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The Basis of Sexual Attraction

( Originally Published 1957 )

Sex Attraction and Art

THE IDEA that the growth of sexual love is importantly related to aesthetic attraction is an old one. That there is a link between sexuality and the "sense of beauty" is widely assumed in sex psychology and in certain related fields. Freud felt sure that the attraction of beauty was rooted in sex: " `Beauty' and `attraction' are first of all the attributes of a sexual object." For Edward Spranger, "The spiritual relation of the two sexes is . . . insofar as physical sexuality does not take the upper hand, an aesthetic one." Santayana thinks that aesthetic responsiveness comes from sexual processes "remotely stirred." It is clear that sex psychology must come to terms of some sort with general aesthetics. What can we learn from the study of art which may give light on sexual love? If sex attraction has its aesthetic side, we ought to learn something.

One need not read far in the literature of art to find there is a sharp difference between the aesthetic meanings of art and of sex. In an analysis of modern theories of aesthetic experience Max Schoen finds that all of them work out, in different language, to the same conclusion on the nature of our response to things "beautiful." (47) It is, in essence, a state of absorption, in a mind "free of desire and will," in which the pleasure lies entirely in the emotional experience of contemplation. The aesthetic attitude is "set" to enjoy an experience for its own sake alone. It differs greatly from "practical" interest, which looks toward a goal of some kind. Our perception of anything be-comes artistic when we are concerned solely with its form qualities and relationships. We must shut out any and every meaning it may have, and give ourselves entirely to the pleasures of contemplation. These do not lead us further. The whole of the meaning of beauty is what we experience now.

An object of art, writes Roger Fry, must first of all be de-signed for "disinterested" contemplation. (27) We are not prompted to action by it, and it is this absence of action that separates art, in a sense, from everyday living. The emotional effect of a work of art is a completed response to it. In similar vein Charles Mauron finds that the heart of the artistic attitude is what he calls its blend of "sensation and inhibition." (34) The richness of our sensations comes in part from the absence of action. The artist, he thinks, is really seeking to discover the ways in which contemplative pleasures may be evoked. In the response to an artistic creation, according to Clive Bell, we need "nothing from life," nor from life's emotions. In the world of pure aesthetic feeling we need only to be able to perceive form, color, and space.

If some sort of "beauty" is the main preoccupation of both the artist and the lover, how does the sex-aesthetic experience differ from that of the student of art? That it differs in at least one very important way will at once be seen in the statements above. While it is true that an amorous interest must often remain merely "contemplative," we can be very sure that at its core this interest is anything but a "detached" or "emotionally complete" experience. Lund's distinction between attraction stimuli and sex stimuli was noted earlier). The former, he suggests, arouses reactions that are "favorable to sex." They are stimuli which, while not "directly" sexual, nevertheless "pre-dispose us with respect to certain individuals and make us fall in love with one rather than with another." " (32) Santayana's treatment is similar. Sexual reproduction posed, for "nature," a difficult problem. Not only must the genitals be properly adapted to each other, but the animals must also be brought into contact. The "distance" senses, the eye and the ear, must first be attracted and charmed if contact is to be made. In consequence of this necessity the various features of sexual attraction are developed: the form of the object, its grace and color, are the guides to selection.

It is clear that attraction, as the biologist must see it, is far from the same as "artistic" contemplation, without motive. The obvious response in attraction is to approach. Here the extensive observations of Sanford Bell on the signs of amorous attraction in childhood are of value. (8) He noted that beauty begins to exert its appeal from the earliest stage, and that it becomes increasingly conspicuous in the later periods. From outset, amorous interest is shown in the urge to draw near and to make contact, in seeking each other out, sitting close together, touching each other, embracing, kissing. Through all of the stages of amorous attraction Bell found the embrace to be the most general mode of expression. He quotes, from Groos's discussion of "natural courtship," the statement: "We can only be sure of a universal tendency to approach and to touch one another, and of a disposition to self-exhibition and coquetry as probably instinctive, and of the special forms which these tendencies take under the influence of imitation and tradition as secondary causes." (28) In the child, Groos thought, the sexual caress may be an "end in itself," owing to innocence of any further meaning it might have.

Bell observed that "lifting and scuffling" might be a means of enjoying the pleasures of contact, rather than a trial of strength. During what he called the second stage of development (8 to 12 years in girls, 8 to 14 in boys) amorous interest is found to be more restrained or concealed in expression„ Physical contact as the major sign of attraction is more in. direct, being masked and "long-circuited" through the conventions and ceremonies of play. For example, embracing and kissing appear less personal when "prescribed" by the rules of the game of which they are a part. Bell cites a study of childrens' games in which 30 of 83 were of this character. While the impulse toward physical contact was seen as the most natural and most complete expression of attraction, Bell noted also a con-tact of the eyes, a kind of visual embrace, as a mark of the same interest. Thus the fundamental goal of sexual approach is tactual: "As anger is consummated . . . by knocking someone down, love is completed and satisfied with an embrace... . The love emotion, while fed by sights and sounds, and even by odors, reaches its climax in touch and, if so, it must be more completely identified with this sensibility than with any other."

