Read: The worst birds
Tinbergen theorized that human beings are susceptible to supernormal stimuli, too. The oversized eyes of stuffed animals, dolls, and cartoon characters are supernormal, he reasoned, kick-starting our instinctive response to nurture anything with infantile facial features. Sugar-saturated soft drinks, works of art, clothing, perfume, even lipstick—anything that intensifies or exaggerates an instinctive biological, physical, or psychological response—can be considered supernormal stimuli.
Supernormal stimuli are key to certain kinds of wit, too, deliberately skewing or exaggerating our usual patterns of perception. The great silent comic Buster Keaton is a case in point.
In The High Sign (1921), as Keaton settles down on a bench to read his local daily, he unfolds the paper to standard broadsheet format. He soon notices, though, that the newspaper is bigger than he expected, so he continues unfolding it—first to roughly the surface area of an ample picnic blanket, then easily to the proportions of a king-size bedsheet, until he’s finally engulfed by a single gigantic swath of newsprint.
In Seven Chances (1925), Keaton, a stockbroker on the verge of financial ruin, learns that he will inherit handsomely from his grandfather—if he weds by 7 p.m. When his sweetheart rebuffs him (she will marry for love, not for money), he places an open offer of marriage, with details of the pecuniary benefits, in the newspaper. Hundreds of women turn up at the church for the ceremony, only to become enraged at Keaton’s tactics. The bevy of would-be brides chases him out of town and onto a nearby hill, where he dislodges a single rock, which sets in motion an avalanche of boulders, which rain down on our hapless groom’s head.
Keaton’s gags start innocuously enough, with some ordinary object, then snowball into supernormal stimuli. But stimuli can also be made supernormal by visual or verbal tricks that disrupt the ordinary ways we see and understand the world.
Marcel Mariën’s work is rife with such tricks. Mariën started out as a photographer’s apprentice while still in his teens. But in 1935, after seeing the work of René Magritte for the first time, he decided on a career as an artist, soon becoming a close friend of Magritte and one of the most prominent of the Belgian surrealists. He worked in a variety of media—photography; film; collage; and “ready-mades,” works of art assembled from discarded materials, common household items, or unused parts of other objects.
In Star Dancer (1991), Mariën attached a doll’s high-heel shoe to one of the arms of a dead starfish, transforming it into a wispy, Matisse-esque ballerina. The strange juxtaposition makes the viewer do a double take. How can such a clearly alien creature have such distinctly human expressiveness? Like the volleyball/egg that birds try to incubate, the cobbled-together starfish/doll becomes a supernormal stimulus that alters viewers’ perceptions.