The art market has reduced Edvard Munch's harrowing insight into the human condition to a saleable plaything
Edvard Munch's The Scream has sold for $120m at auction in New York. Photograph: KeystoneUSA-ZUMA /Rex Features
I used to like The Scream. Its sky of blood and zombie despair seemed to say so much, so honestly. Munch is a poet in colours. His pictures portray moods, most of which are dark. But sometimes on a spring day on the banks of Oslofjord he can muster a bit of uneasy delight in the world. Right now, I would rather look at his painting Ashes, a portrayal of the aftermath of sex in a Norwegian wood, or Girls on a Pier, whose lyrical longing is fraught with loneliness, than at Munch's most famous epitome of the modern condition.
The modern art market is becoming violent and destructive. It spoils what it sells and leaves nothing but ashes. The greatest works of art are churned through a sausage mill of celebrity and chatter and become, at the end of it all, just a price tag. The Scream has been too famous for too long: too famous for its own good. Its apotheosis by this auction of the only version in private hands turns the introspection of a man in the grip of terrible visions into a number: 120,000,000. Dollars, that is. It is no longer a great painting: it is an event in the madness of our time. As all the world screams at inequality and the tyranny of a finance-led model of capitalism that is failing to provide the general wellbeing that might justify its excesses, the 1% rub salt in the wound by turning profound insights into saleable playthings.
Disgust rises at the thought of that grotesque number, so gross and absurd that it destroys actual value. Art has become the meaningless totem of a world that no longer feels the emotions it was created to express. We can no longer create art like The Scream (the closest we can get is a diamond skull). But we are good at turning the profundities of the past into price tags.
Think about it. Munch's Scream is an unadulterated vision of modern life as a shudder of despair. Pain vibrates across the entire surface of the painting like a pool of tears rippled by a cry. Munch's world of poverty and illness, as Sue Prideaux makes clear in her devastating biography, more than justified such a scream. His other paintings, such as The Sick Child and Evening on Karl-Johan reveal his comprehensive unhappiness and alienation that reaches its purest lucidity in The Scream.
Because of course The Scream is Munch's masterpiece and one of the supreme images of the modern world. I am starting to love it again already. But what is it to love this painting? It has to be to embrace Munch's tragic sense of life, at least for a moment to feel his isolation. The trouble with images is that their rapid assimilation means they can be reduced to caricatures of themselves. To experience Kafka's Metamorphosis – a comparable masterpiece of anxiety – you have to read it, and to do so is to inhabit a terrible experience. But someone can buy the most harrowing painting in the world, put it on their wall and perhaps never feel a damn about it. If they did understand it, they would do something more generous with the money. There is something sick about a society that treats its highest cultural totems in this hollow way, selling screams, buying the abyss. Perhaps The Scream says more about our time than we know.