Some years ago, my wife and I attended a production of a recent opera that we found rather unremarkable. My wife called it “a little brown bird of an opera.”

We enjoy having sparrows visit our bird feeders and garden waterfall. But their coloring tends to be drab and unremarkable. A visit by a downy woodpecker or a group of goldfinches is more exciting. Their vibrantly colored plumage is more striking to see.

In the appendix of her book Art and Intimacy: How the Arts Began, Ellen Dissanayake attempts to establish some criteria for a naturalistic aesthetic. The first quality she lists is Accessibility coupled with strikingness.

As well as being comprehensible to human senses and interests, the elements of the aesthetically successful work will be generally considered particularly striking or fascinating—either in their attractiveness or beauty or in their intimations of humanly relevant uncertainty or even hazard.

Comprehensible Novelty

In his fascinating book The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature, Geoffrey Miller discusses how tricky it is to create intelligible novelty:

The attractive forms of novelty tend to rely on a uniquely human trick: the creative recombination of learned symbolic elements (e.g. words, notes, movements, visual symbols) to produce novel arrangements with new emergent meanings (e.g. stories, melodies, dances, paintings)....To produce novelty at the cognitive level, one must use standardized signals at the perceptual.

...A capacity for novelty production will yield interesting entertainment only if it is combined with a huge knowledge base, virtuoso expression, and good critical judgement. It also demands the social intelligence necessary to figure out how to express a novel idea in a comprehensible way.

Although the “little brown bird” opera succeeded at some of what Miller discusses, neither my wife nor I found it striking. It was comprehensible, but for us, it remained lackluster, and it grew dull as entertainment.

Dissanayake’s observation about strikingness is well taken. To have any chance of giving us a surge of aesthetic pleasure, art needs to be striking enough to get and hold our attention in an “extra-ordinary” way. And as Miller suggests, having all the skills, knowledge, and the social intelligence to create something both novel and engaging is a tall order. Even successful creative artists sometimes stumble.