…if they met in the real world?
Most people don’t feel comfortable staring at other people because those who are being stared at often show they don’t like the staring. All this creates such tension that it is safer to look the other way.
In this respect, portraits are better than people because they don’t stare back indignantly (well, a few may be seen as such, but – in 9 cases out of 10 – it is simple arrogance). Portraits often show people we don’t know and don’t expect to meet, so we feel safe studying them, making assumptions about the personalities of the portrayed, measuring them up against our own scales and norms and coming to conclusions that help us socialise with real-life people in real-life situations later.
I once worked on a reconstruction of the mental processes of a relatively randomly sampled men (aged 18 to 35) who were exposed to portraits of women. First, they were building their own view of the character and personality of the girl from the picture. Then, they were introducing a similarly looking woman (the portraits were turned face down at that point) with the personality that they “read off” the portrait into their life and played out different situations of interacting with her. That was happening purely in their imagination, unprompted, and it took a lot of projection exercises to pull this out from the poor guys, whose verbal reaction was mostly, “Yeah, I like her”. “No, she’s sorta not cool”, etc. You can imagine what randomly sampled men say in response to direct questioning when they are shown a picture of an attractive woman.
The perceived physical attractiveness of the portrayed was a major factor in the portraits’ ability to become a stimulus for a long-term mental play.
The men knew they’d never meet these women, but they felt more confident about interacting with the opposite sex after their exposure to portraits (if they could find one to mentally play with),
So, subscribing to Playboy or visiting the National Portrait Gallery (or any other gallery with portraits) can be good for men lacking confidence, especially if they study portraits of all women, not just the ones whose breasts are provocatively exposed.
Now, my big question is, honestly, does it work the other way too? Do women “import” attractive men from portraits into their lives for a bit of mental scripting?
PS I’ve never tortured women the way I did men on the portrait issue – I have a lot of untested hypotheses though from studying their reaction to ads and TV videos. But there’s a lot of differences between a still image and “moving pictures”.
PPS The funny thing is, making people more confident in socialising is never the artist’s objective when they paint a portrait. At least I’ve never heard of this motivation before. And, certainly, not all portraits work the way I was describing in this post. But a lot of them, actually, do.