E përshtatshme (Appropriate) is a café slightly removed from Tirana’s hectic center, known for its selection of books, teas, and no alcohol policy. It is where I spent a great deal of my time in Tirana, hanging out with friends or conducting semistructured interviews with art producers.1 On that rainy day in October 2010, I joined the staff of Art Kontakt, a Tirana-based art organization, to help proofread a grant proposal. We had just settled down when a staff member, a woman in her late 20s, received a call from a friend who insisted she check out a website that featured her boyfriend’s artwork. Dismissing the task at hand, we all became curious and hunched over the laptop computer. The website, otherwise plain, featured the artwork of several Albanian-born artists alongside that of well-known Western ones. The images, which were positioned parallel to each other in order to make the supposed similarities between the works more salient, were headed by the word “COPY” in capital red letters.
The authorship of the website, to which I will proceed to refer to as the “Copy website,” was unclear and has not been revealed to date. That day, consensus among my friends and informants was that the website had been created by an “insider”: either an Albanian artist or someone familiar with Albania’s art world. The claim of the site’s author, however, was clear: that the Albanian-born artists in question had copied their work from Western art producers of different eras and were presenting their publics with unacknowledged reproductions of other peoples’ work. The logical extension of these claims was that the former had not produced original artwork, that is, artwork that contains a quality of newness whose author is autonomously responsible for producing.
This website was just one example among scores of efforts from constituents of the art world in postsocialist Albania—professional artists, art producers, curators, and officials—to challenge the originality of the work of their peers in relation to that of Western artists but also their own. Following Michel Foucault (1972), I call such efforts the discourse on originality to emphasize the social and organizational role it is intended to play within Albania’s art world after 1991. In trying to account for its prevalence, I argue that the discourse on originality—which tends to be expressed informally and anonymously—is a regulatory device deployed in response to the loss of a system of authority after the collapse of state socialism, as well as the inability to develop a stable, modern art system of dealers, critics, and collectors. Ultimately, I suggest that the discourse on originality represents a longing for contemporaneity with what is happening beyond Albania’s borders, a longing precipitated by Albanian artists’ perceived marginal status in the transnational art world and their desire to transcend it.
Originality: An elusive ideal
At the heart of the discourse on originality as it is has been unfolding in Albania lie wider debates within Western art history and theory. Questions of what it means for art to be original, the conditions for its possibility, or whether artistic originality is even possible have been of central importance since the development of the modern art system in eighteenth-century France. According to art historian Svetlana Alpers, the importance of the role of the individual producer whose agency and genius is directly responsible for their production continues to be a basic idea built into modern Western art history, theory, and practice. The uniqueness of the individual work produced through personal creativity, inspiration, and the special artistic vision of the artist is another underlying assumption (1977: 7). These ideas are also echoed in the work of anthropologist James Clifford: in his diagram of the art-culture system, for connoisseurs, art museums, and the art market, originality and singularity are the defining elements of fine art (1988: 224).
Such notions, however, are not timeless. As anthropologist Stuart Plattner has explained, before the development of the modern art system in eighteenth-century France, painters were considered skilled artisans and traders preoccupied not with developing original forms but with maintaining control over their traditional style of work (1996: 28). Painters were encouraged to copy or imitate other painters’ work, and their skill and genius depended precisely on how well they followed the traditions of their masters. By the seventeenth century, however, numerous academies were founded in France and other European cities to accommodate artists who felt they were expanding the cultural vision of reality rather than applying technical skill as specialized decorators (28–29).
By the latter part of the nineteenth century, unpredictability and eccentricity were increasingly considered assets that signified artistic genius. These views repositioned the artist outside of mainstream culture and tied artistic genius not to technical mastery but to novelty and inventiveness. The precept of artistic originality became particularly important during the modernist period of Western art (mid-nineteenth century to mid-twentieth century), when true art was thought to emerge from artists’ constant play with rules and their breaking away from the canonized ideas of the past. Concerns with originality and its corollary, authenticity, were only heightened with the advent of mass and mechanical reproduction, as Walter Benjamin (2008) discussed in his 1935 essay “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” For Benjamin, even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art would be lacking in authenticity from having lost one fundamental element, its aura: the force that emanates from its originality.