Sex attraction before adolescence was found by Bell to be lacking in sensual interest. The close relation between amorous contacts and the arousal of the impulse is obvious enough, how-ever, and the view that attraction leads to a "condition favor-able to sex" is well illustrated by Bell's findings. If, as we have proposed, the amorous emotion is a direct response to aesthetic stimuli and if the core of this emotion is a desire for possession, the contrast with an attitude of "detached contemplation" is sufficiently clear. This is not the effect of sunsets, landscapes, melodies, or art forms. It is, as Spranger says, an emotion aroused by the living, personal form of beauty.

It may be confusing for some to "lift" the term "aesthetic" out of its usual artistic setting in applying it to sexual experience. Thus, Westermarck finds it "strange" that the same traits may stimulate both sexual and aesthetic feelings, "considering that an aesthetic feeling is essentially disinterested whereas sexual love is the very reverse." (62) Havelock Ellis thinks that aesthetic and erotic attractions have nothing to do with each other, although he admits that they may have had the same origin. While often closely mixed, he thinks that they are, nonetheless, two different "substances." The obscurity of his treatment of sexual aesthetics has already been indicated. Spranger, by contrast, sees the sex relationship as essentially aesthetic apart from the genital impulse. He defines eroticism as "aesthetic love which is directed to sensible grace or virile appearance ..." All pronounced aesthetics, he believes, are markedly erotic; a similar observation was regarded by Bloch as impressive evidence of a close connection between sexuality and aesthetics. Professor Albert Chandler thinks it undeniable that human beauty is closely related to sex, but marks the exact nature of the relationship as "debatable."

For discussions of sex attractiveness the term "aesthetic" is also too closely bound with the idea of the beautiful. Perhaps we shall never know whether, underlying all local preferences, a universal standard of the sexually beautiful exists. The enormous variations in taste are much more impressive. Beauty, as Mohr and Lund observe, is not a simple trait, but a highly complex one. They point out that it has never been settled what, exactly, we should include when we judge beauty. There is marked variability, they find, in such judgments. (This variability, however, "while high, is not nearly as high as if the ratings had been made by chance ... ") One wonders whether studies of this kind might not disclose, however, some degree of confusion between what is beautiful and what is "attractive." The differences might be very large between the kind of attractiveness which is recognized as the social ideal, and that which is, to the susceptibilities of certain people, sexually alluring or compelling. These differences are expressed in such comments, for example, as: "I recognize that she represents what the world calls beauty, but as for me, I find a quite different type much more interesting . . . and so on." Possession of a "recognized" type of beauty is, as De Rougemont says, "no assurance of being loved."

The experience of all things beautiful has its source in a particular kind of feeling, which Clive Bell calls the aesthetic emotion. What gives this emotion is generally known as a "work of art." A central problem of the student of art is to discover what it is that is common and peculiar to all such works. The answer, according to Bell, is that aesthetic emotion comes from certain form and color relationships. Certain combinations of line and hue are emotionally arousing. The artist must know how to produce these moving combinations of form. When he succeeds, the result is quite independent of the subject he has chosen. It does not matter what the picture is about. For true artistic appreciation "we need bring with us nothing from life, no knowledge of its ideas and affairs, no familiarity with its emotions." The aesthetic emotion comes from pure form pat-terns. The same idea is also referred to as "formal relations." By this is meant the bare elements of a picture, for example, perceived simply as lines, patterns of lines, and colors, and quite apart from its subject-matter.

The difference between the "form" and the "content" is an important one in the literature of art. (60) It is possible to look at a picture, for example, in such a way that what we see is mainly a design or arrangement of lines, masses, light, and shade. We may reduce it to what the artist terms "plastic structures in space." To be able to do this is to have, according to one school, one of the marks of real artistic sensibility. There is also a quite different way of looking at a picture. We may consider it from the point of view of what it is about, what it represents, or what its theme is. We may see it as "objects, persons or events," in other words: subject matter. This may be dramatic or religious, or imaginative, or it may tell a story. When the spectator receives religious inspiration, historical atmosphere, or factual information from a picture, he is reacting to its "content." But this content, to the "formalist," has nothing to do with pure artistic feeling. His emotion comes directly from the "forms," and he is not concerned with what others would call the meaning of the picture.

Such matters as these may seem very distant from the appreciation of human beauty. There must be a connection, how-ever, if it is true that our aesthetic sense had its origin in the sexual response, as many believe. The role of surface traits in attraction was earlier stressed in our discussion of the "irrational" feature of sexual choice. We suggest, now, that it is among these sexually valued surface characteristics that a parallel to the "formal" elements of the artist is to be found. First among all of these is the rich complex of the facial features, the center and focus of human physical individuality. Here are the materials of a literally infinite variety of "plastic structures," and of patterns of line, color, and contour.

