Like the much-ballyhooed arrival of the Mona Lisa to New York a half-century ago, the sixth-month sojourn of Edvard Munch’s The Scream at MOMA will prove an epochal landmark. Expect hundreds of thousands (possibly millions) of people to line up with timed tickets to view art’s most recognizable image of modern alienation now bamboozled into common spectacle by its absurd sticker price.
First time tragedy, second time farce. In 1962, John and Jackie Kennedy and French Culture Minister André Malraux hatched a diplomatic plot to ship the World’s Greatest Painting to the U.S. Months later, the Mona Lisa arrived in New York like Brangelina at the Oscars—trailing a huge security detail and smiling ineffably at the paparazzi. The Lincoln Tunnel was closed for her on the president’s orders; when Andy Warhol got wind of the ruckus, he said brightly: “Gee, why don’t they just send a reproduction? Nobody would know the difference.” The painting’s 1,077,521 visitors—they were rushed five abreast over four weeks in front of Leonardo da Vinci’s canvas at a rate of 0.79 seconds per person—certainly wouldn’t have been able to tell.
Transforming The Scream from universal image of despair into 21st-century trophy of ridiculous consumption proved much easier than turning La Gioconda into a Hollywood glamourpuss. Purchased in May by New York money manager Leon Black for the record price of $120 million, The Scream instantaneously left behind its previous life as a modernist “masterpiece” and middlebrow icon—geniuses Warhol, Macaulay Culkin, and Wes Craven have copied it for their own respective franchises—to take on a newfangled identity as “the world’s most expensive work of art ever to sell at auction.” The once richly symbolic work was then slotted (leveraged?) into a prize corner of MOMA, thanks to board member Black and the institution’s top brass. The Scream has resided there since last week (record time for conceiving, planning, and mounting an exhibition), inside the august Alfred H. Barr Jr. Painting and Sculpture Galleries. Dramatically lit and horribly diminished behind thick Plexiglas covering, it hangs there, on lavish life support. In a phrase: It’s like seeing a once-vibrant family member vegetate after a massive coronary.
The tacky sale and equally indecent exhibition of The Scream at MOMA is to business as usual in art what Mitt Romney is to pet care—figuratively speaking, the picture now rides strapless on the roof of a museum town car. The physical materialization, in the words of one auction protester, “of the ways in which objects of artistic creativity have become the exclusive province of the 1 percent,” the work has changed utterly. Although The Scream might factually be the same object it has been for 117 years, its current image is nothing but a pale substitute. Once a haunting portrait of existential dread, today’s discretely decorous panel presents itself as a body-snatched facsimile. From Munch’s vision of psychological darkness made visible, the remarkably rough drawing has shape-shifted into the mother of all positional goods: a privately held, gold-framed emblem of one mogul’s (and a quisling institution’s) place within the newly financialized global nexus of money, power, status, and art. At a solid nine figures, who the hell cares what that crazy worm depicts anyway?
In speaking of the original 1893 version of The Scream—the work at MOMA is a substantially inferior 1895 pastel-on-paper copy the artist made from a painting presently housed at the National Museum of Art, Architecture, and Design, in Oslo—the late Robert Hughes once quipped that Munch’s distraught homunculus was “to neurosis what the Mona Lisa is to smiles.” But it is precisely that urbanely anguished, fin-de-siècle neurosis that has led figures like MOMA director Glenn Lowry to label The Scream “the Mona Lisa of modern art.” Hughes’s pithier comparison, for its part, raises a more trenchant present-day connection. That is, namely, what the canny Australian understood to be the single biggest development in art during the past 50 years—the rise of the ethics-eating monster that is the expanding global art market.
Contained in a two-hour 2008 documentary appropriately called The Mona Lisa Curse, Hughes’s devastating argument against art’s evolving commodification identified a financial cabal of collectors (or collector-dealers), dealers (dealer-speculators), artists (artists-dealers), and institutions (with various combinations of the latter on their boards) reveling like figures out of The Garden of Earthly Delights. (To this list can now be added many thousands of international collectors, advisers, and dealers from billionaire-rich authoritarian countries like China, Russia, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, and Baku.) Their purpose, according to Hughes: to brazenly manipulate “how art is made and sold and, above all, experienced.” The origins of this chilling historical phenomenon, the critic claimed, lay with the Met’s original Mona Lisa blockbuster. Hughes called that show the key 20th-century event in art’s shift toward money and celebrity. In light of this example, it’s difficult to not see MOMA’s “special, six-month exhibition of Edvard Munch’s iconic The Scream” for what it clearly is:a far scarier, fully financialized, recession-proof sequel. To paraphrase the tag line from the movie Halloween: I wish it were only a nightmare.
If artworks could talk, or, in this case, scream, Munch’s painting would yell its little bald head off. But surrounded by some 11, mostly minor works by the artist inside MOMA’s dark, battleship-gray galleries, The Scream barely manages a whimper. A picture whose essential artistic purpose was once to communicate the despairing correspondences between man and nature (it was initially titled The Scream of Nature), its blunt blue figures and squiggly orange skies today retain none of their old shock value. Instead, Munch’s artworks at MOMA are upended by a much bigger cliché than modern alienation: the lure of big money—a far older temptation found illustrated in Herodotus and the Old Testament. A record of an institutionally endorsed gazillionaire’s triumph, MOMA’s The Scream and its lesser-known cohorts will no doubt prove a massive letdown for the hordes that will arrive, not to see the famous picture, but to say they have seen it. To them, a word of advice: Forget the $120 million—understanding how this art-hating con was contrived is what’s truly priceless.