Is socialist realism an archive?

Some theoretical notes on aesthetics and accumulation


  • Raino Isto


A number of scholarly efforts have attempted to delineate the modernist (and postmodernist) attraction to the archive, as both content and as an (an)aesthetic form. However, there has thus far been little effort to understand the precise relationship of socialist realism to the archive, either as a theme or as a mode of historical understanding. There are good reasons for this: socialist realism’s avowedly synthetic ideology, which generally aimed to distil and purify a coherent image of societal development towards the projected communist future, is most frequently regarded as an illusion, a distortion of history that is revealed (ironically) by the kinds of documentary evidence present in archives. Socialist realism’s difficult relationship to photography (its simultaneous reliance on the documentary image and its need to remove ‘problematic’ historical details, to rewrite the past) also seems to place it at odds with the archive’s ambition towards completeness and objectivity. But there are also important reasons to assume that socialist realism (considered as a particular kind of modernism) indeed functioned archivally. Like the archive, socialist realism’s history is closely intertwined with bureaucracy, and like the 19th-century archive, its ideological apparatus was crucially tied to the investigation of temporality. And furthermore, socialist realism often developed alongside archival projects (such as nationalist efforts to document ‘folk’ culture in the periphery, or to produce exhaustive narratives of antifascist activities). Finally, for post-socialist artists and historians, socialist realist cultural objects have undeniably become an archive, a body of evidence to be mined, reconfigured, and questioned. The present essay poses a cluster of questions about socialist realism and the archive, specifically in the context of socialist-era art in Albania: To what degree was socialist realism an archival art form? If socialist realism functioned as an archive in its own time, what kind of archive was it? How are contemporary interventions that engage socialist realist art to be understood as similar to (or different from) other post-socialist artistic interventions in (other kinds of bureaucratic) archives? Was socialist realism’s view of the archive modernist, postmodernist, or something else entirely?


archive, Socialist Realism, modernism, communism, post-communism


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How to Cite

Isto, R. . (2022). Is socialist realism an archive? Some theoretical notes on aesthetics and accumulation. Art Studies, 19(19), 9–46. Retrieved from