SENSORY EXPLOITATION, an idea that emerged from sexual selection research, is arguably a significant element in the evolution of art (read Verpooten & Nelissen’s (2010) essay). 

Clearly, perception is affected by a diversity of environmental and physiological variables, some of which can be quite subtle. Ethologists observe that many species have adapted ways of communicating to which their target audience is particularly sensitive: visual, auditory, chemical… (And when it is adaptive, the target audience may evolve specific sensitivities, some of which may be developmentally constrained, such emerging only as a developmental corollary of puberty.)  Emitting signals to which your target is especially sensitive is termed, “sensory exploitation.” Human artists know by intuition or experience how to target their audience’s sensitivities. For example, utilizing colors and shapes or musical patterns with specific associations, or (more sophisticated) by directing the gaze.

ART as construed in A&O is seen in terms of two parts that are usually (but not always) intertwined: expressive and receptive: that is, the behavior of the creator and the perceptions and feelings of the perceiver. Another variable might be considered the medium by which the artist seeks to communicate.  What form does the artifact take? is it enduring? ephemeral? 

Meaning derives from connections, and while many can be discussed and written about, the affective connections accessible by ART can be the great facilitator of MEANING at levels deeper than those accessible by words:  Mark Johnson, whose writing is a great resource for understanding how our mind and body co-constitute understanding and meaning  is…   

“following in the footsteps of John Dewey, who argued in Art as Experience (1934) that art matters because it provides heightened, intensified, and highly integrated experiences of meaning, using all of our ordinary resources of meaning-making.  To discover how meaning works, we should turn first to gesture, social interaction, ritual, ritual, and art, and only later to linguistic communication.…”  Johnson pursues “…Dewey’s insight that the arts are a primary means by which we grasp, criticize, and transform meanings. … [he ends up] with the idea that philosophy will matter to people only to the extent that it is built on a visceral connection to our world.” (Johnson 2007).  [from A&O webnotes on CONNECTIONS]

The communicator–the artist–by disposition or experience is more-or-less skilled in speaking to the perceptual and interpretive abilities of the receiver.  Where the receiver’s abilities are inexperienced the communicator might cultivate them:  “Never forget,” wrote William Wordsworth, “what I believe was observed to you by Coleridge, that every great and original writer, in proportion as he is great and original, must himself create the taste by which he is to be relished” (“Letter to Lady Beaumont, 21 May 1807”)[i]

CONNECT this to Emily Dickenson (1868): “The Truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind — Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”  (reminding us of Plato’s Cave and echoed in communicating ideas in science: Read Gunther Stent 1972 on prematurity and uniqueness!) 


[i] William Wordsworth (1770-1850) “Letter to Lady Beaumont, 21 May 1807,” in E. de Selincourt (ed.) Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth vol. 2 (revised by M. Moorman, 1969)



Sensory Exploitation an undervalued variable in art