The word “sensation”

The word “sensation” evokes the senses and the sensuous, and, as such, it is a word that seems to promote a purity of experience that circumvents the messy world of everyday existence with its personal and collective pleasures and pains, euphorias and tragedies. The word seems to magically replace these and similar elements of an everyday life with the individual conceived as a purely sensate being – a primeval filter. Thus The Oxford English Dictionary (1989, 2nd edition) defines sensation as “an operation of any of the senses; a psychical affection or state of consciousness consequent on and related to a particular condition of some portion of the bodily organism, or a particular impression received by one of the organs of sense.” But it goes on to provide a more precise definition: “a physical `feeling’ considered apart from the resulting `perception’ of an object.” The word achieves this degree of refined neutrality because it functions as an interface between the body and the world that is as thin, as neutral, and as transparent as a word can be. Indeed, it is this unique position and capacity to promote a sense of transparency that underwrites an experience that could exist, if the word is not immediately qualified, for however slim an instant, beyond the pains and pleasures that are often triggered by the senses. Thus it is possible to eclipse the social by clothing an individual body in a world that is capable of transforming the body into a neutral, receptive, sentient surface.

However, “sensation” can also evoke the effervescence and contradictory facts of social life inasmuch as it can be used to identify deliberate attempts to arouse the emotions through literature or art. In this register it can signify, in the OED’s words, a “characteristic feeling arising in some particular circumstances” – or, in a related register, “an excited or violent feeling… aroused by some particular occurrence or situation” such as “the production of violent emotion as an aim in works of literature or art.”

Hence the choice of “Sensation” for the title of a major exhibition of young British artists was clever. For it could immediately, and in advance of any direct contact and engagement with an artwork, set the stage for the contradictory reception of an exhibition and the artworks presented in its context. Inasmuch as it conflates a basic sensory engagement with an artwork, and the work’s ability to generate intense excitement, with an exhibition’s ability to promote similar effects, the title effectively merges the exhibition context with individual works under the auspice of a common vision and allows for an aesthetic and moral traffic between the two. What might be perceived as bad, or in bad taste, in one case can easily be transferred to the other case. Such is the power of a word and title’s ambiguity.

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