We’ve often discussed the effect of perceptual structures and habits on ones experiencing of art. Recently, via my favorite general blog 3quarksdaily, I came across a nice formulation of a common theme: that we are blind to the usual. In an essay on Kafka, P. D. Smith quotes the Russian Victor Shklovsky (in “Art as Technique”, 1917) on the concept translated as defamiliarization:

… art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar’, to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.

Though I don’t subscribe to blanket statements on “the purpose of art” or “the technique of art,” this passage spole to me very strongly of my own work, particularly my horse project (last post here). Without using those same terms, I have more or less consciously tried to make images that are somewhat odd or awkward, momentarily disorienting to the viewer.


Partly for that reason, I have been especially interested in groups of horses, often for the purpose of introducing some ambiguity or difficulty due to blending of the individuals.


Or I may use an extreme close-up, removing most of the obvious horse indicators.


One thing I like about the idea of defamiliarization or estranging is its applicability to many, if not all, art forms. For example, it seems to me to be at the heart of metaphor, which jolts us into some insight through an unexpected, peculiar juxtaposition. The tactic leads to the high school complaint that metaphor is a difficult and indirect way to say something, so why use it? Poets and others know that it provides the most direct, if not the only, way to say the precise thing they want to say. And though the comfort of the familiar has its value, I’d rather learn of the new and unfamiliar.


The idea of making strange seems best adapted to modern Western art, fitting movements such as Cubism or Surrealism fairly well. A lovely statement from Kafka on Picasso says it all (see Smith’s essay for the reference):

Of course, Kafka didn’t need lessons from Shklovsky or anyone on how to make the world strange. In a wonderful comment, he once disagreed with a friend who accused Picasso of distorting reality. “I do not think so,” said Kafka. “He only registers the deformities which have not yet penetrated our consciousness. Art is a mirror, which goes ‘fast,’ like a watch—sometimes.” [8]


Do you see a role for “making strange” in the art you create or appreciate?