Art and the familiar

When you were young the world flooded you with new experiences.  As you got older, the flood of the new turned into a trickle. You became accustomed to the world. Time sped up.

If you want new experiences there are two strategies.  The first is search out experiences you never had before – for example travel.  The second is see things you have experienced before, but do this through a fresh pair of eyes.

Victor Shklovsky (1893-1984) was a Russian literary theorist and writer.  In his brilliant essay Art as Technique he explained in a few pages how art helps you see things afresh.

He wrote that what we repeatedly perceive becomes automatic:

If we start to examine the general laws of perception, we see that as perception becomes habitual, it becomes automatic. Thus, for example, all of our habits retreat into the area of the unconsciously automatic; if one remembers the sensations of holding a pen or of speaking in a foreign language for the first time and compares that with his feeling at performing the action for the ten thousandth time, he will agree with us.

And what was initially fresh gradually becomes an abstraction:

We do not see them in their entirety but rather recognize them by their main characteristics. We see the object as though it were enveloped in a sack.

As we happily let habits run more of our lives, we become more efficient but our lives become colourless:

Habitualization devours work, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war. “If the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as if they had never been.” And 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.

Viewed in the this way art has a crucial role to play in enriching all our lives.

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