‘Curiouser and Curiouser’, said Ellen (or was it Viktor?). Art in-between Modernism and Prehistory

Göran Sonesson

Punctum, 2(1): 69-89, 2016
DOI: 10.18680/hss.2016.0007

Among all the definitions of art, one, in particular, has played a preeminent part in semiotics: the idea of making strange, as the Russian Formalists put it, or the double transgression of the norms of standard language, and of the aesthetical norms set by earlier artistic movements, in the considerably subtler version of the Prague School of semiotics. In a number of papers published many years ago, I have argued that this model is not a model of art in general, but of modernism, and there can be no postmodernism, since the mechanism of modernism is a formal apparatus, which, once it has gotten going, can never stop. Apart from the formal arguments, the fact of several persons having been both modernist artists and scholars involved with the Russian and/or Czech schools and other scholars having been close friends of the modernist artists supports this claim. In recent years, I have become aware of the fact that Ellen Dissanayake, taking her cues from these same Russian Formalists, has argued for making strange, or making special, as she prefers to call it, being at the very origin of art, and perhaps of something even broader than what we today know as art. After summarizing these two points of view, I shall try to show that they are not incompatible, once we admit the ambiguity of the central notion of the Russian Formalists and the Prague structuralists alike. Indeed, I shall suggest that as a very abstract notion, strangeness/specialness is part and parcel of the process of perceptual attention and that, as such, it has often confused reasoning about semiosis in general.

KEYWORDS: artwork, Russian Formalism, Prague structuralism, modernism, prehistoric art
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