The $120 Million Scream and Other Marketplace Absurdities
Nearly everyone knows by now that “The Scream” — Edvard Munch’s iconic doodle of modern angst — broke auction records earlier this month when it sold for a few dollars shy of $120 million. In the weeks since, I’ve been thinking more and more about that sale and what it means.
I should confess right up front that I like both “The Scream” and the Norwegian artist from whose tortured mind it sprang more than a century ago. It’s probably not Munch’s greatest work. (That honor could go to “Jealousy” or “The Storm” or “Evening on Karl Johan Street” or any of a half-dozen others.) It’s not even a finely executed work of art by any standard. But who can forget it?
Still, $120 million represents a pretty hefty pile of American cabbage even for an unforgettable work of art, especially during a borderline depression. What else can you buy for $120 million these days? How about 120 vintage mansions at a million dollars a pop… or 3000 years of tuition at an elite American university… or 200,000 42″ flat-screen TVs… or a million hours of psychotherapy… or 10 million medium pizzas, each with two toppings of your choice… or (if you’re really conscientious) 60 million meals for poor people? You get the point.
The kicker is that the $120 million Scream wasn’t even the original that so many of us remember so vividly from our art history classes. In fact, it’s not even a painting. Munch created four versions of his most famous work, one of which was a crudely scrawled pastel imitation of the tempera original (which was pretty crude-looking to begin with). This pastel knock-off is the version that fetched the record sum at Sotheby’s earlier this month. (For that matter, the world’s priciest painting of all time, sold to the Persian Gulf mini-nation of Qatar last year for around $250 million, was simply one of five versions of Cezanne’s “Card Players.”)
Why would otherwise sane people pay a literal fortune for a second-rate copy of “The Scream”? It’s certainly not for the beauty of the image, the quality of the craftsmanship or the need to contemplate a profound expression of the human spirit (you could open an art book for the same experience). It’s not even for the chance to display such a famous image in your home and be the envy of your friends. Nobody would be reckless enough to leave a $120 million investment on the wall where burglars could snatch it, fire could consume it, or the cleaning lady could spray it with Endust.
So why would they buy it? For the bragging rights. For the investment value. Because they can.
For better or worse, the business of serious art collecting has always been the province of the economic elite. Why for better? Because only the elite can afford to lavish such extravagant sums on our struggling artists (especially after those artists are safely dead). From the Medicis to Henry Clay Frick to the faceless Japanese, Arab and American industrialists who keep smashing each other’s bidding records today, the super-rich have essentially run the art business since the dawn of the Renaissance. The more munificent plutocratic benefactors endow great museums or open their collections to the public, a favor for which the public should be decently grateful. By contrast, workers’ societies tend to favor public murals and propaganda posters.
Still, the incursion of today’s überwealth into the art world has produced some strange and unsettling trends…
Sticker shock. Of the 40 most expensive paintings of all time, all 40 were sold since 1987 — fittingly enough, as the Nouveau Gilded Age was taking shape under the smiling eyes of Ronald Reagan. And yes, the prices have been adjusted for inflation. The highest inflation-adjusted price previously paid for a work of art was $35 million for Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci back in 1967. (Not on the “top 40” list, as you probably surmised.)
The disappearance of great art from public view. Yes, we can still pay our respects to the Mona Lisa and thousands of other great works in museums around the globe. But the tendency now is for mega-rich buyers to squirrel away their prizes and effectively make them vanish. Case in point: Back in 1990, Japanese paper manufacturing tycoon Ryoei Saito bought van Gogh’s beloved “Portrait of Dr. Gachet” for the then-record sum of $82.5 million ($146.5 million in 2012 dollars). The elderly Saito loved the painting so much that he expressed a desire to have it cremated with him when he shuffled off this mortal coil. Though the painting survived Saito’s demise in 1996, its current whereabouts are unknown.
Saito’s recklessly whimsical desire raises a disturbing question: does the owner of a world-class work of art have the right to destroy it, the way a home buyer can tear down a historic house? Can he paint a purple mustache on it or cut it down to a more compact size if that’s what he wants? It’s his private property, after all. Entrusting great art to private collectors entails a great deal of trust. Maybe we need to designate the finest works as world-heritage landmarks, sacred and inviolable.
