In case you haven’t heard, “operant conditioning” is the use of consequences to modify the occurrence and form of otherwise voluntary behaviour.
For example, rats, cats or dogs that perform a task are more likely to repeat successfully if they’re rewarded quickly after the behaviour. Sitting at my easel this morning, I was wondering how operant conditioning might apply to creative folks. Activities of the easel variety have built-in consequences, some subtle, some obvious, some immediate and some delayed — and, admit it, some are negative as well as positive.
Most of us will agree that the consequences often take the form of satisfaction. It’s satisfying to do something well, to work things out, and to be appreciated for the performance. Some of us also get satisfaction in the outright pleasing of others — and being financially rewarded to boot.
Curiously, in the research of psychologist E. L. Thorndike, positive consequences given for every performance were not as effective a motivator as intermittent or infrequent rewards. Apparently, satisfaction by reward wears off when it happens too often. Rats can take only so much sugar. That thought caused my brush to pause.
Consequences are of three main types: “Reinforcement” is a consequence that causes a behaviour to occur with greater frequency. “Punishment” causes a behaviour to occur with less frequency. “Extinction,” or lack of consequence, also causes behaviour to occur with less frequency. Thorndike found behaviours and their consequences to be measurable.
Here’s where the fun begins. Even though a lousy performance is a form of punishment in itself, the rat can fool himself into thinking he did okay. Humans, much more sophisticated than rats, cats or dogs, can really do a job on themselves. However, self-foolery, with all its nuances, may still be the key to persistence and even happiness. Yep, we artists depend on our illusions. The illusion of potential perfection, riding as it does on our fragile egos, is the juice that keeps us running our mazes. That being said, one of my more successful dealers recently doubled his business by paying his artists every week.
PS: “Everything exists in some quantity and can therefore be measured.” (E. L. Thorndike, 1874-1949)
Esoterica: No reaction at all — extinction — wears away on the individual until eventually the behaviour grinds to a halt. This is a danger for artists who struggle in a vacuum. Joining clubs, exhibiting online, sending work away to distant galleries, inviting trusted friends to come over and crit goes part of the way, but it doesn’t always ring the bell. Art is a rare pursuit where participants have to learn to ring their own bells.
Repetition in art
by Ray Johnson, Aventura, FL, USA
Did you ever get the feeling that you are painting the same thing over and over? Isn’t there a certain desire to do something that you or no one else has done? I believe this is the real life of an artist, to create. But many times, alas, money wields its ugly head. We are dictated to by our own creations. We do the same work again and again. The landscape artist moves the trees and water to a new place on the canvas, so does the seascape, portrait, city or country painter. We are really controlled by the means to eat and survive in the hard world of the artist. I lived by commissions and color schemes. I was told by the reason of sales. So are we not the dog, cat and rat of the art world, fighting for reward. I always believed that the final critic is the one that pays for your work.
Replenished by sales
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
It seems a bit of a paradox. We need to be hungry in order to push on. If we are starving we shut down. If we are fat and satisfied, laziness is apt to settle in. I favor that system of periodic rewards that you speak of. It is like a marathon runner in the big race. Helpful assistants occasionally hand out water or Gatorade to replenish energy the runner is using. Fans cheer along the way shouting encouragement. For the runner there is the hope of finishing and perhaps even prize money, adulation and other spoils of victory. Selling a painting is the Gatorade we artists need to replenish our energy and galleries would do well to keep money flowing our way. When this nourishment ends, that is the beginning of problems in the gallery/artist relationship. Both sides tend to make excuses and, if pushed, blame the other party for the lack of success. Usually though, confrontation is avoided and both sides settle into a grim mood of failed expectations, like many married couples. A bit of success and both the artist and gallery raise from their slumber like the plants in early spring and a new cycle of life begins!