That these structures are overfamiliar may mask their potential. They include, for a few examples, the several profiles of the head and the degree of molding of the features; the tint and texture of the skin; the spacing of the eyes, the height and arching of the brows, the modeling of the nose, the size and shape of the mouth, the prominence and angle of the chin; the color of the eyes, and the color, texture, and coiffure of the hair; the proportions of the body and the characteristics of body movement; likewise, in a different mode, the pitch, resonance, and timbre of the voice. Add to these a striking phenomenon: that a quality or expression may arise through the influence, in our perception, of the different features upon each other. This has been illustrated in the fact that minor alterations of a single feature may result in marked changes in the distinctive impression of the face as a whole. It is patent, also, that animation, movement, and the independent aesthetics of clothing will further complicate and enrich the total. There are those, finally, who would include as an aesthetic trait the over-all "style" of the personality in its entirety.

We propose, then, that it is within this complex of surface individuality that the stimulus sources of the amorous emotion lie; that the basic "charms" of sex attraction are thus structural, "chromatic," and "tonal," and that these experiences are significantly related to those of "form" in the realm of art.

Some scattered observations may be cited. Sexual attraction is enhanced, Albert Chandler thinks, by the formal beauty of the shape of face and body. Professor Bridges believes that the body "is probably the prototype of all beauty, the basis and origin of every conception of the aesthetic. It furnishes actually or potentially all the important criteria of beauty, such as symmetry, proportion, curvature . . . variety and individuality." Leon Saul questions whether aesthetic perfection of form and proportion in the arts is not a "representation" of a formal perfection that we all desire, in ourselves and in our mates. The true amorous emotion arises, Santayana writes — in a more poetic vein — not from "information conveyed by acquaintance" but rather ". . . it is sight, it is presence, that makes in time a conquest over the heart; for all virtues, sympathies, confidences, will fail to move a man to tenderness and to worship, unless a poignant effluence from the object envelope him . . ."

The idea of form and of form relationships thus has its place in human sexual aesthetics. What, then, in the experience of sex attraction, are the nonformal features of personality, or what would correspond to the "content" of a "work of art"? The answer to this, it appears, is: the whole of behavior regarded independently of its aesthetic side. It would have to include everything a person is and does, simply considered apart from the style, the grace, the comeliness, the eye-charm-ing and ear-pleasing features and accompaniments of what he is and does. It would mean the actions themselves, as distinguished from the sheer "stylistic" individuality of the actions. It would mean the doing of a thing, apart from the manner of what is done. When we are face to face with another person, we are aware of expressive behavior, which we interpret as "telling" us something about his temperament and character, or about his motives or moods. We take this behavior only as a sign, of no interest in itself, but giving information about what lies deeper. It is obvious that we react to an expression of honesty, for example, in a way quite unlike that in which we respond to the sexual "charm" of the features that convey this expression. The role of these symbols of personality in attraction and in the growth of amorous emotion will be treated in the section following.

All pleasures may doubtless be classed as "aesthetic," in the widest meaning of the term. Even our attitudes of approval and disapproval of the "good" and the "bad" have been so classed. The matter of exactly what is aesthetic and what is not is of no great importance here. Nevertheless, if certain features and qualities of men and women arouse a peculiar sex-emotional response and others do not, a distinction between them is needed. The studies in general aesthetics do not help us much. The unique emotion of the artistic experience has yet to be adequately described, in the judgment of some students. (40) It still needs to be identified. The question has even been raised whether the aesthetic emotion has a specific quality of its own, like fear and anger. (5) Some attempts to define the special markings of amorous feeling were mentioned earlier. Here, likewise, it is difficult to find words to describe the quality of this experience.

Amorous attraction is often compared with admiration. The likeness seems close at times, but many qualities that arouse admiration are common to both sexes. Either attraction is a kind of admiration that is peculiar to sex differences, or it is a sexual emotion that only resembles admiration. While we might expect it to blend well with admiration, the sex-aesthetic response, taken in itself, is better characterized, it seems, by terms like "charm," "allurement," "fascination," and their synonyms, than by "wondering esteem," "high regard," and so on. Thus, a male might observe: "There is a grace in her walking and a quality about her way of laughing that at-tracts and intrigues me, but I could not say I admire this in the sense of desiring to walk or laugh in such ways my-self." A token of its aesthetic quality may perhaps be seen in the fact that this emotion has so often been expressed in musical form, or rather, that it appears to lend itself well to musical expression. That it impels toward contact, and may become an urge, of remarkable intensity, for possession, appears to be paralleled by at least a few forms of admiration.

How is it that, if the sense of beauty was originally developed in the service of sex, it is now so freely exercised upon non-sexual objects? A partial answer is that the specialization of this sense for sex-attractive purposes did not become complete. It somehow escaped narrow confinement to the erotic sphere. It remained "open," or broadly versatile in sensitivity. "As a harp, made to vibrate to the fingers, gives some music to every wind, so the nature of man, necessarily susceptible to woman, becomes simultaneously sensitive to other influences ... " The aesthetic emotion of the artist and of the student of art are regarded, in this view, as no more than a by-product of the sexual constitution. Without the latter, Santayana thinks, the entire emotional and truly essential part of aesthetic sensibility would be lacking. It was as instruments of sex, then, that color, grace, and form came to affect us as they do, and it is as incidentals of the primitive sexual response that they are widely found elsewhere, in the perception of the beautiful in nature and in art.

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