I don’t know very much about art. In freshman year of college I walked out of Introduction to Art History to go to the bathroom and kind of just never went back. I do know that Art Deco is when it looks like it belongs on the cover of an Ayn Rand novel, and Art Nouveau is when it looks like it needs to be pruned. If it’s a cartoon woman saying a non sequitur it’s Roy Lichtenstein, and if it’s a cartoon woman who looks like she belongs on the front window of a nail salon it’s Patrick Nagel. If it’s something you can go inside of, it’s architecture. That about sums up what I could tell you about art.
Nevertheless, even a philistine like me can love the Minneapolis Institute of Art. This gargantuan museum just on the southern cusp of downtown Minneapolis houses treasures from all over the world, some ancient, some brand new. I go for a walk around there often, and I’ve gotten to know what my favorite pieces are. They are like friends who I visit.
When you enter through the museum’s north entrance, you’re met by the Doryphoros, a Roman copy of the Greek statue of the same name. It is over 2,000 years old, and only an arm and a few fingers the poorer for it. The Doryphoros is the perfect doorman for the museum because it reminds us that art is the way we thumb our noses at time and death and entropy. He may stand for yet another 2,000 years, and he would still have perfect abs.
The art of Asia is nearby. I love the drawings: intent men holding swords, bright roosters fighting weasels, and a tiger mother with an expression as though she has just realized how bizarrely she has been drawn. There are dozens of statues of mansions, carriages, horses, pigs, and everything else you might need. They were meant to be buried with the deceased for use in the afterlife. Do you know the expression “You can’t take it with you?” That’s because the ancient Chinese took it with them first.
There’s Hercules giving a centaur the business, a symbol of our supremacy over nature. There’s an old hand-painted advertisement with a bear eating from a box of Cream of Wheat, a symbol of nature’s supremacy over us. After that comes a statue of Ganymede giving water to Zeus, a symbol of Zeus’ supremacy over everything.
I go to see The Four Days’ Battle, an amazing depiction of war at sea, all smoke and splinters and wind. I go to see The Cat’s Paw, a cheeky monkey enlisting an unwilling cat’s help to retrieve nuts from a roaring hot stove. I go to see the Portrait of Sarah Allen, the wife of a Boston aristocrat who was fortunate to live back when she did — if she were around now, she would be haunted by her resemblance to Steve Buscemi. I go to see The Coaci Inkstand, the thing I would most like to bring home from the museum. It once belonged to Pope Pius VI. What did he think about when he made the two little doves on the elaborate inkstand kiss by pressing a lever beneath them?
But my very favorite thing in the museum wasn’t made by the Chinese 4,000 years ago, the Romans 2,000 years ago, or even the Americans recently. It was made by Ghanaians in 1993. Fantasy Coffin is an enormous wooden lobster which you could be buried in, if you were so inclined. No crustacean detail was spared in its carving, from its spindly antennae to its googly eyes to its articulated tail. It combines all the appeal of a coffin along with a giant green lobster and it multiplies that one hundredfold.
Finally, I exit through the gift shop.
By David Scheller