The unexpected nature of music, art and sex


The New York Times has a lovely audio slideshow of a woman’s so-called “Renegade Caberet”, in which she (Elizabeth Soychak) sang on the fire escape landing of her friend Patty Heffley’s apartment. I enjoyed it just for the sake of enjoying it, but it also made me think of the different ways we enjoy music, art and – I think – sex.

When one knows that something is going to happen, there are expectations. If your expectations are low or realistic enough and the music, art or sex are “good enough”, then the experience may be highly satisfying. If expectations are set too high, one may feel disappointed. You may wonder if you should have spent so much money for the music, art (or yes, the sex) or why you bothered to even get dressed up to go (again, for any of the three).

Then there are the unexpected moments when we encounter art without knowing it. I experience such joy, personally, in stumbling across an inviting, compelling, beautiful or provocative piece of graffiti art. I like to find flowers poking out of sidewalk crevices, and I enjoy – with a mesmerized pleasure I’ve found difficult to articulate to others – coming across two or three ants trying to carry something so much bigger than themselves. Especially if they are trying to carry the other thing upward, as up a step.

As such, I believe I would have taken particular delight if I had been there to stumble upon the Renegade Caberet as a surprise. Not that planned music, art or sex are never joyful – they often are, and for their own reasons. In fact, there is a particular ease and relaxation surrounding things that you know will happen. Not to mention the opportunity for build-up and anticipation when you’re quite certain – or hopeful – that good music, art or sex is just around the corner.  But there is also pleasure in certain surprises.

The slideshow reminded me of one of my favorite newspaper articles ever – Pearls Before Breakfast in the Washington Post – in which writer Gene Weingarten set out to learn whether people would be able to discriminate unusual beauty in the middle of their rushed days. His test? He asked the world famous violinist Joshua Bell (who is from Bloomington, I should add) to play his violin at a DC metro station in the middle of rush hour and then video taped what happened. Would anyone stop? Would they notice the beauty? Would they drop any dollars in his case?

[Above image of a city plant makings its way sun-ward courtesy of a stroll through Georgetown this spring]

About Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick is a sex researcher at Indiana University, sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute, columnist, and author of five books about sex and love. Learn more about her work at