarian rule, regardless of desire, could be controlled, although these artists never became publicly known.

Title: City of Durres
Artist: Ilija Rota

Date: 1974, Dimensions: 60 x 75 cm, Medium: Oil on canvas, Collection: Artist

In its entirety, Albanian art of the period from 1945 to 1990 remained a product of itself, developed within the borders of the regime’s isolation. Consequently, on this Albanian communist “island,” the misunderstanding of modern art, long censored by state officials, resulted in a false assessment of the local artistic community. The modern spirit, mainly defined in impressionism, cubism, expressionism, or post-impressionism, was first proposed and borrowed in the 1960s, then in the 1970s, and without any noticeable change in the late 1980s. As Edi Rama puts it, “we would talk and talk about the masters of modernity, unaware that across the borders … the contemporary world would consider them as archeology.”10 And when the the hour of death came, as in all totalitarian regimes, the artists – the gears of the state’s propaganda – ceased their existential meaning with the collapse of the system itself, and along with it, socialist realism. For the artists, the possibility of creativity free from any censorship and control was suddenly confronted as a new demand and responsibility, and a stylistic and personal aesthetic was offered to another public, no longer enclosed within its borders.

And now after many years, the nervous rapture of the communist past has faded, and the need to confront and understand the artistic and intellectual legacy of four decades of creativity has arisen. A massive cultural heritage, made up by thousands of artworks are now to face a rational scrutiny: research, study, selection, preservation, and restoration, for a worthy promotion in respect to the past, without prejudice and unnecessary political shading. Beyond the material and spiritual heritage, as an asset that imposes new intellectual and state responsibilities, socialist realism itself offers endless research opportunities for scholars on specific topics, such as the cult of the leader, the new person, the socialist paradise, morality, the Eros, favorable and unfavorable subjects, the figurative depictions of the male and female, and the social, philosophical, or anthropological aspect of the phenomenon. As a typical product developed in a totalitarian state, socialist realism opens up virtually infinite opportunities for analyzing the relationship between power and art, the mechanisms that sustain it, overlapped values, and clashes between worldviews. Most of them presented in this study are presented as topics of debate among scholars: a form of understanding the very structure of Albanian socialist realism, comparing it with other forms found elsewhere in the East, and confronting heir echoes even in the present day.