Thursday, December 29, 2016

A Durationist Theory of Art


These few paragraphs offer a basic theory of art. I attempt to define what humans do when they make art, what sets apart artistic activity from other activities which, according to this theory, would not count as art. My main concepts are mimesis, as classically formulated by the Greeks, and defamiliarization, as formulated by Victor Shklovsky.

The Theory:

All art is a dialectic of mimesis and defamiliarization.

Though any instance of art may privilege mimesis over defamiliarizaiton, or vice versa, no art can exist except in tension between these two poles.

Certainly defamiliarization cannot exist without mimesis. But the contrary is also true. Though some might claim that mimesis can exist purely, in fact even the most representational forms of art entail a degree of defamiliarization if only through the act of framing or the choice of subject: the artist represents this rather than any of the other possible subjects. And so even the most mimetic work defamiliarizes through the very choice of representing what it does. It makes what it represents stand out from all that was not represented.

Via the dialectic of mimesis and defamiliarization, art renews experience. It memorializes the experience of this or that while altering the angle from which this or that were originally, or are usually, experienced. Of course memorialization largely takes place through the work of mimesis, but defamiliarization may also be a manner of memorialization, or re-memorializing through the shock of an altered angle.

Varieties of Art:

Literature represents and defamiliarizes everyday language and the world evoked by that language. Individual works of literature may focus more on defamiliarizing the signified or the signifier, but literary work in general defamiliarizes both.

Though music also represents the sounds of the world, it most essentially represents human voice, and defamiliarizes it. That we normally hum remembered music (the half-voiced humming of music stuck in our heads) suggests the link of even instrumental music to voice. Our voices, primally, imitate both the sounds of language and the sounds of the world; musical instruments artificially extend the range of human voice.

Painting, photography, graphic art all represent and defamiliarize visual experience.

Sculpture represents bodies and objects, most classically defamiliarizing human and animal bodies (which are capable of movement) through stasis.

Dance represents the movements of the body in the everyday, and defamiliarizes these movements through repetition, exaggeration, etc.

Theater represents social encounter, choosing to frame and thus distance specific encounters, or types of encounter, in re-enactment. Theatrical framing is in part a technique of defamiliarization (all artistic mimesis entails defamiliarization: cf. above). Theatrical re-enactment, essentially a form of memorialization, may work in service to catharsis, ritual, or celebration, all of which entail renewal of experience.

Film represents the visual and sonic experience of the world and defamiliarizes it through the myriad techniques developed over its short history.


All art is a dialectic of mimesis and defamiliarization.

Eric Mader

Victor Shklovsky, portrait by Yuri Annenkov, 1919

Check out my book Idiocy, Ltd. and begin the long, hard reckoning.

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