November 30, 2007

Operant Conditioning

Playing around with Google's new Sketchup program...
not what I intended but looks like a fun learning curve.

Robert Genn's recent newsletter brings a new understanding to a familiar problem. He wonders if artists are subject to the same type of "operant conditioning" that is used to train animals: "For example, rats, cats or dogs that perform a task are more likely to repeat successfully if they're rewarded quickly after the behavior."

He wraps it up with: "No reaction at all--extinction--wears away on the individual until eventually the behavior 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."

I'll copy the whole article at the end after I muse a bit... he's given me something to chew on. Actually I'd already drafted a post that somewhat related to this subject, having to do with mood swings (non holiday related.) I won't go into the whole thing now, but the gist is that because I focus on larger works of which there are fewer sales, albeit larger checks, I don't get the frequent strokes that come with regular bank deposits. Without those timely reminders one can imagine that nothing is happening out there. They don't like me anymore. I'd best start planning an alternate plan of some sort... change styles or sizes or forget it all and call myself retired. Being the non player I am in the societal context, I fall for the mood it generates... frequently.

Is that dumb or what? I'm not a puppy in training... I don't need treats after performing properly... yeah, I did early on, but this is now. I'm *ahem* a mature artist with a long track record. I ain't gonna emerge any more than I already have. I even turn down opportunities to spread myself (my work) around more... got all I can do to keep up as it is. Genn wraps it up very well when he says:
" Art is a rare pursuit where participants have to learn to ring their own bells." I need to study on that a bit... don't want to grind to a halt.
Operant Conditioning (by Robert Genn)

In case you haven't heard, "operant conditioning" is the use of
consequences to modify the occurrence and form of otherwise
voluntary behavior.

For example, rats, cats or dogs that perform a task are more
likely to repeat successfully if they're rewarded quickly after
the behavior. 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 behavior to occur with greater
frequency. "Punishment" causes a behavior to occur with less
frequency. "Extinction," or lack of consequence, also causes
behavior to occur with less frequency. Thorndike found
behaviors 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.

Best regards,

Robert

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 behavior 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.

3 comments:

Daphne said...

What a timely article. Working on my artists statement has made me review my life as I evolved into an artist. Sometimes I'm astounded by how long it took to realize that that is what I am. But I know a lot of it was some of those years in my teens where I wasn't getting recognition-at a time when it would have made all of the difference.

At least now I can see it wasn't about my own weaknesses alone.

Jacie said...

OMG, Daphne, that is exactly how I was going to respond 'what a timely post'. Karen, you know my painting absolutely ground to a halt when I started blogging, within a few weeks. I thought recently that, perhaps after 10 months of painting non stop, I had reached a burn out point. But I knew it also had something to do with blogging. How totally interesting! Hopefully this time around, I can avoid being so affected by a response or lack there of. Thanks! And to the person who wrote the article!

KJ said...

Another moment of epiphany... or a V8 knock in the head. Suddenly we understand.