by Lenny Niles, Lincolnshire, UK
Trial and error are usually the prime means of solving life’s problems. Yet we remain fixated in negative attitude because of failure and henceforth are afraid to further experiment for fear of repeating past errors. How many of us are mistaken into thinking that failure is a total disaster and heel to the temptation to fix all our effort on what seems to work easily and quickly — then look no further. The truth is failure is life’s learning curve. It is both helpful and necessary; failure of a project provides the feedback that points the way to success. Simply, we learn by our mistakes, and it is by our mistakes that we put together new and better trials. Maybe they will inevitably lead to more bad judgment and more error, until finally we find viable and creative solutions. We should face failure with the same enthusiasm as we embrace success. Ultimately, time-out experiences will ensure that in the end we do not fail, but take one more step on the path to our ultimate goal. And later, maybe with gradual success and continued exploration, we will once again revisit the processes that we earlier aborted, pushing on to find much better solutions. In fact, one of the greatest mistakes we all commit early is being too impulsive or hasty to succeed — expecting it all to happen straight away — yet this, too, partially contributes to success.
Nurturing the artist in the child
by Elsie H. Wilson, Fitchburg, WI, USA
As a recently retired elementary teacher, after 43 years of teaching and a master’s degree in child development, this article spoke right to my heart. Many parents and teachers have no idea how effective or damaging what they say and do can be to the future development of their child/student’s confidence and development in creativity and art in general. At a very young age, children are very aware when they are getting put down, or patronized, or encouraged. The two first things people often do when viewing a child’s first art efforts is to chuckle, and poke a little fun or ask, “What is that?” To the child, it is obvious what it is! When you focus on “What is it?” they get the message that art is not of value unless it is rendered representational. Or… people will go overboard with praise that primes the child to need immediate praise of all their efforts. The best thing parents and teachers can do to encourage creativity, risk-taking, and continuation of creative thinking and art is to show a genuine interest in and respect for the child’s art. Rather than the “What is it?” question, a better approach is to say, “Tell me about your picture.” Then listen intently as the child says any thing they want to share with you about the work of art. One of the first and best ways to encourage creativity and art effort is to respectfully exhibit the efforts. Those “one kid shows” on that great first gallery, “The Family Refrigerator,” ala magnets, is sure to show your budding artist that art is valued. I remember friends telling us they loved to come to our house and see the children’s latest creations. We would choose a few to mat and frame. Grandmas and Grandpas love these as gifts! Take a moment to put the date on the back of these little creations. Select those items to keep in a representative collection for your child as he/she grows up, and involve them in the selection process.
Moderation in criticism
by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA
It’s worth stating that whatever one does, if it’s not tempered with failure, dissatisfaction, struggle, reward, there is a tendency to find little worth in the doing after a time. We become numb to it. When we pursue a career or endeavor to produce art, we seek reward for our efforts. It’s a natural behavioral trait to abandon the process if we continually fail or receive negative feedback. On the other side of the coin, too much praise can also lead us to lose interest. The process seems too easy and thus not rewarding enough. I strongly believe we have to be honest when dealing with our ego but we must temper that honesty. Whenever I critique someone’s work, I always start with what is good about it. This allows the listener the ability to stay with me. I’ve seen artists make negative comments on another’s work and you can see the light go out in the other’s eyes. There is strong tendency for us to flaunt our intelligence and knowledge at the expense of someone else and this, done repeatedly, will cause anyone to start to rethink their efforts. Some will not be strong enough or have the wherewithal to continue and will eventually abandon what they attempted. Reward is good. Criticism is good, all in moderation. Everything in life should be in moderation.
Thriving on negativity
by Valerie Norberry, Kalamazoo, MI, USA
I went to WMU in the ’70s, when Psychology was required. Here’s a conundrum for you to ponder (and pause your brush): What about people of other faiths who have been burned at the stake, beaten up or imprisoned? Some people actually thrive on persecution. Here’s a good example: What about the kid who experienced rejection and criticism growing up in an alcoholic home? Do you think this person is comfortable with praise or peace and contentment? No, read some Melody Beaty or Claudia Black or Solomon about the Children of Alcoholics (COA) and you will find that they (we) are comfortable with chaos, comfortable and familiar with rejection and quarreling, etc. Therefore, in our lives, we often sabotage ourselves in order to feel “comfortable.” Pretty stupid, huh? Tell that to the gal who has married her third alcoholic in an Al anon group.
