It’s become a familiar pattern. Whenever Prime Minister Edi Rama feels some domestic heat, the international art press is trotted out to provide a modicum of positive coverage.
Albania has become one of the exemplary countries in which the response to the Covid-19 pandemic has strengthened the autocratic tendencies of the regime. Recent reports note a decrease in media freedom, where on top of that earlier this week the government decided to block access to the blog and news website Medium, allegedly after court jester and professional homophobe Ermal Mamaqi had complained that pirate links to his fine collection of exploitative stereotypes “I Love Tropoja” would have been posted online. Several international press freedom NGOs took notice.
So to balance out all the bad coverage, ArtNet was called in to serve Rama with a bunch of badly researched soft-ball questions. The piece, entitled “The Prime Minister of Albania, Edi Rama, Is Also a Professional Artist. Here’s How He Is Balancing Those Roles During the Coronavirus Pandemic,” was written by ArtNet European Editor Kate Brown, who spent the last two decades cooped up in such a deep hole that she described our Prime Minister as a “dazzling novelty for both the art industry and the world of politics.” It is only one of the many cringe-worthy moments of their vacuous exchange.
Naturally, the article starts with an attempt at sycophancy, describing Rama at an after-party after the opening of an exhibition in Berlin, presumably in early 2019: “A hush trailed him around. Exceptionally tall and dressed in gleaming white sneakers, he was flanked by large bodyguards in dark suits.” It’s incredible how Rama’s white sneakers continue to transform journalists into magpies, gawking at how “exceptionally tall” he is. But there you are, in the bleak nether regions of the art journalism of our days.
Brown then continues drooling over Rama, “both a well-regarded artist and a high-profile politician,” who “cuts an unusual shape in both places of work. His stately office doubles as his art studio and is decorated in his own signature wallpaper. A rainbow array of felt-tipped markers sit on his tabletop.”
We have seen this exact same paragraph dozens of times, but what does it tell us? What is it for? It is there, of course, not to inform the public, which has seen nearly a decade of shallow journalism covering Rama’s art-political career on endless repeat – no, this paragraph is written to reinforce the Edi Rama brand, just like the white sneakers.
Where the article gets particularly unsatisfying is at the point that Brown shifts from fawning over juicy anecdotes to an attempt at “interpretation.” At the minimum Brown could have browsed some of the published writings that actually discuss Rama’s work and the relation between his art and politics.
Instead, we are treated to a vague attempt to link the two: “Rama is not exactly a political artist, but his works often occur as drawn-over political documents—meditative tangles of colour that seem to grow organically over pages of official Albanian memos.”
In a reflex that seems to have been carved into the collective imagination of art writers around the world, Brown seeks refuge in a project from 20 years ago, to use it as a pivot to turn to the Covid-19 pandemic:
Art can help in times of great change or crisis. It seems that you understood this in your project that remade the facades in Tirana into brightly painted city blocks in 2003. I understand this project was not an artwork but a political action. Have you been thinking about public art differently now as prime minister, especially as you face down the earthquake and now the COVID-19 crisis?
Let’s not focus on the dichotomy between art and politics that Brown seems to insist in here without any clear awareness of its implications, but instead on the response of Rama, which may perhaps be his most jaded answer yet:
Not really. I remain reluctant in terms of mixing art with politics and vice versa, although I must admit that my artist background greatly defined my way of looking at the space of political action and the need for beauty in public space.
This statement about not “mixing art with politics and vice versa” stands in direct opposition to his Creative Time lecture from 2014, where he stated that his “political impulse” had “fused” with “artistic impulse” and that he had been “happy to be in a position to bring [art and politics] together.”
But that happy fusion, so it appears, belongs to another era. His newly acquired reluctance echoes his statements in Die Zeit from last year: “Art cannot change much. Perhaps I’d go as far to say: nothing at all.”
Yet at the same, Rama claimed that in the case of the writer Peter Handke, who controversially won the Nobel Prize last year, “separating Handke’s literary work from his politics would be a great mistake.” So it seems that art is relevant to the real world after all – but only for some?
Rama even admits to being “fatigued” and “embarrassed” by Hans Ulrich Obrist’s constant references to his work as some ultimate relational esthetics wet dream:
True, I am fatigued. Or, to put it bluntly, I’m embarrassed any time I have to answer this. Maybe Hans-Ulrich Obrist is right, but I don’t see it much in my action. But yes, I very much feel it in my person.
What does this mean? That as an actual artist and politician he doesn’t see the mixing of art and politics “in his action,” even though he feels it “in his person”? Is he saying: “my work may not show this, but I really feel like the genius HUO sees in me”?
If so, this statement once again reveals the rather antiquated, romantic notion of “unrecognized genius” that is the foundation of Rama’s work and, arguably, his personality.
But if art cannot change anything, if his “action” is unsuccessful, and he spends his days in office watercoloring documents while pondering the great mystery of Albanian politics, why on earth would he be interviewed by Artnet to talk about art and politics in the times of a pandemic?
Because, and this is something that Brown and all other art journalists continually fail to grasp, the interview and exposure themselves are what matters.
For Rama, not his art but his “being-an-artist” is the thing that is political and is used politically. This is why it is important to give frequent human-interest interviews to cultural journalists uninformed about the reality of his politics in Albania.
This is why it is important to have an Instagram where you can post images of autocrats smiling with your work. This is why it is important to have your name mentioned somewhere else than the umpteenth human rights report criticizing your regime.
Kate Brown, you are Rama’s political artwork.