In the postmodern period, however, the art world has been dominated by the skepticism as to whether artistic originality is even possible (Crowther 1991). According to Plattner, whereas transcending preceding rules and a break with the past were the mantras of modernism, reference, appropriation, citation, odd conjunctures, pastiches, and other playful and ironic values tend to govern contemporary, postmodern production and taste. As a result, pop art, Earth art, installation art, performance art, pattern-and-decoration, photorealism, multimedia art, and many other art styles have whizzed through the art market at a dizzying speed (1996: 196).
The recognition of the loss of artistic originality in postmodernism has produced enduring anxieties in the contemporary art world, anxieties that reflect challenges for artistic practice in relation to the history of progressive, modern art. Anthropologist Matti Bunzl has succinctly summarized the reasons in In Search of a Lost Avant-Garde, which traces his ethnographic research at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Art critics have been lamenting “an avant-garde under siege,” “the death of the avant-garde,” or the “evacuation of art’s moral authority” starting from the latter half of the twentieth century (Bunzl 2014: 4–5). In their view, the avant-garde has not only died, but it has been replaced by its dreaded antithesis: kitsch (5). This is a big deal. According to art critic Clement Greenberg, whereas the avant-garde represents that which is “genuinely new,” kitsch is “mechanical,” “operates by formulas,” and produces “fake sensations” (Greenberg 1961, quoted in Bunzl 2014: 5) The avant-garde demanded careful attention and close scrutiny, whereas kitsch “demands nothing of its audiences except their money” (Greenberg 1961, quoted in Bunzl 2014: 5–6). Art institutions are complicit in all of this. Having become bigger and more corporatized, they have ceased to support progressive art, opting instead to present what can be easily digestible by the masses (4–5). The difficult has been abandoned for the amusing, leading to art losing its seriousness of purpose and becoming ever more market driven (5–6).
Fine art production in Albania—before, during, and after socialism—cannot be looked at in isolation from the changing views on the relationship between art, originality, and progress in Western art history and theory. 2 The anxieties regarding artistic originality within the Albanian art world resemble those that have become salient in the global contemporary art world. However, I argue that they are also different in significant ways, having emerged from very distinct historical and social circumstances. It is thus important to consider the specificities of the Albanian experience of art making in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. This is not a straightforward effort, considering that a rigorous study of the history of art in Albania has yet to be done, with the field being particularly porous during the postsocialist period. In what follows, I attempt a brief overview of the position of different generations of Albanian artists vis-à-vis the Western art world.
The general consensus among Albanian art historians is that the fine arts began to develop in Albania during the first half of the twentieth century.3 Albania lacked an art academy at the time, so the most celebrated artists were trained in the art academies of Italy, Greece, France, Serbia, and Romania, and while the content of their work tends to portray Albanian life, history, or nature, they were evidently drawing on realism and classicism, artistic currents practiced throughout Europe at the time. In the 1930s and 1940s, a number of art exhibits were held in Albania. The first national fine art exhibit was organized in Tirana in May 1931, and soon after, participating artists established the short-lived art organization Shoqnia miqt’ e artit (Friends of the Arts) with the general aim of creating a national gallery (Kuqali 1988: 35). An art school was founded in Tirana in 1933, remaining open only until 1939 (36).
Despite the abovementioned early efforts at institutionalization, Albania lacked a professionally organized art world until the advent of socialism, in 1944, when art production became subject to state oversight and socialist realism was adopted as the only official artistic style, as the authentic and true art of the masses and simultaneously as the engineer of their souls. These ideas were based on the guidelines developed in the Soviet Union under Stalin, where socialist realist art was conceived to not look anything like the art of the capitalist West, the latter being understood as a decadent, formalist art that rejected the artistic values of the past (Groys 2008). Many of the artists who had been central protagonists in Albania’s art world before 1944 conformed to the expectations of the socialist state. Some even had to tweak their pre-existing works to make them acceptable. Others ceased producing art all together. In the 1950s, a new generation of professional fine artists were being trained in the art academies of Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union, since the Akademia e arteve (Academy of Arts),4 then known as the Instituti i lartë i arteve (Higher Institute of Arts), in Albania was not founded until 1966. The academy, however, was preceded by the artistic high school Jordan Misja, which was founded in 1946.
