In his essay “Art as Technique,” Russian Formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky advances an understanding of art as a means of representation. The main point of concern which he addresses is a statement made by Alexander Potebnya, who wrote in 1905 that “[w]ithout imagery there is no art, and in particular no poetry” (qtd. in Shklovsky 5); art, in other words, is always be a representation of something larger. Shklovsky agrees with the idea that imagery is presented abundantly in art. He differs, however, in answering the question of art’s precise nature and its ultimate purpose. For Potebnya, art functions as something which works “to clarify the unknown by means of the known” (6). There are things expressed in art, he observes, that might be difficult to articulate or understand otherwise. Shklovsky disagrees in that he sees art’s importance as one of “impart[ing] the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known” (12). From Shklovsky’s point of view, art does not aid in increasing the understanding of those who experience it. Rather, all of the existing approaches to art actually have the opposite effect.
One of the most important points that Shklovsky touches upon is the distinction between “practical” and “poetic language” (10). Practical language is the sort that one encounters in normal, day-to-day existence, while poetic language contains a certain “disordering of rhythm” (21) that results in a markedly different brand of expression. In order to illustrate this difference, Shklovsky mentions the form of Japanese poetry and how fellow Formalist Leo Jakubinsky distinguished it from “everyday language” (10) on the basic of its sounds. Poetic language is something apart from prosaic language; it represents a type of communication that goes further than the basic type. Specifically, the use of language in artistic works involves what Shklovsky calls a “defamiliarization” effect, whereby the imagery of art is removed to a great extent from the actual object with which one is familiar (13).
The fact remains that, in encountering the objects that we do each and every day, we eventually become passive in terms of our thoughts and reactions to things. We simply take much of the world around us for granted. This is precisely what Shklovsky refers to as the point in time when “perceptions becomes habitual” (11), a byproduct of monotony and repetition that causes one to merely pay attention to the surface of things. Art, then, is something which exists to help us become more active and aware of the objects that we are continually perceiving. It is the primary means by which we are able to “recover the sensation of life” (12).
In order to further support his case concerning defamiliarization in art, Shklovsky cites several examples from literature in which the device is evident. He focuses particularly on stories of Leo Tolstoy because of the writer’s popularity with readers during his own time (18). In Tolstoy’s “Kholstomer,” for instance, the author relies on a horse as the narrator in order to showcase the concept of private property in a wholly unexpected and surprising light (14). Such a tactic is an important means of prompting the reader to think more carefully about passively accepted ideas in a new, fresh light. Toward the end of his essay, Shklovsky makes a point of mentioning how regularly this same defamiliarization technique appears in literary descriptions of sexual intercourse. It is used in the same manner in these instances, as a way of carrying more common understandings over into other contexts and subsequently creating “a unique semantic modification” through the artwork (21).
As mentioned before, Shklovsky does agree with Potebnya’s claim that artistic renderings of objects are indeed images. The key difference, however, lies in Shklovsky’s understanding of what those images are able to tell us. Art, he argues, is not something which exists to clarify anything. Instead, it exists to put forth one experience of the universe among many others; in Shklovsky’s words, art is a production which “creates a ‘vision’ of the object instead of serving as a means for knowing it” (18). The effect that art ultimately elicits is that it compels its recipients to slow themselves down, perceiving the objects in question in a far more reflective and careful manner than they might have otherwise done with normal, everyday language.
Shklovsky, Viktor. “Art as Technique.” Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays. Eds. Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reiss. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1965. 3-24.