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on positive reinforcement in art (1 Viewer)


Senior Member
Heya, I'm an illustrator who spends a lot of time thinking about the effects of cynicism in art. Recently I've started a project and want to write a proposal explaining the thought behind my paintings. I'm trying to verbalize my feelings and have found it very difficult as I have little writing experience. Any criticism you can offer would be much appreciated. On further note I should add that I'd love to hear anything you have to say about the subjet, but as for the purposes of this paper I have already decided what I want to say and now am concerned more with how I want to say it. Thanks in advance - b

Positive and Negative Reinforcement in Art
We have a strong need in our society for positive reinforcement in art. Constantly one hears that our generation is worse than the last, that our children have no hope of a peaceful future, or that we will destroy ourselves before we can outlast our racial adolescence. This view is especially prevalent in contemporary art of all types. The mentality that much of our art presents is one of pessimism and hopelessness. This attitude became prevalanent in the early fifties and has continued to grow in subsequent recent decades. The stages to which it has recently progressed maintains its value merely off of shock value or sensationalism in art, and it would be wise to ask whether or not this art is actually benefitting the involved members, or is it instead simply trumpeting different parts of the dark side of human nature. By looking at how people interpret and internalize visual forms of communication it will be shown how this type of art is affecting our nation as well as to consider other possibilities, opportunities, ways and directions as artists to influence our audience. It is not the purpose of this analysis and research to debunk the validity of cynicism, for the need to criticize and reprimend are vital to human growth. Instead, the purpose is to encourage optimism in art, as emphasizing the positive will have a larger and more effective sphere of influence. There are many postive behaviors in our society which artists can support, many events and acts of charity that will be more abundant when recognized and rewarded, and, as one looks through history, it is evident that art that promotes and teaches charity, service, and respect was influential in the development of the nation. Through this research it will be shown that our country will continue to progress as it has done before by searching for the ‘angels’ or good people among us and joining with them in our work.

Recent Artistic Expression

Many forms of art in recent history are primarily negative in nature. Starting with postmodernism, we can see Andy Warhol – a poignant figure of that era. Here is shown Warhol’s piece, Marilyn (1967). Warhol had a common motif in all of his artwork on the commercialization of our society and it is very visible here. By showing Marilyn Monroe as a product with dozens of different options, styles and colors he makes her status as a symbol of modern beauty demeaning and degrading. Warhol believed that because of the intense visual bombardment on people today that they no longer see natural beauty or that they look at the world as if through a catalogue. Perhaps earlier artists influenced Warhol’s take on art with similar views on society such as the notable Jack Levine.

Levine had strong political views on the disrepute of the American high-class. In his piece, Welcome Home (1946), Levine made his paramount statement. Here is shown the upper class of New York dining in a rude and piggish manner. The bodies are twisted and melting, the faces concerned only with themselves, even ignoring the waiter who is serving them, the color is black and white suggesting that there is no color or life to this part of the human race. Even deeper, Levine’s background in World War Two gives further insight into this piece. Levine served in the war and returned home to be disillusioned by American Idealism. In the painting is noted a decorated military office sitting in the center of the three main figures. The commentary here is understood as criticism of a government officer who evaded actual military action yet now enjoys the spoils that the profitable war brought him. Perhaps Levine’s social satire not only influenced Warhol, but others of the post modernism era such as Duane Hanson.

Hanson shared a similar dark vision of recent American culture. One piece of artwork that may best depict his vision is called Motorcycle Accident (1969). Hanson here shows a wrecked motorcycle rider on a mangled bike. Pieces of the bike are shattered and strewn about the display, and the rider wears clothes reminiscent of a popular youth. Hanson felt that our society is speeding towards destruction, that our impatience will outweigh our intelligence, and that our quick technological and mechanical advancement is not matched by our wisdom. The lack of wisdom in our technological history was also a strong standpoint of the artist, Carrie Mae Weems.

Weems commented on the dehumanization of our scientific subjects. Using photographs from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Weems put together a series of socially incriminating art displays. Each photograph, all of which were black and white, was redeveloped to have a red overlay in order to suggest an unnatural, lab type setting. Then, by inscribing pointed textual commentary on the glass frame, she directs the viewer to see the negative effects of historical technological and scientific advancement. In her piece, You Became a Scientific Profile (1995), Weems makes a comment on the way African-American citizens were treated as propagandistic material in photography to support white domination. This type of art, however, is docile in comparison with the recent popularity of sensationalism.

