Art Is More About Work Than Sex

New research punctures idea that artistic creativity is a sexual display.

Posted Apr 07, 2016

The sexual exploits of male rock stars is legendary and their sexual magnetism draws an endless supply of enthusiastic female partners. So it is not too hard to believe that men would enter creative fields as a way of boosting their sex appeal. But is their art little more than a masculine display?

Problems with the Mating Display Perspective

Male creativity in many creative fields – from science to poetry – peaks in the twenties coinciding with peak testosterone production (1). Yet, there are many problems with the view that science and art function as a display designed to attract females of the species. This notion is certainly charming and intuitively appealing to anyone who observes the beautiful displays of bird plumage, the courtship dance of the mannikin bird, or the artfully decorated constructions that bower birds use to attract a mate.

Yet, there are many fairly obvious problems. In some creative fields, such as writing novels, the best, and most prolific, work often occurs in the forties decades after the peak in testosterone.

The biology of creativity is also murky. High-testosterone men are not particularly creative and personality research sheds light on this phenomenon. Unusually creative men – and women – score high on androgyny, combining stereotypically masculine and stereotypically feminine traits.

Another glaring problem with the mating display take on creativity is that it is a theory of male creativity rather than female creativity, especially given that women's testosterone levels rise with age but there is little evidence of an age trend in female creative expression.

Women's faces, and bodies, were more extensively modified by sexual selection than male bodies were, going against the pattern for birds where it is the males who are more ornate. This means that during the evolutionary past, men were more in demand as mates than women were. Otherwise, females would not have had to bear the burden of biological advertisement. So if artistic creativity served as a mating display, one would expect women to be substantially more creative than men.

In reality, there is no gender difference in creative ability but men have historically shown a greater tendency to achieve eminence than women (2) and this gender difference persists even in societies with legislated gender equality, suggesting it is not just that females have fewer opportunities. There must be a motivational factor. Perhaps women invest more creative energy in children and social relationships.

Perhaps creative arts are just like any other career where effort is rewarded by social success. Men may be more driven to succeed than women are because being successful makes them more desirable as dates, or as husbands. Even so, modern women are more career-oriented than men in some ways, such as earning more college degrees.

Career Striving as an Alternative to Mating Display

If men accrue more mate value from career striving, this phenomenon could explain the age pattern in male creativity where their efforts to succeed are more vigorous in early adulthood at a time when there is more opportunity to succeed and rise in social status. This would not have to be strictly tied to peak testosterone levels, so much as age when men are still actively seeking a mate.

In some societies, women are scarcer and male-male competition is more intense. Under those conditions, men would be expected to work harder and acquire greater success in all professions, including creative ones. Conversely, if men are scarce, it is easier for them to attract a mate and they would be less motivated to work hard, resulting in less creative productivity.

The career striving approach and the mating display hypothesis make different predictions about the impact of the mate market upon artistic creativity. According to the mating display approach, a scarcity of men will increase creativity because there is more extramarital sex and men have more to gain by strutting their artistic stuff as a seductive display.

The Tests

In a paper soon to be published in the Journal of Genius and Eminence, I present the results of five studies that test the competing predictions of these two explanations for creative striving (3). These studies compare creative productivity in different places using various indices such as the proportion of creative professionals in the labor force, patent applications per million people, and the rate of book publishing.

I found that all tests supported the career striving approach to creativity and none supported the mating display hypothesis. In all cases, creative productivity was higher in countries having a higher ratio of men to women. So if it is more difficult for men to find a mate they write more books, and file more patent applications, and more of them enter creative arts, or other information-rich professions. They are not making themselves sexually attractive. Instead, they are demonstrating a willingness to work hard in demanding professions that include artistic creativity.

Is Art Really More Work than Play?

So artistic endeavors contribute to a man's appeal by boosting his social profile and aura of success rather than by making him sexually irresistible. If so, why should anyone care? After all, these are merely different tactics through which men appeal to women.

The answer to this critique is that if we can understand why men work harder in creative fields, we can get a handle on why men and women in some societies are more productive than in others. This problem has stumped motivation theorists and economists alike. Yet, rising worker productivity is the key to modern prosperity and the driver of the Industrial Revolution (4).


1 Miller, G. F. (1999). Sexual selection for cultural display. In R. Dunbar, C. Knight, & C. Power (Eds.), The evolution of culture: An interdisciplinary view (pp.71-91). New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

2 Baer, J., & Kaufman, J. C. (2008). Gender differences in creativity. Journal of Creative Behavior, 42, 75-105.

3 Barber, N. (in press). Creative productivity and marriage markets: Mating effort and career striving as rival hypotheses. Journal of Genius and Eminence.

4 Clark, G. (2007). A farewell to alms: A brief economic history of the world. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.