Michelangelo, Master Problem Solver What Doesn’t Belong?

Article by CHERYL LENTZ, Ph.D.

When one creates art, the question to ask is whether one starts with a blank canvas to add to or instead focuses on the art of taking away that which does not belong. Michelangelo was a visionary as well as a master artist, particularly in his approach to sculpting that we might take a lesson from specific to problem solving. In his mind’s eye, Michelangelo would already see the sculpture in the obelisk of granite or marble before him. All he had to do was simply remove that which did not belong. As a professor of critical and refractive thinking, I feel Michelangelo’s approach to problem solving is a road not often taken by my students or fellow travelers. When one creates a painting, one starts with a myriad of choices that need to be made such as medium, design, color, brushes, technique, and so much more, to add to. These decisions must be made before ever beginning the project. In contrast, Michelangelo began with the end in mind. He already knew his vision and what the sculpture looked like beneath the marble as if he possessed the x-ray vision of Superman. It was as if the statue was already there within the stone that Michelangelo could clearly see, he simply perfected the art of taking away the pieces that didn’t belong to reveal the masterpiece he already knew existed. How many of us might start with this end in mind approach —to see what is already there to merely take away that which does not belong. If we already know the end destination, if we could simply see the beauty of the statue in its final form, might we end up in a different place? This is an interesting question to ponder when considering effective techniques for problem solving. For some people, a trip begins by getting in the car, putting the car in gear, and driving forward. Others carefully program the address into some magical technological marvel to ensure to get to where they want to go, knowing the final destination before ever beginning the journey. The magic of Michelangelo is in his vision and problem-solving approach. Michelangelo already knew what the statue looked like and where he would go in perfect elegant detail. He could already see the statue in its perfection beneath the shapeless block of granite before ever touching a tool. He wasn’t adding to, instead, he simply was taking from. The statue was already complete, whole, and perfect in the mind’s eye of the master artist. The ultimate question for us to consider is our approach to problem solving from the simplicity of either adding to or taking away perspective. Might our project already be complete, and whole, and perfect in the mind’s eye as well, where our focus becomes to simply take away that which might not belong? This strategy is worth contemplating as a lesser road that few find strength and courage to travel.