The notion of artistic originality was an important precept for Albanian artists during socialism. Even though isolation is one of the main tropes through which Albanian art producers talk about the socialist experience, as anthropological scholarship has suggested, “East” and “West” have always been intimately related categories (Buck-Morss 2002). Albanian artists during socialism were often cognizant of what was going on in the West; indeed, their imaginaries and (sometimes) work were permeated by images and ideas prevalent in the West. For instance, a number of informants from the generation of artists whose careers developed during socialism reported having art books or magazines from abroad. Moreover, when I consulted major socialist-era texts written about Western art production, specifically three editions on aesthetics by Alfred Uçi, I noted that different parts of Western art history and theory were discussed in depth. However, as many informants revealed, originality and a degree of artistic autonomy were endeavored and considered acceptable only if they were expressed within the parameters expected by the party state, since the authentic art of the masses during state socialism was theoretically seen as incompatible with uninhibited individual creativity.
After the collapse of state socialism, Albanian artists have sought recognition and marketability in the transnational art world and have been increasingly concerned with employing trends associated with postmodern, contemporary art, which they relay via a variety of media. And while reference, citation, and appropriation are such trends, a main concern among constituents of the art world in Albania is not, for instance, the extent to which these techniques might contribute to the novelty and impact of their work. Instead, a primary concern is whether Albanian artists are kopjacë (copycats) or capable of creating original work that is not a mere reproduction of the work of Western artists. My questions are thus: Why has the notion of originality become such a salient variable of judgment within the art world in postsocialist Albania? What can this discourse tell us about the nature of post-socialist transformation in Albania? And to what extent is it similar or different from anxieties over the collapse of the avant-garde in the West? To begin addressing these questions, I will return to a discussion of the Copy website.
“They don’t even know how to copy”
The Art Kontakt staff member who was initially informed of the website’s existence was angry because she thought her boyfriend had been subject to a wrongful accusation. “How do they even know he copied this?” she asked, adding, “And they don’t even have the guts to put their name behind it? Why not make yourself available to talk about it?” I thought the questions she posed were pointed. First, she highlighted the tensions between the processes of copy and reference in artistic production, the former being the unacknowledged, unreflective version of the latter. Looking at the site, I could certainly see the similarities between the images, which were left to speak for themselves. All that the website contained were the images and the artists’ names, lacking any other material, such as titles or artists’ statements on the works. The lack of context inevitably left one wondering whether the Albanian-born artists under consideration might have been consciously referencing the works of the authors they were purportedly copying. Or perhaps the resemblances were pure coincidence. And we all wondered why the author had chosen to remain anonymous. Some considered that the site’s author did not want to face backlash. Others guessed it was done out of spite or to publically shame select Albanian artists. One asked if I did it, a doubt I put immediately to rest by reminding everybody how incompetent I am with web design.
The purported offenders listed on this website ranged from globally renowned artists, such as Albanian-born Anri Sala, whose work is part of the collections of hegemonic European art institutions, to up-and-coming artists and art students. Anri Sala’s No Bargain, No Cry (2002)—a color photograph of a white horse suspended on an aluminum rooftop post—had been posted alongside Maurizio Cattelan’s horse sculpture installation, Novecento (1997)—which features a taxidermied horse suspended from a high ceiling. A photograph by Albanian-born Olson Lamaj that depicted his own reflection on his girlfriend’s eye was compared to M.C. Escher’s much reproduced Skull in Eye (1946). In a later conversation with Lamaj, I found out that this photograph was not even art by intention, which Shelly Errington (1998) has defined as artifacts that are not created to represent and be regarded as art by galleries and museums or be bought and sold in the art market. The photo had been removed from Lamaj’s Facebook page without his permission.
