What makes for compelling art? Any creator who has given half a thought to paying the rent, or achieving immortality, has considered what makes art sell. We know that the notion of quality–the idea that “the best” art and marketing and media reaches the most people–is insufficient to explain what gives some creations mass appeal. So why do people–large number of people–find books, ads, movies and art works compelling? How can we know, ahead of time, what will pique our curiosity and sustain our interest? Jim Davies, an associate professor at Carleton University’s Institute of Cognitive Science and director of the Science of Imagination Laboratory wanted to find out. The result is a theory of compellingness, outlined in his book Riveted: The Science of Why Jokes Make Us Laugh, Movies Make Us Cry, and Religion Makes Us Feel One with the Universe.
Davies’s entry point into what makes art riveting, however, did not start with an analysis of best-seller lists or top-40 charts. He came to the question of compellingness through the one thing in human experience that has inspired passionate feelings (good and bad) in the majority of the world’s population: religion. “Unless a religion is compelling in some way, it’s not going to take off,” he says. “Religion has explanations, stories, rituals, and that all caters to our basic psychological proclivities.” Today, he says, we treat old religions, like the Greek myths, as though they are works of art. “Those were stories that people wholeheartedly believed. Even an atheist can look at stories from Bible and admit that they’re good stories.” So what makes religion, and its compelling counterpart, art, truly riveting? And what impact will that have on the way we create and consume culture?