Many recent artists, such as Chris Ofili, have taken the concentrated evil of their world and used it to defile things previously holy and sacred. In Ofili’s painting, The Holy Virgin Mary, he depicts a black woman whose breasts are made of elephant dung standing below a lightly glowing halo. Upon looking closer, one would discover that the halo is made up of clippings of female genitallia from pornographic magazines. While hailed by some as important work in our latter day, the question must be asked, “what good is this art doing for us?”

Weems, Warhol, and the other depicted artists were very concerned in their artistic expression with the darker side of human nature. Their commentary continues to affect us with its strong messages. The points that the artists make are very valid and it is important to recognize the necessity of such artistic criticism. However, we must also understand how these statements are affecting us and whether or not the purposes for which they were created are being fulfilled. But, how does this art help us? Is it, in fact, making us a better nation? Or is this art simply reinforcing the faults in human behavior by serving as constant reminders of the mistakes we have made, almost foreshadowing the future. Is there a need for different approach?

It should not be misunderstood that the purpose of this paper is not to discredit the validity and necessity of such pessimistic artistic statements. Self-reflection, self-criticism and correction are very important to the human race and we must continue to look at our faults and support each other in our growth. Instead, the purpose is to encourage as well optimism, hope, charity, and good nature through artistic expressionism. By reminding ourselves of the good of our nation and our people we will encourage each other to continue maturing; by voicing the good deeds done today we will spread the belief that it is possible for dedicated people to change our world for the better; and by rewarding those heroes amongst our society by honoring their service we will strengthen our resolve to show charity again. (a little cheesy)

The Effects of Postmodern Art

By looking into how imagery in advertising has proven to affect its viewers it may be shown how this cynicism is changing our perspectives.
Research shows how imagery affects our opinions and their longevity. Studies at Ohio State University show that “imageable materials enjoy a memorial advantage and, therefore, attitudes based on images may be more likely to persist (Kahle, 65).” It becomes much more difficult to resist a persuasive message when presented with imagery. Mental imagery also has a stronger effect of reality on its audience , thus the viewers of a painting are more likely to accept the opinion of the artist as unbiased truth. Several important factors have been identified as to the effects of imagery.

First is the research that shows that because of the memorability of imagery, visuals may have a stronger effect upon viewers over a sustained interval of time even if the initial effects on the viewer were minimal. As state by Massocco:

The rationale for this contention is that part of the persuasive power of vivid images may be their memorability. However, immediately after the initial reception of a persuasive communication, nonimaginal elements of a communication may be just as salient as imaginal elements. If, over time, the memory traces for the nonimaginal elements decay more rapidly than the traces of the imaginal elements, a delayed vividness effect of imagery may result .

Whether or not the image is actually persuasive can be defined by the resource matching model . This model states that when the amount of resources required in order to process a persuasive image exceeds that of the resources available, message processing will be limited. When this happens, viewers may simply be satisfied with an incomplete version of the argument. When there are more resources available than resources required, it’s possible that the exact opposite will happen; instead, the viewers will begin to disagree with the argument being presented. The model shows that when the resources available and the resources required are equal, maximum persuasion occurs. Thus, in considering art and its persuasiveness, resources must be considered.

Resources required and available would be the knowledge need to understand what the artist is driving at and whether or not the audience is in tune with that audience. With Warhol’s image of Marilyn Monroe, it would be required to understand who Marilyn is and how she was the symbol of modern beauty in that era. It would also be important to understand that Warhol was against commercialization. If any given viewer then had that knowledge available – and also not more knowledge than absolutely necessary – the viewer would then be likely to accept and believe Warhol’s message that America has over commercialized.