The list continued. Endri Dani’s color photograph of abstract forms and colors captured through a misty camera lens had been placed next to an untitled and undated Gwenael Bollinger photograph, also colorful and misty. This photo, according to Dani, was a random photograph he had taken, posted on Facebook, and forgotten about. Then there was Adrian Isufi’s sculpture of a red tongue leaping from a toilet bowl, first presented in 2006 as part of an art show dedicated to breaking sexual taboos in Albanian society. On the Copy website, the image of Isufi’s sculpture installation was placed alongside Marcel Duchamp’s The Fountain (1917), the urinal that the latter signed and put in a Parisian museum to emphasize the role of context in art production. I had had similar thoughts when I first saw Isufi’s piece, then four years ago: it invoked Duchamp. “But wouldn’t any urinal incorporated into art invoke Duchamp, considering how famous The Fountain is?” asked a friend, in questioning agreement.
The website disappeared just like it had appeared: suddenly. In my knowledge, it was up only for a couple of weeks, engendering much discussion, especially on social media. Reactions to its main claim—that Albanian artists are kopjacë and do not produce original work—ranged from anger and frustration, to agreement, to indifference. Many, however, expressed enthusiasm that some kind of criticism was finally happening. According to their view, the claims of the Copy website might not have been entirely valid, but the act of pointing out Albanian artists’ purported weaknesses was seen as a step in the right direction toward producing debate and a more critical atmosphere within Albania’s art world.
I was surprised neither by the appearance of the website nor by the commotion it caused, although its presentation was atypically flagrant. I had frequently heard similar claims from artist friends, many of whom remarked that Albanian artists copied their work from their Western counterparts. Such claims were typically made in casual conversation, but rarely during the interviews I conducted. The only exception was Maks Velo,5 one of my main informants, who, whenever we talked about art-related topics, somehow managed to turn the path of discussion to the inability of the vast majority of Albanian artists to make original contributions or be worthy of any serious consideration locally or abroad. “Këta janë kopjacë! Këta s’dinë asgjë!” (They are copycats! They know nothing!) is a statement Velo exclaimed, in his characteristic high-pitched voice, more times than I can count, along with “Ti je tapë topi!”6 (You are a ball plug!), a term he used to describe me, endearingly without a doubt, whenever my opinions differed from his, which was relatively often.
On the several occasions when I took casual tours of the postsocialist art wing of the National Art Gallery in Tirana with my informants, which I used as a backdrop to nonstructured interviews and conversations, my companions frequently made comparisons between the works on display and that of well-known Western artists. Statements informants made ranged from the convincing and specific: “The way in which the colors diffuse is totally Rothko’s!” to the callous and general: “These are not artists; they don’t even know how to copy. They don’t even know how to hide that they are copying,” pointing to a purported lack of creativity and originality as the main but also unfortunate characteristics of the art that has been produced in Albania after 1991. According to these views, whatever Albanian artists had done, Western artists had been there, done that, frequently a very long time ago. These remarks seemed to be aimed at corroding the merit of the artworks as well as the creative prowess of their makers.
At other times, the discourse on originality was expressed almost impulsively, based on expectedness. For instance, in early 2011, Ardian Isufi, a prolific artist and curator whose work was also featured on the Copy website, did a performance where, holding a paintbrush and a color palette, he slowly submerged into a pool, ultimately floating in a drowning position. This piece Isufi titled J’Accuse: Vdekja e artistit (I Accuse: Death of the Artist) (2011), referencing a performance done just a few years prior by Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset titled The Death of the Collector (2009), where a male figure was mysteriously found dead in a pool. Isufi had taken the main premise of their work and appropriated it to the context of Albania; while the Northern European duo pointed to a lessening number of collectors, in Isufi’s performance piece, the (Albanian) artist was drowning from lack of social and institutional support. Just a few days after Isufi’s performance, however, a short piece was posted on social media by an anonymous Facebook persona accusing Isufi of copying his performance from the very authors Isufi was explicitly referencing in his statement. It appeared as though the person behind the anonymous Facebook profile was so eager to point out the “unoriginality” of Isufi’s piece that they did not even take the time to read the author’s statement.
