Black Bucket Essays
Volume 1, Issue 4
What if there is no next new thing? Do we sit around and mourn the fact that we've seen it before? There's a way to look at creativity that doesn't necessarily have to do with creating something we've never seen before. It can be about reinterpreting or misinterpreting the world that's already around us.
- LAURA HOPTMAN
Hoptman’s statement presumes that looking at the world around us differently is somehow a new concept, the next new thing. Looking back to the ideas of the Russian Formalists developed under Victor Shklovsky counters the newness of her idea. One of Shklovsky’s techniques focused precisely on looking to the external world as a way to decondition habitual perceptions. Shklovsky developed the idea of ostranenie or “defamiliarization” in his essay, Art as Device, in 1917. He used this term to describe the technique of presenting the well known as if seen for the first time. By defamiliarizing our habitual perceptions, this technique aimed to prolong the perceptual process and viewed art making as a way to counter automatic perceptions (Rivkin and Ryan: 10).
While Shklovsky applied his ideas specifically to poetic language, the idea of ‘demafamilization’ or ostranenie impacted the development of various art and theatrical movements and also influenced later critical theory. At the time that Formalist ideas emerged in revolutionary Russia, Shklovsky’s ideas focused on the relationship between form and content in literary analysis and presented a more scientific or objective way of analyzing works of art. This perspective on literature was opposed to more psychological orientations at the time. While the idea of ostranenie seems to break down the barriers between art and life, Formalist ideas were criticized in this context for being elitist and were eventually banned under Stalin in the 1930s.
This simplified and brief inclusion of the historical context in which Russian Formalism emerged and Shklovsky developed his idea of ostranenie raises the question of the context in which Hoptman’s statement arose? Written in an interview about a show that she curated at MOMA called “Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World,” Hoptman made the statement in defense of her curatorial selections. In isolation, her quote seems to echo Shklovsky’s idea of ostranenie almost an entire century later. Within the context of her show, however, Hoptman’s statement is more of a justification for curatorial selections that have less to do with interpreting the world around us as a source for creativity and more to do with painters who combine elements of past art historical precedents in their work.
Despite this disconnect between the content of her message and the context of the painting show at MOMA, there is still merit in looking to the world that’s already around us as a source for art making. The idea of looking at the world around us differently, as articulated by Shklovsky, or reiterated by Hoptman, has the potential to challenge our preconceptions and cultivate a questioning orientation towards our surroundings.
Rivkin, Julie and Michael Ryan. Literary Theory. 2nd Edition. Wiley-Blackwell: 2004.