Round wheels vs Square

In 1965 UCLA zoologists did a study to determine if mice preferred round exercise wheels or square ones. Mice were given round exercise wheels for a period of time and then they were traded out for square ones.  Then the mice were given a choice of either square or round wheels.  The majority of mice chose the square wheels.  Go figure.  It was theorized that the mice preferred the square wheels because they were more challenging, requiring more coordination as they jumped the corners as much as 9 times per second. What does this have to do with art and Aesthetics you ask?  Let me see if I can make a connection.

In 2001 a study was done at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The average time spent looking at a piece of art was 17 seconds.  Another study done at the Louvre showed that the average time spent looking at the acclaimed Mona Lisa was a mere 15 seconds. I don’t know if the studies took into consideration the shows on exhibit or the number of people crowded in front of the work but the point is, people seem to feel they can grasp the meaning of a piece of art very quickly.  Oh yea they will say, that is a landscape or that is a portrait or a depiction of the crucifixion and so on. Amazing technique they may say. When meaning is easily depicted we are able to take in the work rather quickly.  Like a round exercise wheel.  Works that seem to have a deeper meaning than the initial impact make looking at art more challenging, It requires more time to gather the information.

Max Beckman is a good example of art that for me is in the square wheel category. Here are two works that I consider having square wheels that require more time to gather meaning.


Who are these people and why are they gathered in this strange space?  The man with the mask is a self portrait of the artist. Why is he wearing a mask?

Are these people relatives or family?  Why the saxophone on the floor? 

The questions are endless and for me the interest is also endless.  


What is a trapeze act doing in an interior that is much too small?

Who are these performers that look like a tangle of marionettes.

The works are fascinating, beautiful and intriguing.

I am drawn to them to try to grasp the meaning that is surely there and am happy to invest more time in the process.

I may never grasp what Max Beckman is trying to convey exactly but I find having to jump the corners well worth the investment of time.

In my own work I endeavor to have at least a bit of square wheel and hopefully engage my audience for longer than 17 seconds.