The discourse on originality was deployed to comment on the work of Albanian artists vis-à-vis that of Western artists as well as their own. These took the form of heated accusations that often resulted in enduring animosities. One much-discussed incident that happened during my time in the field and that seems to have had lasting ramifications was when two well-known art producers, also professors at the Academy of Arts, had a dispute over who first thought of an idea they both represented artistically in quick succession. The series of works in question dealt with Albania’s unruly and decaying urban landscape in postsocialism, an issue that has been taken up by various artists. The ensuing tension from the argument of who had ownership of the idea has significantly strained the relationship between the two professors and people associated with them, including their (now former) students. Similar speculative debates about an Albanian artist copying something from another Albanian artist were frequently in circulation, extending predominantly in informal and intimate channels of communication.
(The lack of) a modern art system after socialism
As I have illustrated, some of the deliberations on the originality of the work of Albanian-born artists tend to occur predominantly in private settings and during casual conversation. Other instances are public yet anonymous statements made on social media, which has become an increasingly important platform where artists, art organizations, and the public articulate their views on what is going on in the art world. The relative lack of self-censorship exercised on social media discussions made it a fruitful site to explore the more critical views of members of the Albanian art world, especially given the lack of a permanent discursive platform on the arts such as an art magazine or journal.7
When I first encountered instances of artists questioning the originality of their peers’ work, I was not sure what to make of it. Were my informants trying to glorify themselves by putting the work of others down? Competition and conflict are, after all, not strangers to art worlds everywhere. Was it because of personal feuds or animosities? What could explain its pervasiveness? In time, however, it became apparent that such comments were not necessarily self-serving, at least not immediately so, precisely because, as I note above, those who made them most forcefully chose to remain anonymous. Furthermore, while at first sight they resemble the anxieties of art critics and art producers in London, New York, or Chicago, who are also concerned with a lack of progress in contemporary art, I argue that the anxieties of Albanian art producers are not about the death of the avant-garde or the corrupt influence of the market on art, as this would imply there was once such a thing as an avant-garde or a developed market in Albania. Neither is the case. Instead, I suggest that the discourse on originality in Albania is deployed to deal with crises and anxieties that have emerged during Albania’s transition from state socialism to a market economy. These include the loss of a system of authority following the liberalization of art production from state support and oversight and the difficulties associated with developing a modern art system and market after 1991. Moreover, I argue that this discourse is stimulated by artists’ desire to alter the course of practices that appear to be in direct continuity with a disagreeable aspect of art production during socialism, namely, the inability of art producers to exercise individual creativity and their ongoing dependence on an external source of influence for their work.
The demise of socialism and Albania’s integration into the global economy entailed all-encompassing upheavals; the introduction of new ideas, norms, and knowledges; and a radical restructuring of the art world. Between 1944 and 1991, the socialist state, represented by the Partia e punës e Shqipërisë (Party of Labor of Albania), was the only official consumer and critic of art. Artists were seen as workers who made art in the service of the masses, and the state provided them with benefits such as studios, stipends, art supplies, and commissions. And while my informants have reported selling their work informally to friends or other interested parties, these transactions took place “underground” and were not encouraged.
The socialist state also had the power to make the distinction between good or acceptable art: art that worked to educate the masses and imagine communist futures versus decadent, formalist art that could unravel society. Furthermore, the socialist state was the official regulatory apparatus of the activities of art producers, a power and responsibility that was also delegated to the Lidhja e shkrimtarëve dhe artistëve (League of Writers and Artists) and, at times, the artists themselves, who were expected to expose the indiscretions of their contemporaries or to publically autocritique their own work if someone deemed it suspect. In all, the party state was the official critic of artistic production, evaluating artists’ work against state-set criteria for what constituted good and socially significant art.
