Feature

The Scream: Worth $120 million?

Last week, an unknown bidder shelled out the highest amount of money ever paid for an artwork at auction.

If someone gave you $120 million, said Holland Cotter in The New York Times, would you spend it on The Scream? Me neither. But last week that astounding sum—the highest ever paid for an artwork at auction—is what an unknown bidder paid to own “one of the best-known images in the world.” The 1895 painting, one of four versions painted by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, is a haunting image of a man shrieking with existential dread against a blood-red sunset. The winning bid—enough money to fill a small museum with truly great art—was proof that “whatever shape the economy is in, there’s no limit to private cash, and art is a place where people like to park it.” Call it art if you like, said A.N. Wilson in The Daily Mail (U.K.). I call it a “rather silly, badly executed cartoon.” So “why is The Scream worth so much money?”

Assigning a monetary value to a painting is inherently arbitrary, said Jerry Saltz in NYMag.com. But The Scream is a true work of art, a prophetic taste of Expressionism on the cusp of the 20th century in which the sky itself glows with evil portent, the central figure is trapped between worlds, and “alienation blazes.” Oh, come now, said Felix Salmon in Reuters.com. The Scream’s price is wholly the product of the fact that it’s “a cultural icon,” appropriated by everyone from Andy Warhol to The Simpsons and immortalized on millions of mugs, T-shirts, and refrigerator magnets. What this unknown buyer paid for wasn’t art, but “the result of a century’s worth of marketing and hype.”

Today’s art market is mostly about hype, said Abigail R. Esman in Forbes.com. As this record sale shows, the fabulously wealthy private collectors who now dominate the art world care less about owning the world’s great paintings than they do about being “the one to pay—or to acquire—the highest price for them.” Their obscene spending perfectly illustrates “the gaping inequalities of our age,” said Michael Casey in The Wall Street Journal. Most people face a gloomy economic future “shadowed by mountainous debts,” while a tiny cadre of the über-rich compete with each other to pay ever-more outrageous sums and inflate the art bubble. When the 99 percent hear that some billionaire spent $120 million on a piece of cardboard covered with pastel and paint, “all they can do is scream.”

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