The Scream

This morning I woke up and checked my email as usual, and as usual there were a few stories on my homepage with varying degrees of worthiness to actually be called news. The one that caught my eye was about the famous painting, The Scream. Everyone knows the painting. It crossed from the elite wold of artistry into secular circles a while ago. It has been reprinted in every imaginable form, from neckties to final projects in animation classes. It has been slightly mocked and greatly appreciated. It has definitely become a common symbol that we share. I am about to do something that I rarely consciously do and qualify it by saying, “It is a good painting.” It evokes emotions. It says something. Most people seem to be pleased by it and some are even fanatical. I have met a few people that are ambivalent towards it, but never have I met anyone who actually dislikes the painting. I generally refrain to from referring to art as “good” or “bad” but all of this points to a high quality piece of work.

Apparently there are four versions of the painting. Three are on display in public museums, and the fourth was owned by a private collector, who decided that it was time to pass it along. The forth is the only copy of the painting in a hand painted frame with the poem that inspired the painting along the boarder. It sold for the most any painting has ever sold for in an auction: $119 million.

Take a moment and let that sink in. $119 million. For me that is unfathomable. I only recently have started to be able to think in thousands. I sometimes think about the thousands of euro that a house would cost in Bulgaria, daydreaming about living slow and fruitful days in the rhadopes. But really I think in ones and twos. The cost of a beer, a haircut, maybe a few hundred leva for a project. I cannot imagine thinking in millions. Millions that are spent on one painting.I poked around in a few more articles and I found that I was not the only one a little unsettled by this. Apparently there were protesters outside of this auction, protesting the way that art falls into the hands of the very rich. Their complaints resonate within me, but they seem somehow incomplete. This begs more questions than just those of fair distribution of wealth. Art is tricky and slippery and does not hold a solid place within society, which bothers me.

The question begins to branch and things get confusing. There is the question of:

  1. How does one person have $119 million to spend on a single painting when many people don’t have two dollars for lunch? This is a question of the occupy movement and the 1%. It has been asked a lot over the past year, and people have complained about it, but I have yet to hear theories let along answers regarding it. I think of all of the questions this situation evokes this is the easiest to wrap my head around and also the easiest for people to accept.
  2. Is a painting worth that much? What makes that painting so unique over all of the other paintings in the world? Is that even the value of the painting, or the value of its social placement? I have often wondered why one person becomes famous and another doesn’t. I look at art that my friends make, some trained and others not, and often I like it just as much, if not more, than the art that I have seen in museums and galleries. I cannot figure out what made these paintings different, except that maybe the artist was in the right place at the right time. Their story was one that melted the heart of someone in power. They were seen to be marketable. This makes me think that art encompasses much more than just technique and expression, but is actually an entire force of society.
  3. What does it mean for art and artistry if fame is included in the equation? This is the same with music. Pop music, pop art. It is something fed to the masses that we are all told that we should like. It makes it very hard to form our own opinions, often because most of what we encounter is not even something worth forming an opinion about.
  4. Should art that has become a public symbol remain in the private sector, traded by those who can actually own the voice and expression of a culture? I don’t like museums. They creep me out. I went to the MoMA in San Francisco once. I found the building intriguing. I found its guts to be overwhelming. While my friends were prepared to wander the walls for hours I had to leave before lunch. I couldn’t breath inside. There is something about artwork without context and without purpose collected together that upsets me. However, at the same time there are certain pieces that have become so famous that they are almost public property, and what other way is there to make them available other than to put them on display for $5 a viewing, free on the third Thursday of the month? This produces the question of what is the point of seeing the original? If a piece of work has become so famous as to be symbolic, then the importance of that symbol rests not in its original, but in the crude lines of its agreed upon reconstruction. 

I don’t understand art. I don’t even pretend to. Even writing, which I love to dabble in and to explore, is something that I do not understand once it crosses into artistry and fame. All that I know is that when I read that article something did not sit right within me. I felt sickened. Something in the world is not adding up as it should. These questions of value and worth need to be asked, and eventually they need to be answered. I hope that when those answers come they begin to formulate a society with standards that I can agree with, where there are things worth far more than the power and status behind a single painting.

I am sure that my artist friends are not in agreement with me. Perhaps that is where I should start these questions.

2 thoughts on “The Scream

  1. Hi, Koji. Just ran across the link to your blog on Facebook, so I'm catching up with back entries. I now have you on my RSS feed reader so I can keep up with your adventures more promptly, I miss you and enjoy the way you write.

    RE: the art world, and millionaires buying art. Sometimes, I think that artists have perpetuated the biggest joke ever, which is the idea of paying millions of dollars for art. What if it's one giant wink? I think sometimes it MUST be, when I see some modern art. Like the descriptions and artist statements are the biggest crock of crap they could come up with and sell with a straight face. But, unfortunately… maybe they've all started believing it? Or most of them, at any rate? And their hangers-on, and the people who don't get the joke? So I'm not sure if it's good or if it's bad, but it weirds me out.

    I just continue to happily go along making art for the reason of making people happy. That's good enough for me.

  2. Brody,

    I was talking with a girl about this the other day and she said that she was recently at a modern art gallery. One of the pieces was simply 1 brown egg and 1 white egg. Important art? Yeah, all you can do is giggle.

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