What constitutes a work of art?

by The Dyás Admin

If you were to take to the street today and ask the above, I’d wager you’d hear something like, “the value other people put on it” (or “I don’t have any money, sorry.”) It’s a perfectly valid answer, and one that encaptures the sheer variety of “art” - but it’s also not a very satisfying answer if you want something more concrete. 


One writer who offers something more concrete is Viktor Shklovsky, whose essay ‘Art as Technique’ (1917) outlines an objective definition of the concept of “art.” Shklovsky was a prominent figure in Russian Formalism, a linguistic and literary movement that championed the foregrounding of a work's form and construction. As a style of thinking, it opposed symbolism and eschewed "mystic content and use of symbols"


Formalism had a number of forerunners, the most prominent being post-Impressionist painter Maurice Denis. In his manifesto, 'Definition of Neo-Traditionalism' (1890), he writes, "remember that a picture, before it is a picture of a battle horse, a nude woman, or some story, is essentially a flat surface covered in colours arranged in a certain order." In other words, to understand art Denis demands that critics embrace the technical makeup of the piece as well as the subject it portrays. 


Shklovsky developed on this idea and 'Art as Technique' introduces his conception of the technique of defamiliarisation in art. It begins by directly disparaging a quote from Symbolist theorist Alexander Potebnya, who suggested that "art means to think in images". Instead, Shklovsky locates the essence of artfulness in the formal elements of a work and the effects they achieve, far from any delegation to the mystical. "By 'works of art', in the narrow sense," he writes, "we mean works created by special techniques designed to make (them) as obviously artistic as possible."


What does it mean to be "obviously artistic"? Shklovsky proposes that it means shrugging off the habitual recognition of objects and depicting them anew, defamiliarised. A work of art is a renewed perspective on our "prosaic" apprehension of objects, which becomes shrouded in habitual seeing. "We see the object as though it were enveloped in a sack," Shklovsky writes. "We know what it is by its configuration, but we see only its silhouette." Or, to refer to an excerpt from Leo Tolstoy's diary, quoted by Shklovsky in 'Art as Technique':


“I was cleaning a room and, meandering about, approached the divan and couldn’t remember whether or not I had dusted it. Since these movements are habitual and unconscious, I could not remember and felt that it was impossible to remember - so that if I had dusted it and forgot - that is, had acted unconsciously, then it was the same as if I had not. If some conscious person had been watching, then the fact could be established. If, however, no one was looking, or looking on unconsciously, if the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as if they had never been.”


The concept that art highlights and elevates objects that we have become blind to through familiarity also has a vague grounding in neuroscience. In the nineteenth century, a German physicist called Hermann von Helmholtz developed a theory of optics suggesting that what we see is forged in the "dark background" of our minds (instead of being exact representations of the external world). His research on the human retina had found that it could not process the complexity of a 3D world in its entirety, and so he supposed the human brain may use past experience to create an idea of what is most likely to be within our field of vision.

The idea remains relevant in neuroscience to this day and has had profound repercussions on our understanding of subjective perception - so it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that art is what gives us an opportunity to reconsider those objects as something singularised, new and strange.


"The whole technical power of painting depends on our recovery of what may be called the innocence of the eye; that is to say, a sort of childish perception of these flat stains of colour, merely as such, without consciousness of what they signify - as a blind man would see them if suddenly gifted with sight." ('The Elements of Drawing', 1857).


Words by Eleanor Burleigh



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