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Loren Sonnenberg on Sklovsky's "Art As Device"

Dec 7, 2005

In “Art as a Device” Shklovsky argues that the goal of art (specifically poetry) is to remove a component of our surroundings from the sphere of our automatized perception by adding friction to the way in which we perceive it. “By “estranging” objects and complicating form, the device of art makes perception long and “laborious.” “The perceptual process in art has a purpose all its own and ought to be extended to the fullest. Art is a means of experiencing the process of creation. The artifact itself is quite unimportant.” (6) This is just as relevant, if not more so, now for other mediums (digital video, web, etc.) that have developed since the writing of the text. Late capitalist commodification has automatized even more of our lives by isolating the individual and encouraging private consumptive practices. When automatization creeps into aspects of our lives previously less vulnerable to becoming unconscious it becomes even more dangerous and the role of art as a device, necessary to disrupt this unconscious life, even more important. “Automatization eats away at things, at clothes, at furniture, at our wives, and at our fear of war,” (5) and now even at our love and our need for community.
    Shklovsky goes on to contradict Herbert Spencer who says in The Politics of Style, “Hence, carrying out the metaphor that language is the vehicle of thought, there seems reason to think that in all cases the friction and inertia of the vehicle deduct from its efficiency; and that in composition, the chief, if not the sole thing to be done, is to reduce this friction and inertia to the smallest amount possible.” (3) He uses examples to show that even in prose complicating devices are frequently used to obstruct the perception of the audience. Once a complicating device becomes the norm, however, it loses its power to draw out perception and becomes useless to art. “If the violation enters the canon, then it loses its power as a complicating device.” (14)
Shklovsky also introduces the idea that art (again specifically poetry) is much more of a cumulative practice than many would like to admit and it definitely rings true. “The more you try to explain an epoch, the more you are convinced that the images you thought were created by a given poet were, in reality, passed on to him with hardly a change.” (2) He goes on to say, “In poetry, where imagery is a given, the artist does not so much “think” in images as “recollect” them.” (2) My only question is that if poetry and the other image oriented arts now implied by this text are cumulative arts then how do the complicating devices that that each poet/artist successively employs retain any sort of power to estrange the object? I guess this is the challenge every artist faces: to find new ways of breaking down automatic perception.

References/ Recommended Reading

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