Why is “The Scream” So Popular?

There seem to be two types of people in the world; those who think Edward Munch’s picture, The Scream, is an inspired and profound work of art, and those who can’t see what all the fuss is about. The anonymous buyer who paid nearly US$120 million for the pastel on board version (one of four the artist created) auctioned at Sotheby’s in New York on Wednesday is presumably one of the former, although its status as a cultural trophy alone might suggest it was a good financial investment. But how good is it as art?

The wraithlike figure clutching its cheeks, eyes vacant and mouth open in horror, against the backdrop of an Oslo fiord, has been copied and parodied ever since Munch himself made a lithograph of it that could be reproduced in magazines. According to Philip Hook writing in the Southeby’s catalogueThe Scream is the second most recognisable art work in the world, after the “Mona Lisa”. Andy Warhol, Homer Simpson and Macaulay Calkin — the kid actor in Home Alone — have all played their part in popularising it, along with therapists, cartoonists, advertising men and makers of everything from coffee cups to shower curtains.

How long will that cultural ballast last? Will The Scream (version 4) hold its value, or end up as an costly white elephant in some Middle Eastern monarch’s estate (the Royal Family of Qatar was among the top bidders) when the Munch boom is over? As it must be one day.

Sceptics of The Scream’s artistic merit range from the London Times’ chief art critic, Rachel Campbell-Johnston, to certain philistines visiting The Telegraph’s website. Comments from the latter on the auction include: “Screaming all the way to the bank.” “Possibly the most overrated piece of Art in Art History. The A-level student’s favourite prop…” “It’s a more convenient way of storing GBP 50m than gold bars, I suppose.” No doubt a lot of the common man’s envy in that, but The Times’s art critic should be taken more seriously. The BBC quotes her thus:

Rachel Campbell-Johnston … is not a fan. The Scream’s popularity, she believes, derives from a tendency to regard artforms prefixed with adjectives like “edgy”, “dark” and “disturbing” as somehow superior to those which are light and joyful.

Indeed, she draws an analogy with a teenager listening to overwrought, depressing music in their bedroom, before learning as they grow older to appreciate a songwriter like Bob Dylan who deals with subtler, more complex emotions.

“The Scream is almost childish in its directness,” she says. “That’s why you see it in so many university halls of residence. What you get out of that painting is not something that deepens over time.

“It appeals to an immature taste. As you get older you want something different – art that transforms the everyday rather than goes to the extremes of human emotion.”

She makes some good points, I believe. On the other hand, as a Wall Street Journal article informs us, one of the world’s top collectors told Southeby’s: “I could sell all my pictures, put this one on my wall, put my chair here with a cup of coffee and stare at it for the rest of my life and be happy.”

Happy? Even with the proviso of a good supply of coffee this has to be the overstatement of the century, the current one anyway. Happiness is certainly not the emotion that springs to mind in connection with The Scream. Munch himself was the opposite of happy when he first created it — alcoholic and chain-smoking, penniless and reeling from a disastrous love affair, haunted by the deaths of his mother and sister during his childhood, terrified he would succumb to the mental illness that ran in his family, he was in a state of despair.

But his melancholy vision went further than that; it concerned what he called “the modern life of the soul” and what Munch biographer Sue Prideaux refers to as a widespread, late-19th century sense of unease as the works of Darwin and Nietzsche corroded the faiths of previous generations. Personal experience and the cultural currents of the time left him with a sense of the alienation of modern, urban man from his own nature and nature in the broader sense. Hence the verse, written in his own hand on the frame of the version of The Scream currently in question:

I was walking along the road with two Friends
the Sun was setting — The Sky turned a bloody red
And I felt a whiff of Melancholy – I stood
Still, deathly tired – over the blue-black
Fjord and City hung Blood and Tongues of Fire
My Friends walked on – I remained behind
– shivering with Anxiety – I felt the great Scream in Nature

The poem highlights the ambiguity of the picture’s title, which is commonly understood to refer to what the central figure is doing. Munch’s description suggests, rather, that the scream is what the figure is hearing, and responding to in self-protective terror. The idea of a “scream in nature” is one that resonates strongly with today’s awareness of the environmental degradation wrought by industrial culture over the last two centuries, already evident in the grey, polluted cities of Munch’s own time.

That is only one of the many meanings that can be read into Munch’s endlessly adaptable theme. There’s the prophetic: Munch had a prescient vision of the horrors to come during the wars, persecutions and famines of the twentieth century. The Freudian: sexual guilt induced by his over-pious father is said to have plagued Munch; primal scream therapy (as a remedy for repression) took its cue from him. The evolutionary: a psychologist who has studied people’s eye movements when they are shown unpleasant images evoking horror says they are hard to ignore. “You could speculate that this gives you an evolutionary advantage to spot things which are going to hurt or kill you,” he suggests. “Or you might argue that these basic emotions are easier to recognise and process than others that are more complex.”

Personally, I prefer Rachel Campbell-Johnston’s explanation — that the popularity of The Scream is culturally induced, the result of a contemporary bias towards art forms that are “edgy”, “dark” and “disturbing” over those which are light and joyful. The art collector who could contemplate Munch’s dark and disturbing symbol of alienation for the rest of his life is very much in tune with today’s artistic elite. But his predilection for angst and trauma does not seem very healthy, nor, as the evolutionary psychologist hinted, very sophisticated. Love and joy lift us out of ourselves and demand so much more of us.

Despair and horror may have their place in art — I am not sure — but it is a sick culture that glorifies them. Perhaps, then, the instinct of pop culture to parodyThe Scream is a healthy one. Homer Simpson may provide an important perspective on this celebrated, and surely over-valued, artefact.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.

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Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.

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