If you look at a painting, e.g. of Paul Cézanne (an arbitrarily chosen example), it might take you a little moment to recognize what it is showing. The objects found by the artist in nature are not depicted exactly as they would appear to an observer’s eye directly. Instead, the painter might distort them, change colors or add textures, simplify the structures, take them out of context or modify them in any other way. He applies what is called “Verfremdung” in German, a term derived from the word “fremd” meaning “strange” or “alien” or “unfamiliar”. It is sometimes translated as “alienation” or “estrangement” but probably best translated as “defamiliarization”, a term that avoids the possible negative connotations of the other translations.
Defamiliarization is not only used in paintings. Photographers do the same, e.g. by using certain different kinds of filters, by moving the camera, changing the focus during exposure etc. In traditional photography one can use some methods of post-processing in the dark room, like, for example, solarization. In the age of digital photography, there are countless ways to modify a picture and change its appearance by using image-processing software that offers a large number of possible effects and possibilities to modify a picture. The resulting modified pictures often look beautiful even if the original pictures might be rather uninteresting.
It looks like by defamiliarization of a picture, we can make it more beautiful. But why? Why do things look more beautiful if we change their visual appearance and make them look unfamiliar and strange?
In my article “On Beauty” I have put forward the hypothesis that beauty is an emotion rewarding the successful discovery of some order in a perception. We find a pattern and are rewarded by a positive emotion. ´Finding a pattern might mean to match a perceived thing to a pattern or concept, to recognize it as something. However, if everything in the perceived scene is as expected, the scene can just be “parsed” by an automatic cognitive structure. We can think of this as an algorithm that takes a picture as its input and tells us at the output what it is. No effort has to be invested. If we do not explicitly apply our attention to it, we might not even perceive it consciously. The scene we see is familiar and thus it appears boring. The feeling of reward that is the result of successfully interpreting something novel – and that is essentially what I think the feeling of beauty is – is not evoked by such familiar scenes.
But by defamiliarization, the artist can create an obstacle to this automatic perception. The automated processes of perception are not able to parse the picture immediately. They need to be adapted a little bit. We may have to modify or visual concepts so that they match. This is a creative process generating new (visual) knowledge. We might have to draw information from the context, interpreting the components of a picture in the context of the whole and vice versa, in a visual hermeneutic circle. In the above picture, for example, we can interpret some green sections as trees and some reddish areas as cliffs or a quarry. When we manage to match the perceived scene to our visual concepts, we are then rewarded with a positive emotion. This emotion occurs on the successful integration or assimilation of new information into our existing cognitive structures, so it also marks a moment of growth. It does, of course, depend on our previous experiences, so beauty is not an objective and unchanging property of the picture. As children, we start out in a totally unfamiliar world we are then getting familiar with (see “Before Words”). As a result, what appears beautiful to us is shifting.
Looking for an English translation of the German term “Verfremdung”, I found the term “defamiliarization” which seems to have been coined as a translation of the Russian term “ostranenie”. This term seems to have been introduced by the Russian writer Viktor Borisovich Shklovsky in his essay “Art as technique” (or “Art as device” in another translation), published in 1925. As it turned out, Shklovsky’s ideas go into a similar direction as my own. He notes:
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;
The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar,” to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.
Art removes objects from the automatism of perception
It looks like Shklovsky mainly thought about poetic language in literature. Here, as in paintings or processed images, an aesthetic effect is generated by defamiliarization. Basically, I suppose, it seems to be the same phenomenon in the realm of language and of vision.
The “difficulty and length of perception”: looking at a painting or reading a poem is like climbing a mountain, like one of the peaks of the Montagne Sainte-Victoire depicted in Cézanne’s painting. If we reach the peak by climging, instead of using the aerial lift, we receive an emotional reward. The artist gives us that reward by putting obstacles in our way.
(The picture is from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Paul_C%C3%A9zanne_112.jpg)