After the liberalization of art production from state support and oversight, in 1991, the state ceased its role as the official sponsor, consumer, and critic of art production. A modern art market and system, however, did not materialize out of thin air, and as a result, artists faced the difficulties of figuring out how to create it. More than two decades after the collapse of state socialism, the different components of a modern art system—dealers, curators, and critics—are still missing. Art producers themselves have responded very resourcefully to such institutional lacks. While there are no professional art dealers in Albania, many art producers have succeeded in creating personal networks with buyers or with entering independently into contract with clients for commissioned work. A number of my informants have succeeded in selling work exhibited in galleries, during collective or personal shows. Getting paid for their work is something that artists greatly desire, although many simultaneously express discomfort with treating their work as a commodity. As Stuart Plattner (1996) has argued, this paradox is at the heart of art production everywhere. While art is produced and discussed by artists as resulting from a spiritual calling, it is exchanged as a commodity. This is where the art dealers come in: they are crucial in helping to negotiate such tensions. One of the ways artists in St. Louis, Missouri (Plattner’s field site), deal with this paradox is by forging good relationships with dealers.
In the absence of any professional art dealers, many of my informants have described the process of exchanging their art for money as perhaps the most demoralizing aspect of their work. They have often described the process of personally dealing with buyers—and associated bargaining practices—as demeaning, since bargaining places focus not on the work’s perceived aesthetic worth but rather on its reducibility as a commodity. Other informants reported having to “chase down” promised money, which a buyer might not have delivered in a timely manner, if at all. I witnessed one such instance during a visit to Tirana in 2014, when an informant barged into the bar where I happened to be having a drink and where one of his “buyers” works as a host. My informant proceeded to have a loud confrontation and even threatened to punch the bar’s host for not having paid for a painting the latter had “bought” months earlier and had unscrupulously delivered to a common friend as a birthday gift. In a later conversation with the artist, he revealed that this was not the first time he had had to resort to threats or public humiliation in order to get paid.
The curator holds another important role within the modern art system. I encountered concerns over the absence of trained curators in Albania the very first week I started fieldwork, during a symposium titled “The State of Contemporary Art,” in January 2010. The discussion was inspired by the 2009 installment of the yearly exhibit Onufri, held at the National Art Gallery, which had been curated by the poet Parid Teferiçi, who did not orient the international exhibit and competition around a theme but simply showed “what had been brewing in the studios that year,” as he put it during his presentation. Audience members, however, argued that the curator’s role is to offer a supra-artistic vision that transcends the individual work. According to these views, the curator should be able to select, organize, and interpret the works on display. The consensus was also that the Albanian art world lacked trained curators capable of performing these tasks.
The views expressed during “The State of Contemporary Art” are in line with how the role of the curator is generally conceived within a modern art system. According to Nancy Sullivan, “curation is the pivotal linchpin of an art system, the site where new ideas become corporeal, and where a nonutilitarian object (or act) is invested with historical significance” (1995: 269). The role of the curator is thus to be an interlocutor between the public and the artist, while playing out the artworks’ historical significance. It is not that curatorial endeavors in Albania have lacked. Psychologists, artists, poets, and architects, among others, have done the job of the curator. More often than not, however, they are doing the job primarily as a friend of the artist, not because of their skills and qualifications, as Eriola Pira (2014), an Albanian-born art historian and curator who lives and works in New York City, has noted. This often results in poorly presented shows, where curatorial texts either have nothing to do with the work in question or are abstract beyond comprehension.
Pira’s observations echo my own. The curatorial efforts and texts I encountered during fieldwork were often incomprehensible and sometimes did not have much to do with what was on display. Lack of training is certainly an issue, as the Academy of Arts in Albania does not offer any courses in curatorial studies. And while several Albanian-born individuals have been trained in curatorial studies abroad and have helped generate momentous events, they are not based in Albania. The curatorial vision of most shows that happened during the time I conducted research was resourcefully provided by local artists themselves, specialists in other professions (history, anthropology, and psychology), and less often by curators based outside Albania’s borders. The local concern regarding curators is thus centered not on their nonexistence but rather on a series of “lacks”—lack of training, permanence, refinement, and the knowledge of what is happening in the transnational art world. For my informants, these factors can ultimately hinder the (potential) quality of artworks and their perceived currency abroad.
