I was recently at a department faculty meeting when someone was asked to comment on our first-year design studio program and mentioned that “defamiliarization” was one of its goals or strategies. This was stated in such a matter-of-fact manner that I had to wonder if, perhaps, the goal of defamiliarization has already become so familiar that it no longer has the power to jolt us out of our formulaic habits of perception. Rather, it is precisely the unfamiliar that has become both predictable and formulaic. This is expressed perfectly in Saul Steinberg’s drawing of a National Academy of the Avant-Garde: having institutionalized the unfamiliar, we have nothing left to aim for — except perhaps the familiar (which, for at least the briefest of moments, may serve as the new unfamiliar).

Saul Steinberg cartoon from The Inspector (1973) reprinted in: E.H. Gombrich,” The Wit of Saul Steinberg,” Art Journal, Winter 1983, p. 380.

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