In television similar studies have been conducted. Researchers have shown that persuasive images (such as advertisements) have a lasting effect on memory. Using three levels of originality (not original, original, extremely original) and relevance (same) they recorded how well people are able to remember and emote with the presented material. They found that when the message is simply original, not extremely original or bizarre, and when it is relevant, not overtly relevant, that memory retention and viewers emotional response were very high. Thus, taking for example the Weems image of an African-American woman as a scientific test study, we can say that because the piece is fairly original and because the piece would have relevance to anyone in our country who has encountered the issue of racism, that the piece would be remember well and would cause an emotional impact on its viewers. Now must be discerned what the effect of this memory and emotional impact have on the mentioned viewers.

There can be found a similarity between positive and negative responses to children in behavioral studies and artistic expression. Studies at Valdosta University contain the following parameters:
Rules in analyzing examples: The following questions can help in determining whether operant conditioning has occured.

a. What behavior in the example was increased or decreased?
b. Was the behavior increased (if yes, the process has the be either positive or negative reinforcement), or decreased (if the behavior was decreased the process is either response cost or punishment)?
c. What was the consequence / stimulus that followed the behavior in the example?
d. Was the consequence / stimulus added or removed? If added the process was either positive reinforcement or punishment. If it was subtracted, the process was either negative reinforcement or response cost .

By using these parameters they show the following typically results with children. To paraphrase, a Billy enjoys burning bugs in the backyard and does so often. However, one night, older kids sneak up on him while he is burning bugs and light his shoes on fire. Billy has not burned bugs since.

l. What behavior was changed? burning bugs
2. Was the behavior strengthened or weakened? weakened
3. What was the consequence? having water thrown on him
4. Was the consequence added or subtracted? Added

Now it is possible to compare these child-studies with artistic expression. For an example, suppose an owner of a chemical processing plant pollutes a beautiful lake until all the fish therein die in order to produce his process. Now an artist depicts in a painting this owner as a heartless murderer of fish. He paints the owner to have deep sunken eyes, claw like fingers and places him in a black and red environment with dead fish strewn about him. The painting sells very well and is even placed on the front cover of the New York Times. The owner is horribly embarrassed and implements a chemical cleaning processor to the lake to help restore its natural beauty. Other businessmen also see the painting and hear the story and are cautious to avoid similar mistakes. The net result from the cynical painting is a somewhat positive, but not entirely. The lake is better, the fish are returning, there is less pollution, but does is the owner fully motivated to treat his environment with more respect? Perhaps the employees are grossly underpaid, perhaps the company does not pay all it owes in taxes or never shares its wealth with charity. The owner has not been caught for these behaviors and it is unknown whether or not he will seek to clean up other ethical issues in his practices. Although effective, this type of problem solving has only partially improved the situation. What might result from a different approach?

Take, for example, another approach in child-studies. This approach deals more with rewarding positive behavior than punishing a negative behavior: Maggie likes to share her lunch with anyone sitting at her lunch table. Several children recognize her generosity and Maggie gains respect and frienship as a giving person. She then continues to share her lunch, and also share class supplies. A few younger children see Maggie’s generosity and the rewarding respect and make a goal to assume the same generous characterisitcs.

How might this compare with artistic expression? Using a car manufacturer, say this man holds a ball where 10 cars are raffled off and the proceeds are donated to charity. The funds from the charity go to local elementary schools to buy computers for children. A sculptor who is familiar with the manufacturer is hired to do a project for the town square and puts a reference of this charitable act into his piece. When the businessman finds out about this, he is pleased with himself, grateful for the appreciation and decides to run the ball again next year. Other local businessman see the project at town square and are motivated to follow his example in order to receive the same respect. Considering this car manufacturer, upon becoming a local symbol of charity, would he be more likely to do what the previous owner may not? Would he be likely to make sure that his employees are being treated fairly? Would he be likely to make sure he is being honest with his taxes? There is a stronger feeling that he would indeed be more likely to do such things. Furthermore, the chemical plant owner might attend next year’s ball and feel inspired to follow the manufacturer’s example. The artist played a quiet and supportive role in this (highly idealized) example; by reinforcing positive behavior in society, the artist was able to help change and strengthen his environment beyond his simple mention of the charitable act of the manufacturer.

Understanding Old Standards

Perhaps a useful standard to which our modern art may be compared would be that of the late 19th centuries. Although they did not always paint optimistic art, painters of this era primarily considered art as method of positive reinforcement. Artists used their visual communication skills in order inspire citizens of America to have patriotism. Many painters, using positive reinforcement, spent years of their lives seeking to depict key moments of greatness in American history. One such painter was George Peter Alexander Healey.

