My last letter about getting euphoria from painting raised a few issues. Some folks were positively giddy reporting on the giddy positiveness they got from making art. Others told us the “pleasure centres” of their brains were too clogged with painterly problems to get much joy from the act. There were other acts that excited them more, they said, like eating, smoking, skydiving and you know what. One said his “mesolimbic pathway” didn’t go through the art field.
Just to put us all on the same trail, the mesolimbic pathway is one of the dopaminergic routes in the brain. The pathway begins in the ventral tegmental area of the midbrain and connects to the limbic system via the nucleus accumbens, the amygdala, and the hippocampus. Now you know.
It’s all about what causes us to get our kicks and how those kicks get passed around. Some subscribers pointed to the “add-ons” like “quietness in a noisy world” and “the happiness we give to others.” Several mentioned the making of art as a branch of giving, an area that’s fascinated me for some time. Knowing that a certain work is going to a worthwhile charity as a fundraiser turns my tiny crank.
Subscriber Gerda Hook of Greenville, South Carolina reported on altruism studies by the US National Institute of Health. “Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology,” she wrote, “researchers gave 19 subjects real money ($128) and asked them to make choices about keeping or spending the money.
They were given 64 popular charities to choose from. When they performed the act of giving, two areas of their brains, the mesolimbic and the subgenual, lit up. The mesolimbic is associated with the release of dopamine, a ‘feel-good’ chemical linked with life-affirming activities like reproduction and eating. The subgenual part of the brain is implicated in behavior involving social relationships and familial attachments — for example, this area is activated when we look at our babies and at romantic partners.”
What’s interesting in these findings is that both centres play key roles in the evolution of the human race (procreation and family bonds) as well as the daily sustenance of the species. Giving not only feels good, but is also associated with the survival of our species.
Esoterica: Catharine Compston of Edmonton, Alberta pointed out that a finished work of art as it marches out into the universe transforms from the pleasure of the artist to the pleasure of others. This thought alone might be the stuff of happiness and high excitement, she figures. At the same time, a few folks wrote of the fear that their art might be substandard and not give pleasure. Along with our “feel good” brains, we of the Brotherhood and Sisterhood are subject to nagging negative thoughts, maybe even neuroses. How do you feel?
Artists dispense magic
by Sigrid Tidmore
Sometime ago I became fascinated by the transfer of energy from the artist to the recipient. Following in the steps of our aboriginal ancestors, I believe artists are also magicians, able to transform moods, ideas and sensations in others by the spells of their imagery. It’s easy to get focused on technique and forget our real job is creation of a new reality. I consciously focus on the emotion I want to give to the viewer while I paint.
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Our chosen purpose
by Jaana Woiceshyn, Calgary, AB, Canada
As the conceptual species, we do not operate merely on the sensory level of pleasure and pain. We paint (or teach, or build bridges, or design computers and other products, or give haircuts) because we have chosen that as our central purpose and derive all kinds of spiritual and material benefits from it (read chapter 5: Productiveness, in my book). And forget about altruism: if you were painting for altruistic reasons (which would be impossible in the first place, because the creation has to come from you, not from others), you would be giving your paintings away for free (and not increasing your prices every year). You paint because you have chosen it as your purpose, and you benefit from it, spiritually and materially. Painting is in your self-interest. And, fortunately, people’s rational interests do not conflict, so your painting is my interest, too! When you create a beautiful painting, we can simply trade, value for value: you give me the painting that I love, and I pay you for it (see chapter 7: Justice, and more specifically, Justice as Trade).
P.S. The human species does not survive because of altruism but because of division of labor and trade — and the collaboration and competition that go along with that. We survive and flourish to the extent that we think and produce — and leave others free to do likewise.
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Activation of art gratitude
by Damaris O’Trand, CO, USA
For anyone who is interested in the connection between giving and art, check out the book, The Gift of Thanks by Maragaret Visser. Also, a fun way to feel the activation of art gratitude is to participate in an Artist Trading Card group. We are in the process of uploading our online gallery in time for the Lyons Studio Tour, the weekend of June 2 and 3, 2012. We will have an open house for the Art-4-Art Trading Session at the Lyons Depot Library. Here is a link to our gallery.
The inexplicable magic
by Betty Brooks
Artistic flares, like solar flares, come out of the same pot, the molten pot of dynamic energy. For an artist it’s all about the mojo and the magic at work in their work. Some days it is simply working in the magic. Other days it is feeling the magic in the work. Whichever, it is the ultimate carrot on a stick offering all kinds of rewards running the gamut from giving to receiving, of being connected to the world outside yourself, or at other times finding your internal world connections are singular and complete.
Everything we think and feel is processed through our brain but that does not speak to our consciousness. To me it exists beyond the finite. It is a precious thing that brings us our wings. Today the scientists are at work trying to explain it. And I wonder why. Let it be inexplicable. I like it that way. Don’t you?
