May 18, 2009

shklovsky's formalism

I have been using this quote for several school papers and wanted to comment on it in my own way. It's from Shklovsky's essay "Art as Technique" (1917):
"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."
This passage needs two considerations: one, as a definition of art which gives an aesthetic basis for judging and deciding just what "art" is (that which makes the stone stony); two, as an active ideal which art must live up to and try to accomplish (that is, art must work to defamiliarize the world).

Well and good. But maybe not. Point: although it is accurate that we are all habituated to our senses and art renews our perception in some fundamental way, we are all singular and individual who have become habituated in singular and individual ways. What will stir my stagnant sensual spirit will not stir yours, or, if it does, we will not be stirred in the same way. How applicable is this definition of art, then? Point: as culture changes and humans change, so do the habituation of the senses. What stirred a Russian peasant in the early Soviet days will have an entirely different effect today. Imagine the soul-stirring our rapid, vapid Hollywood violence would do to that noble Soviet peasant -- and can yet rock us to sleep. Point: without personal context, few of us our challenged by art. A poem in a foreign language, however lyrical it may sound, is still a foreign language. How can one defamiliarize the world, as through language, while remaining understandable to those approaching the challenge?

In my papers, I referred the quote to Vertov, who was all about defamiliarizing the world as a way to strike up social consciousness. I think all three points challenge his dream. Although people still find him stimulating, his techniques are co-opted by the average television commercial -- our media has become hyper and insane, and it is no longer dazzling effect that stony-s the stone, but the long and meditative camera (as is common in our modern art-house). Vertov also remains incomprehensible; when presenting my project on The Man with a Movie Camera in class and arguing that it is a highly political film, the most coherent response I received was "I'll have to think about that one." Heartbreaking.

I still find myself, however, drawn to this definition of art, whatever its problems. Or maybe because of them. With points considered: art must be diverse, giving us enough room to roam our individual consciousness, especially as that changes.

English is full of words which have lost meaning -- thrown around with half-a-thought, stretched to cliche, buried by sentiment. How does one reclaim that meaning? The same is true with the image, with color, with sound... How is consciousness to be restored? How is meaning to be retaken? I side with Shklovsky; I stand by art.

Some final questions: is there some basic, universal human mode of perceptual habituation that art can disrupt? Does the proliferation and diversity of art lead only to further habituation and meaninglessness? Can meaning only be retaken by the few thanks to the many who accept the meaningless? etc.


DG said...

Oh you tortured genius you...

Ian said...

Is this bitter sarcasm or bored sarcasm?

DG said...