Of the three components of the modern art system—dealer, curator, and critic—the absence of the art critic is locally considered the most detrimental to the development of the art world and the success of Albanian art producers on a global level. As of now, there are no trained art critics in Albania, and the Academy of Arts has yet to offer one course in art criticism. Furthermore, none of the professors teaching at the academy have the adequate training or experience to teach such a course. Informants consider the absence of art critics the problematic in the Albanian art world for several reasons. In a modern art system, critics are idealized to be the arbiters of value or the authorities who have the educational, institutional, and symbolic capital to distinguish between good and bad art as well as the farsightedness to anticipate what artwork might cultivate value in time (Bourdieu 1984, 1993). Many informants viewed art critics as a bridge between the local and the global: by referring to an accepted set of aesthetic values that are salient beyond the local level, the critic is in the position to help artists working in Albania produce work that could be shown and marketed both locally and beyond.
There are no individuals performing these tasks in the Albanian art world. Artists write about their work, or other artists write about the work of other artists, almost always in a laudatory manner. Few members of the art world pose critique through formal channels such as magazine or newspaper articles, although many do on social media platforms such as Facebook. Indeed, art producers frequently stated that they were reluctant to be explicit with critiques for fear of offending their friends or “making enemies,” which could, in turn, affect their access to resources later. In a context where resources are often accessed via personal networks and where critique is often seen as inseparable from acts of shaming or humiliation, critical remarks are not posed for fear that they could come back to haunt later.
Interestingly, many artists from the older generation, who were trained and worked during socialism, discuss the absence of the critic today by making ambivalent remarks on the League of Writers and Artists during state socialism. For instance, an informant who frequently attended league meetings cited a retrospectively hilarious instance from 1974 when a graphic artist holding the title of league secretary called for all artists to become pregnant with the ideas of the party and give birth with their brushes everywhere—on the mountains, the fields, and the skies. My informant was chuckling when recalling what he considered ridiculous words, adding, “Absurd things like that were said frequently at the league.” According to him, the criticism elaborated during league meetings was mostly based on directives coming from party officials, but “at least there was some collective debate, there were values that were applied. Now there is nothing. People have destroyed everything.” My informant was critical of many aspects of art production during socialism; however, his words echo sentiments I encountered often from others: the dispossessions of today have stimulated an appreciation of select aspects of the art system during socialism.
Taking into account the perpetual crisis in authority so prevalent in Albania’s postsocialist art world, I suggest that the discourse on originality is an attempt to supplant the role of the art critic on the part of artists themselves. Moreover, I argue that the discourse on originality is an effort on the part of artists to transcend their perceived marginal status in the transnational art world. Taking into account Albania’s geopolitical positioning following state socialism’s collapse—marked by a strict visa regime that persisted until 2010 and the failure of the Albanian state to gain candidacy status in the European Union until the summer of 2014—Albanian citizens and art producers continue to experience a lack of contemporaneity with the rest of (Western) Europe. In this context, the discourse on originality functions as a mechanism of inclusion that artists use to push each other’s work beyond the margins and into the mainstream of the transnational art world. As I have noted, the comparisons my informants make between the works of Albanian artists and that of Western ones are not made simply to discredit the work of the former. Instead, these critiques are based on the supposition that the worth of such artwork, if any, is limited within the boundaries of Albania, which only reinforces and perpetuates Albania’s position as an isolated country and Albanian artists’ position as marginal artists. The discourse on originality speaks to a longing to elevate the artistic production of Albania into something of the present.
Departing from the past
Emphasizing the unpredictability of human agency, anthropologists of postsocialism have noted how people living in postsocialist societies selectively and strategically use discourses, resources, and knowledges from the previous order to deal with, transform, or repudiate the conditions of their present existence (Berdahl 1999; Burawoy and Verdery 1999; Dunn 2004; Hemment 2007; Oushakine 2009; Yurchak 2006). I too suggest that today’s artistic production in Albania exists in a social space where the experiences and resources of socialism are selectively reproduced or negated in response to present concerns or even future aspirations. More specifically, apparent continuities between the conditions of art production during state socialism and that of today are selectively repudiated by members of the Albanian art world as a way to create distance from undesirable or painful aspects of that past. For instance, my informants are cognizant that establishing positive connections with people who have political power could positively influence their chances for recognition or enhance the marketability of their work. Most art producers, however, tend to avoid direct association with a given political party, since, according to them, overt instrumentalizations of art by politics recalls the direct relationship between the party and the artist during socialism, which is considered by artists as one of the most disagreeable aspects of art production during that period.
