Some Thoughts on “Aesthetic Attraction”

This is in response to this post.

So what does aesthetic attraction mean to you? Because, as I mentioned in my lengthy post before, for me aesthetic attraction is always romantic. I cannot think of anyone I find aesthetically attractive (as I would say) to whom I am not also romantically attracted. In fact, many of these people I am romantically attracted only because they are aesthetically attractive (because I know little to nothing about them).

Y’all out there – asexual and sexual alike – how do you experience aesthetic attraction? What does it mean to you to be aesthetically attracted to someone? What kind of actions do you wish to take due to that aesthetic attraction? If the feeling is not romantic, then what is it?

This friend is a WTF?romantic (he doesn’t have a conceptual framework for differentiating between friendship and romantic relationships) so he couldn’t provide a very helpful answer. I would love to hear any personal insights…?

Since I’m the one mentioned there, I think I should say something.  To first explain, there was an AVEN meetup held here on Tuesday, and among the things discussed was the concept of aesthetic attraction.  We agreed that the description commonly given, in which it is likened to the ability to appreciate a beautiful work of art, is inadequate: there is no reason to describe as any sort of ‘attraction’ the basic ability to recognize aesthetic qualities.  Let’s call the latter ‘aesthetic recognition’ instead.  The question is, what exactly is aesthetic attraction, and how is it experienced?

Since it’s been a few days since the meetup and I’ve had a bit more time to think about it, I’ll try to answer that question again, and hopefully I’ll do a better job this time.  So, ‘aesthetic attraction’ sounds like it should describe something of the same kind as romantic or sexual attraction: a kind of attraction.  I don’t think it is the concept of attraction itself that is of difficulty here.  The word itself is from the Latin ad+traho, meaning “to draw towards, pull, allure.”  When we use it in the context of interpersonal relations I’d say that it refers to the drawing emotionally of others to oneself, which would be the effect of one’s being attractive, and to the state of being drawn emotionally to others, which would be the effect of finding them attractive.  Aesthetic attraction would then be an attraction brought about by means of aesthetic qualities.  I think most would agree that the latter are rather subjective: aesthetic qualities are not so much something one possesses in an absolute way as they are instead something attributed to one by another.  A ‘beautiful person’ is one found by others to be beautiful.  Not everyone agrees as to who is beautiful.  Of course, some may be more regularly found to be beautiful than are others, but I think that’s a separate matter.  Focusing therefore on the one who attributes the qualities in question to another, to be aesthetically attracted is to be drawn emotionally to another by means of finding the other to be in some way beautiful.

I suppose that much is all fairly obvious: so much then for aesthetic attraction.  The question of how it is experienced is however a more difficult one.  Let’s compare aesthetic attraction to the more familiar concept of sexual attraction.  (I’ll point out that I’m asexual, and so what follows here is slightly speculative on my part.)  How is sexual attraction experienced, and returning to the OP, what kinds of actions does one wish to take due to sexual attraction?  The answer to the latter question should be obvious enough in the case of sexual attraction: sex.  What, then, of the qualities which bring about the state of attraction?  They could perhaps be reduced to “looks and personality,” at which point a certain difficulty should become apparent: sexual attraction may be coupled with both aesthetic attraction and romantic attraction.  The extent to which this is so may vary from person to person, and between situations.  In some cases the aesthetic element may prevail and in others the romantic; one can even imagine one element being entirely absent, although it is hard to imagine the absence of both.  (By this I mean that I’m not sure what qualities could be deemed sexually attractive that could be simultaneously found neither aesthetically nor romantically attractive.  How could someone possessing neither set of qualities be found to be sexually attractive?)  So perhaps by ‘sexual attraction’ what we generally mean is an interplay of aesthetic and romantic attraction in which sex with the other is desired.  Sexual attraction is then so called not on the basis of the (aesthetic and/or romantic) qualities by which it is produced but rather on their result of directed sexual desire.  Does that make sense?

Of course, if I’ve answered any question just now, it’s not the one I was asked.  How then is aesthetic attraction experienced?  To begin, as asexuals we can say that it needn’t have a sexual element: although sexual attraction is commonly coupled with it, it need not be coupled with sexual attraction.  It may be significant that apparently aesthetic attraction is so called on the basis of the (aesthetic) qualities by which it is produced and not whatever might be their result.  In this respect it is in fact different from sexual attraction.  (Were we wrong at the beginning to assume that they were the same kind of thing?)  What of that other element, that of romantic attraction?

This is what my friend (the OP) talked about at the meetup that caused us so much difficulty.  If I understood correctly, my friend finds the experience of aesthetic attraction to be necessarily combined with that of romantic attraction.  As for myself, I simply wasn’t sure what to make of it at the time.  Part of the difficulty comes from the concept of romantic attraction itself: I find it difficult to separate from the concept of friendship, especially when sex is uninvolved.  However, I realize now that I’ve not accurately conveyed the nature of my confusion.  When I called myself a “WTF?romantic,” it sounded as though I were applying it as a label to myself, comparable to heteroromantic or aromantic.  However, I don’t mean to do that.  All I really mean is that, in contemplating the concepts of romance and friendship, I imagine myself as engaged in some sort of anthropological exercise, trying to understand things which I know I do not entirely understand and which I’m not so sure others really do understand as much as they might suppose.  That is to say, I think the two concepts really may be somewhat entangled in our society.  I think I do, however, experience the phenomena with which both concepts are concerned.  I think I do feel what certain others mean by ‘romantic attraction,’ even though I’m not sure why they call it that.  (I have more to say about romantic attraction, but that should wait for another post.)

On this account, I think I should actually be capable of examining the relationship between aesthetic and romantic attraction as regards my own experience.  From that experience, I think what I said at the meetup still holds: they can be associated, but they needn’t be.  In the case of sexual attraction, the desire for sex could be related to the recognition of aesthetic qualities, but it needn’t be, and in the case of romantic attraction, the desire for romance could be related to the recognition of aesthetic qualities, but it needn’t be either.  In both cases aesthetic attraction does however have as its effect the production of some kind of desire.  What I would say now is that these desires need not be limited to those which are sexual and/or romantic.  Most obviously, since I was just mentioning the entanglement of our concepts of romance and friendship, there could be the desire for friendship.  In other words, the desire for relationships of all sorts can in certain instances be based on attraction due to the recognition of aesthetic qualities.  Perhaps there are other kinds of desires which may arise from aesthetic attraction, but to me this is the most obvious kind.

I hope that better answers the question.

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