A bias toward trendy, overhyped modern artists. Yes, painters of genius like Cezanne, Monet and van Gogh have fetched top dollar; that much is fitting and proper. I’ll even give the clever, overrated Picasso a pass as a groundbreaker of consequence. (He accounts for 10 of the top 40 priciest paintings.) But would you have guessed that the #2 and #3 spots belong to Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning? That’s right: in 2006, show-biz potentate David Geffen managed to unload a pair of their inscrutable daubings for $140 million and $137.5 million, respectively. Other “top 40” artists include Francis Bacon, Jasper Johns, Mark Rothko and, of course, that ubiquitous poseur Andy Warhol. (His “Eight Elvises” sold for $100 million in 2008.)
The irrelevance of scarcity and merit. Are the Pollocks, de Koonings and Warhols of the art world really worth so much more than Leonardo? Of course not. And Leonardo has the advantage of scarcity on his side: his output includes only 15 indisputable paintings, some of which were abandoned in the early stages, while others (like The Last Supper) happen to be attached to walls. So why the outrageous sums for Leonardo’s latter-day inferiors? Demand, for one. The overpriced contemporary artists are sexier than Leonardo (in the loosest sense of the word; Warhol wasn’t exactly Don Juan). They’re sexy in the sense that they emit sparks of danger and in-your-face irreverence. And of course, sex appeal routinely outsells nobility or beauty in today’s free market.
The artificial inflation of reputations. A critical issue, and one that partly explains the absence of so many Old Masters from the “top 40” list. Modern artists, like Hollywood celebrities and professional athletes, benefit from a vast, pervasive and free publicity machine that keeps their names in the public eye and inflates their value. When Angelina Jolie’s pillow-lipped face appears on half the magazine covers we see at the supermarket checkout counter, we assume that she’s worth something. No matter that we can’t remember more than one or two of her actual performances; the media continually tell us that she’s a commodity.
The same law holds true for modern artists. They generally don’t make the cover of People magazine, but their names achieve a similar currency within the smaller and tighter art community. Notable art critics and other tastemakers fawn over their works and interpret them for the rest of us. Galleries display their canvases reverently for all to see. Adoring art professors coo over them. Moneyed connoisseurs gab about them at fashionable parties. When a collector pays $140 million for a Jackson Pollock splatterfest, he’s essentially paying for the ultimate designer label in modern American art. Meanwhile, countless artists of superior talent languish in obscurity. They never made the right connections at arty New York soirees.
The influence of contextual pricing. Sounds like an arcane principle borrowed from an economics textbook, but it’s really a simple matter of habit: we become accustomed to paying much larger sums for some types of goods than for other types of goods. For example, I think nothing of spending $150 for a single night in a serviceable hotel, yet I balk at paying $12 for a tempting jar of lime-ginger preserves that could give me pleasure for the better part of a year. Why? Because I know that far too many decent hotel rooms fetch $200 or more a night, while I can enjoy a comparable jar of preserves (though maybe not lime-ginger) for $7 or so. We’ve grown accustomed to hotel rooms, restaurant liquor, college tuition, theater tickets and works of art being grossly overpriced… so we tend not to protest when we have to pay up. Maybe we should protest.
The widening gap between the super-rich and everyone else. Today’s outrageous wealth disparities account for much of the outlandish pricing. After all, we live in a society where Donald Trump commands $1.5 million for a one-hour speaking engagement while the wretches who write for online “content farms” earn $5 an article. Of course the Donald Trumps and their colleagues within the top .001 percent can part with $100 million plus for a work of art; that princely sum represents a few months’ income for their crowd.
In short, the billionaires rule the art world, as they rule over so much else today, from sports to banking to entertainment to politics. No surprise there. We have to appreciate the irony of struggling, perspiring, emotionally and financially tormented artists posthumously earning millions while feeding the egos of billionaires with money to burn. It might be a little more surprising that those billionaires actually take an interest in art. I suppose that’s a good sign, though of course they’ve forever lifted notable art beyond the budgets of petty-bourgeois players like you and me.
If we require any consolation, we can always open our art books or visit the local museum. Better yet, we can buy the works of talented, little-known artists whose works grace the walls of local galleries and coffee-houses. We even can buy ourselves a nice reproduction of “The Scream” for considerably less than $120 million. It’ll be Munch’s original version, too — not his shoddy pastel knock-off. And we won’t have to live in fear that the cleaning lady might spray it with Endust.