Passing along beauty
by Susan Hay, Benmiller /Haliburton, ON, Canada
I read your column with interest and the comment about passing along a thing of beauty into someone else’s hands resonated with me. I can’t tell you how wonderful it makes me feel to hear that someone else is enjoying what I have created. Here are a couple of examples:
“Thank you for our talent and gift because it enriches our lives, too. There are times that… one of your paintings stops me in my tracks, makes me take a deep breath and makes me smile.”
and from another customer:
“We both admire the painting for many reasons and particularly love the textured canvas; it adds a whole other dimension to your art. It seems we have found an artist who sees exquisite beauty in the very same, simple things that we love. That in itself is very special. You’ve made two people very happy because of your abilities. What a gift!”
These comments are just as, if not more, important than the payment to me. My “dopaminergic routes” are positively aglow, knowing that someone else is enjoying my creations as well.
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Artists with selfish motives?
by Robert Long
I think I have noticed in a number of your posts reference to artists producing their work for mostly selfish reasons. In the last one, “Painter’s high,” you elude to this when you state, “When we paint, we say, “Me, me, me.”
I think any endeavor at which a person gets extremely adept likely produces a high degree of personal satisfaction. If nothing else, across all higher level organisms, brain chemistry rewards behavior that yields personal satisfaction or gives nourishment to the body.
But I don’t enjoy hearing my time spent painting is somehow a selfish activity on my part.
More and more I have come to believe those who produce art are among the dwindling defenders of humanity. We work hard to get good at what we do because we are driven — that’s true. Learning what we do in the process, climbing the learning curve can be uncomfortable or even painful physically, emotionally, and requires perseverance. But by our achievement and production we show how much human beings can achieve by hard work, leveraging only personal will and imagination.
We help keep alive the idea that humans are innately creative and visionary, a precept worth preserving in an increasingly technological world where the race to automate and boost productivity mostly factors people out of the equation, leaving them without meaningful work or creative outlets.
Advances in technology have their upside, but in many areas they also cause a deterioration of the human condition. My own feeling is, if more people painted or did other creative, rewarding activities using their hands and minds, the world would have found a remedy for much of the hostility and selfish behavior that prevails and is increasing. We keep that idea alive by doing the work we do.
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Act of painting produces joy
by Veronica Funk, Airdrie, AB, Canada
No matter how I feel once the painting is complete, I always feel the most joy doing the work. A number of years ago I tried to give up this life as a professional painter and got a ‘real job.’ The work was good and the environment was wonderfully supportive and encouraging, and yet I still managed to fall into a depression — bursting into tears for no reason; either sleeping too much or not enough; daily restlessness, negativity and anger. When I spoke with my doctor, she asked what had changed in my life prior to these experiences and then told me to return to painting (as did my family). And I haven’t been unhappy like that since. So, those times when I begin to feel anxious, I know all I have to do is head back into my studio and pick up a brush and then all is well.
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Will ‘they’ like it?
Yes, I get huge pleasure out of the pure act of making a painting, and can forget all my troubles while doing so. Even when it’s not going well, the mere effort to solve the problems takes me away to the place I like to be. Finishing one, and feeling that it “works,” is the ultimate high for me.
But I do always wonder, even while painting a picture, if “they” will like it. That matters to me. If I manage to sell a picture, or win a prize, this is affirmation, vindication for the hours I spend in the studio, definitely a pleasure, which allows me to relax for a bit from the anxiety about my work.
If, after finishing one that “works,” I enter it in a show (or many shows) and it is rejected by all, the pleasure disappears. Then I realize that I simply don’t understand painting at all, that what I thought works simply doesn’t, in the real world, and that there is something gravely “wrong” with what I made. Still I hang on to the ones that I believe “work.” My studio is full of them. I think “Maybe someday…”
It is always nice to be able to sell the occasional work — but I’d have to do better than that to feel myself of the Sisterhood of “real” painters.
by Michael S Bryant, Rockford, MI, USA
As a clay artist I have been enjoying your letters for a couple of years now — thank you! I propose you do a ‘piece’ on gallery sales of fine art and whether they are more often than not considered nonrefundable/nonreturnable. Is there a trend out there that our art work is now deemed nothing more than retail commodities? It is very disturbing to me that a gallery owner would allow a patron to return a work of fine art after a week or so. Am I naive?
(RG note) Thanks, Michael. I don’t know whether it’s a trend or not, but refunding money for art is a good idea. Works of art are frequently large purchases where a family will often hold a work for generations. The collector deserves the right to get it right. Galleries who offer the option to return (within a reasonable length of time) make lasting friends and loyal customers. I think this gesture of goodwill should apply to all commodities with the possible exception of food and underwear.
Enjoy the past comments below for Potholes on the mesolimbic pathway…
Station to station
encaustic painting, 18 x 24 inches
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 Richard Gagnon of Knowlton, QC, Canada, who wrote, “I am bothered by the comment in the Esoterica section about painters/artists feeling that their work might be substandard. Substandard to whom? If I compared myself to George Stubbs I might never paint again. Basically people will not take a painting if it does not please them.”
And also Jim Feeley of Norcross, GA, USA, who wrote, “You never really own something until you give it away.”