Similarly, while most informants agree that art has the potential to arouse debate about pertinent social or political issues, they explicitly renounce and stay away from what they tend to refer to as “politicized” art that either overtly supports or criticizes the political status quo. This has been the case both because art producers believe such overt criticism might limit their chances of success, in the present or the future, but also because for them politicized art can blur the line between art and propaganda, a line that was extremely hazy during state socialism. Indeed, advisers or curators discouraged several of my informants of the younger generation from exhibiting pieces that could potentially offend politicians.
Following this line of argument, I suggest that the discourse on originality so pervasive in Albania’s art world also aims to repudiate what some recognize as unpleasant continuities between art production during state socialism and today. What is perceived as the mindless or lazy imitation of artworks authored by Western artists recalls one of the least savory aspects of art production during socialism, when artists had to follow set directives from a higher authority with little room for individual creativity and abstraction. Today, the production of artwork that refers so directly to that of Western European artists shows a similar kind of dependence on yet another figure whose authority is presumed as absolute. This is highly problematic and compromising to how most Albanian artists wish to see themselves, namely, as creative, autonomous, and self-determined individuals whose work is a product of these attributes.
In this article, I have argued that the discourse on originality in Albania’s art world is an expression of longings that concern the past, the present, and the future. I have argued that it has been cultivated and deployed in response to the crisis in authority in Albania’s postsocialist art world, including the difficulties with forming a coherent, modern art system; the currently marginal status of many Albanian artists within the transnational art world and market; and the attempt to depart from the most unsavory aspects of the socialist past.
But not everybody longs for the same things. In a conversation, an informant—an artist in his late 20s who was trained in Italy but now lives in Tirana and whose work was also featured on the Copy website—expressed views that sounded radically different from those of other informants. For him, copying has nothing to do with being fake or trying to cheat others, unless one is deliberately trying to fool their audiences. Instead, he likened the process of copying an artwork, particularly from a famous Western artist, to the schooling that all artists have to go through. In his words, “When we are in the artistic lyceum, we copy the work of the great masters. When we’re at the academy, we do the same. Now we are going through a certain schooling too, and we have to in order to reach the level of Western European art. Only once we’ve reached that level can we contribute something new and unique.”
This article is based on 16 months of dissertation fieldwork between 2010 and 2011, and 6 months of exploratory research in 2006, in Tirana, Albania’s capital and the center of its art world. I am greatly indebted to my PhD advisers, Julie Hemment, Jackie Urla, Betsy Krause, and Jon Olsen, who provided insightful feedback on various stages of writing this article. I would also like to thank two anonymous reviewers, Alban Hajdinaj, Eriola Pira, and Arben Theodhosi, whose feedback has shaped this article in important ways.
Because of lack of more recent literature on the history of Albanian art, I have referred to socialist-era sources, including Historia e artit shqiptar II (The history of Albanian art II) (1988), which offers selective and politically inflected discussions.
There is a rich tradition of folk art in Albania, which was not tied to institutional structures until the socialist regime came into power. Albania also has a long history of religious art of the Islamic and Christian traditions.
In 2011 Akademia e Arteve was renamed Universiteti i Arteve (University of Arts).
An architect by training, Maks Velo is a prolific visual artist and perhaps one of the most outspoken public figures in Albania. He is frequently featured on TV shows to speak on or debate issues ranging from urban development and architecture to art production, politics, current events, and religion. Velo spent years in Spaç, the most notorious prison during state socialism, for producing so-called degenerate artwork.
Tapë topi is an idiomatic expression used to indicate that one does not know anything: a plug that holds only air.
Art-related articles published in daily newspapers or general interest magazines tend to only reiterate the curatorial or artists’ statements on the show.
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