Enthusiasm in the unknown
by Patricia Ryan, Beavercreek, OR, USA
A year later now, I look for those fear moments, whether it’s while I’m making art, or while I’m facing a career or life choice. If it’s art, I simply refuse to allow myself to not choose the unknown. In my life, I’m not always so brave, but I’m working on it. Doing this has brought a lot more joy to my painting process, because I’m always happy with myself for being bold, for being free. Now I’ve expanded that practice to rejecting all sorts of self-generated negativity: You’ve run out of ideas; you can’t paint straight enough lines; you can’t do detail work. And every time I know I made the bold choice, the positive choice, I reward myself with the joy of self-satisfaction. And then it’s time to get happily back to work.
The key is tenacity
by Vianna Szabo, Romeo, MI, USA
For years I have been working as an artist, specializing in portraiture, and entering local shows. My reception on the local level was not that encouraging. I began to think of jury fees as “rejection fees” and when I did get in I was usually not a prize winner. I was feeling pretty discouraged but felt that whatever I lacked in talent I could make up with tenacity. A friend mentioned that it was just as easy to get into national shows as it is local ones. So I felt I had nothing to lose and funneled my rejection fees there and found I did quite well. The odd thing is that the same paintings that were rejected around my home made it into some very prestigious shows and I even took some nice prizes. This brought me to the realization that I could not depend on what others thought about my work too seriously. It is up to me to raise the bar for what I want to achieve. I no longer take rejection or winning to heart (although I prefer the latter). I am very lucky to live a life where I can afford to spend my time painting and in the end that is award enough.
Rite of passage
by Nancy Davis Johnson, Durham, NH, USA
One of the best “conditioning” events for the beginning artist trying to get recognition is the submission of her work to a juried show. The first rejection slip is a devastating blow to the ego, but an often necessary plunge into the cold world of competition. If she’s lucky, she’ll have support and condolences from her peers, who explain that this is a normal initiation process (and what do those judges know anyway?). An artist needs to decide how to react to this setback. I’ve found that rejection slips, and I’ve had many, can have a similar conditioning response as an acceptance notice has, though admittedly without the immediate sense of euphoria accompanying the latter. I am encouraged by both to paint more. Unfortunately, I haven’t experienced how repeated acceptances bring on that “extinction” reaction.
by Sheila Caim
I had an experience that leaves me wondering if it’s a good idea to exhibit online. I won an award of “special recognition” for an image (I’m a photographer) at an online competition and gallery. The picture was exhibited on the online gallery for a month and then in its archives for a year. A couple of years later, because of a weird email on my website, I searched my name on the Internet to see where the writer got his so-called information. I was dismayed to see that picture being displayed in dozens of sites, some very questionable, some in languages I don’t know, some giving me credit, and others not. But in following the links backwards, I found that they had stolen it from that online gallery. After that, I have stopped doing anything online except for my web page, which, I realize, can be stolen from also. My question is, do you think, given what I’ve discovered, that online exhibiting is something I should still do? Or, in general, is a good or bad idea for artists?
Enjoy the past comments below for Operant conditioning…
Dusk on the Hike and Bike
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Paul Kane of Bloomington, IN, USA who wrote, “As Agent Smith said in The Matrix, a human being needs some misery to go with his or her happiness. That, I guess, is part of what keeps us raising the bar, or at least continuing to move and change in some way.”
And also Katherine Harris of Italy who wrote, “From what I have learned, rats are much more predictable (and practical) than humans. For example, rats will send the oldest member of their group to test, by eating, a new food or bait. Then they wait to see if that old rat survives or dies. If it dies, the rest of the group will never touch that food.”
And also Adela Hubers who wrote, “Most clinical psychologists discarded OC as a therapeutic framework years ago. You do artists no service in trying to resuscitate it.”
And also Margaret Heuges of Del Haven, NJ, USA who wrote, “I was once in a family gathering and I told how I have conversations with myself when I paint in which I say, ‘This will be the finest painting of all time,’ and believed it. A member of the group criticized me saying he wondered why I had to fool myself like that. Another member of the group who was a psychoanalyst came to my defense saying that if that was my means to the creation of my work then I should definitely do that.”