Healey spent his life painting American history seeking to inspire patronage from the young United States government. In one of his paramount works, Franklin Urging the Claims of the American Colonies before Louis XVI (1847), Healey praises the diplomatic strength of Benjamin Franklin. Commissioned by King Louis Philippe, this painting not only inspired patronage, but also strengthened ties between French and American governments. Healey’s work went on to inspire further historical painters.

Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze continued the tradition of historical painting after Healey. His well known piece, Washington Crossing the Delaware (1852), praised the heroic efforts of American soldiers during the Revolutionary War. Leutze painted the piece hoping for it to be displayed in the Capitol at Washington D.C., but it was instead sold to a private investor in whose studio it was accidentally burned beyond repair. Despite the loss of the piece, the strong memory it arouses in the public’s mind has endured as a symbol of our American forefather’s sacrifice for freedom. Although by 1860 such historical commissions had virtually disappeared, American patronage still continued on for several decades.
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Senior Member

Dominico Tojetti helped to ring about a new style of American patriotism in painting through his symbolical-narrative paintings. His piece, The Progress of America (1875), stands as masterpiece of American idealistic thought. Depicted as the main character is our young America charging westward by two white chargers. The chariot is decorated with a golden eagle, stars and stripes adorn the chariot’s shield, and a cupid prepares to crown her with a laurel. The four women on the right symbolize medicine, art and architecture, music, and agriculture; the two men on the right symbolize learning and the two cupids out in front herald the figures approach with horn and torch. Following this movement, a new kind of quiet dignity arose.
Henry Alexander depicted the details in the life of the American work force. The Laboratory of Thomas Price (1886) shows Price the chemist quietly working away in his laboratory. By painting every object in the scene as a still life in itself, Alexander inspired viewers to appreciate the beauty in the surroundings of their own environments. Such optimism in painting was typical of 20th century artists.

Where do we go from here?
It is important that we seek as artists to remember positive reinforcement in art. By comparing the two styles of influence through artistic expression with behavior-response studies it is imminent that both kinds of art affect our society. The more cynical art, while effective in changing our society, is less likely to have a lasting positive effect. The more positive and rewarding art, on the other hand, is more likely to have a longer lasting effect and even spread beyond its own sphere of influence to inspire others. While speaking about the degradation of fundamental techniques in art practices, artist Stephan Gjertson quoted:

…the attempt to cast aside all rules of the practice of art [such as sound drawing and an understanding of light and shadow] has led to widespread mediocrity and chaos in the visual arts. Everywhere one looks, the pathetic, yet catastrophic, consequences of this liberation are only too visible. One gallery has an exhibition of soiled baby diapers. An “artist” wraps a seacoast in plastic. An “artist” exhibits a series of lacerated mattresses…

The same may be said about the messages of the art therein. It is foolish for us to think that we may cast aside all responsibility in artistic expression. Instead of having art give life to audience, cynicism instead seeks to take it away with cries of woe and despair. We must remember the progressive and optimistic attitude of the founders of the American nation by seeking to remind, glorify, and reward those uplifting events in our society.
This can be accomplished in several ways:

1 – Artists can be more aware of the effects of their art and take resposibility in the results thereof. Where the common phrase amongst artists is found, “I am a product of my environment,” implying that the art the s/he creates expresses the angst of their existance, instead may be substituted a phrase such as “the world is what we make of it.”
2 – Artists can be aware of the positive forces in their lives and seek to strengthen those forces through their art. Where one painter may paint a dead bird as a still life, instead s/he may choose to paint a bird house on the back porch.
3 – Collectors and critics may promote art the exhibits optimism. A gallery considering a photographical essay on explicit child abuse may instead choose to host an essay on the virtues of the modern woman.

By searching for such values in our society and giving our support, artists of our nation will strengthen the principles and practices that have established that have brought our people to where we are today.

Make sure you use either past or present tense, don’t switch all over. Get rid of (we) as much as possible.

What sells more? Decorative/happy art? Negative art? What gets more attention? What do people want to hear? Who is responsible for the visual nourishment of our society?

Feeding the angels among us