In our image-saturated culture, can works of imaginative art have any impact? If so, then what is the critical concept within which their effect can be understood? This article makes use of a systems-theory approach in relation to a longer history of modernist criticism, proposing the idea of refamiliarization as an associative reading that resituates images within networks and scenes of knowledge. The idea is proposed as a task of recovery, rather than alienation, and suggests a line between the shock-effect approach of exposure, predicated on a belief in a false surface to be unmasked, and the totalized concepts of simulacral virtuality that forecloses lived experience. The space made by image events is that space of interpretative activity. The works of a number of key contemporary artists offer an insight into the ways refamiliarization relates to the crises in the identity and impact of fine art and documentary images.