A painting of a person smiling.

Solve Tough Problems Using Indirect Means

What Jackson Pollock and astronomy have in common.

In the film, Ex Machina, two characters stand in front of a painting. The painting is by Jackson Pollock. The character, Nathan, gestures to it and says, “Look over here. You know this guy, right?” To which the character, Caleb, replies, “Pollock.” Nathan says, “Pollock. The drip painter. He let his mind go blank, and his hand go where it wanted. Not deliberate, not random. Someplace in between. They called it automatic art.”1

Pollock did this so as to “strip away artifice and unlock basic creative instincts deep within the artist’s personality.”2 He wanted to remove conscious action from the process. To actively paint, but rely on factors outside his consciousness to decide what went where. In 2006, one single Pollock painting sold for $140 million.3 The piece was created in 1948, one year after he began painting with this method.4

The skeptic would call this nonsense. It’s just over-publicized paint splatters! The mystic would call this a work of the subconscious, the universe, the divine! What is the reality? Does it matter? If his objective was to sell paintings, he sold them. Life magazine did a feature of him in 1949 that “changed Pollock’s life overnight.” Case in point, that same year, “Pollock’s show at the Betty Parsons Gallery sold out, and he suddenly became the best-paid avant-garde painter in America.”

 

The Eye Amongst the Stars

On the next clear night, go outside. Look up to the sky. To the stars. Find one that appeals to you. Stare at it. Take it all in. Then, watch as it fades. The more you look, the harder it will be to see. Meanwhile, the less attractive stars nearby suddenly will become much brighter. That is, until you turn your attention to them. Suddenly, they too will fade and the one you turned away from will shine brilliantly once more.

Noted in ScienceFocus, “Astronomers call [this] ‘averted vision’, and it exploits the fact that our eyes contain two types of light-detecting cells.” Those cells are rods and cones. Rods are more light-sensitive and are not as centrally located as cones.5 Put another way, the peripheral is better at picking up light, the center of your eye is better at picking up color. When staring at a star, the part of your eye that is best equipped for seeing it isn’t the center then. It’s the peripheral.

The more you try to see a star head-on, the more elusive it becomes. But as you adjust your gaze, it grows brighter. As stated in the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, “… when we are observing a faint astronomical object, such as a nebula or galaxy, we obtain a stronger image if we direct our line of sight not straight at the object in question but slightly to one side of it.”

 

Breathing Towards a Solution

In Pollock, we have unconscious creation. We have what is known as Automatism. In astronomy, we have periphery observance. We have averted vision. You could make the argument that they are the same thing though. In both examples, there is the solving of a problem. But not through obvious means. To solve the problem, it must be done so indirectly. You must be actively aware of its existence, but not actively looking for its solution.

The more you stare at it, the less clear it becomes.

To see the magnificence of the night sky, look at it from the peripheral. To create an artistic masterpiece, look at it from the subconscious. Is it a coincidence that complex entities can be looked at indirectly from the eye and the mind? Or is there something more to it? And if so, what other problems can be solved by coming at them from less direct approaches?

This past weekend, I sat quietly in a chair. I looked out my window at the trees beyond. The timer on my phone was set for one hour. And for that hour, I simply meditated. I don’t meditate much anymore, but I had something I wanted to work through. So I closed my eyes and followed my breath. Inhale, exhale, in, out.

Meditation is more about clearing your mind, letting thoughts pass, than active resolution. But I had a hunch. I put myself in a peaceful environment. I turned my attention away from the problem. Further, I gave myself nothing but time and no other option. I was to sit in that chair for an hour and see what came up. It wasn’t long after that when a thought arose. Actually, a couple thoughts. One was the solution to a problem I wasn’t actively looking for. Another was a better understanding of my main problem at hand. In both cases, the insights were invaluable.

 

Moving Forward with Indirect Means

I solved one problem indirectly. I gained clarity on the other problem through similar means. The skeptics would say I gave myself ample time to think and thus naturally arrived at a solution. The mystics would say I allowed the universe to provide what I was looking for. Again, I ask, what is the reality? And, does it matter?6

If the eye can see better looking from the side and the artist can create better through relaxed consciousness, what else can the human body achieve through indirect means? Further, what can you do better through indirect means?

I don’t have the answer to that question. It’s interesting to note though just how counterintuitive the ideal actions can be. Instinct says to look directly at the star. Instinct says to intentionally paint one line after another. And instinct says to solve your problems by focusing on them. But it’s not until you soften your gaze and look to the side that what you seek becomes visible. So, if you face a problem with no clear answer, consider coming at it from a less intuitive approach.

 

Superscripts:

  1. Big thanks to this Reddit feed for providing this portion of the script. I recently saw Ex Machina for the first time and can confirm that the quote I used in this article is accurate. Or, at least, accurately serves the spirit of the message.
  2. This article on Automatism goes on to explain that, “Automatism has since become a part of the technical repertoire of modern painting, though its prominence declined with that of Action painting itself.” It may not be as popular today, but if it didn’t work, would his paintings still be as valuable?
  3. Entitled, No. 5, 1948, the painting was created at, “the beginning of his drip period.” (Source)
  4. Noted by Britannica, “It is generally recognized that Jackson Pollock’s abstract drip paintings, executed from 1947, opened the way to the bolder, gestural techniques that characterize Action painting.”
  5. As noted in CosmicPursuits: “Cones detect color under well-lit conditions and are densely packed in the fovea, the area near the center of your retina. Cones help you see color and fine detail, which is why you look directly at objects you want to see well, like books, movies, and faces. Rods are mostly away from the center of your retina. You see less detail with the rods, as you notice when, for example, you try to read a magazine with your peripheral vision. Rods do not detect color, they are far more sensitive to light.”
  6. This event occurred before I heard of Pollock’s technique or wrote this article. So my bias shouldn’t be a factor.