Christopher Lee writes from New York: So, the theatre of the absurd that is the art market has pulled off another stunt with the sale of the pastel version of Edvard Munch’s The Scream going for $120 million in New York.
Now, if someone with more money than brains wants to pay that sort of price for a fifth rate Munch, that’s their business. If, for example, a Qatari gallery (only assuming here, mind you) says it’s necessary to have one of the four versions of The Scream (two oils, two pastels) on its walls, then I can see some logic in that. It’s all about prestige and we all do prestige.
But let’s get something in perspective: if one of my kids came back from junior school with something similar, we would (obviously mistakenly) put it up with the rest of the crayon stuff on the kitchen wall and never consider that he (or she) had any future as an artist. For The Scream is Emperor Has No Clothes stuff written all over it. True, the theme is significant. Munch’s late nineteenth-century forebodings are starkly captured. Equally, this is not an oil. It is not remarkably drawn. One thoughtful guy at the National Gallery in London said: ‘On the day, the crayons worked. That’s about it.’ But $120 million for a pastel? Never.
Let’s think about the price. The fine artist Fiona Graham-Mackay (go see her much praised portrait of Prince Michael of Kent at the Mall Galleries, until May 18, before it’s snatched by some Russian oligarch) in her Morton Report column asked why Munch’s pastels would be worth the same, or even more, than a Picasso or even a Michelangelo drawing? ‘Could it be that it’s just famous, just iconic,’ she asks. ‘Maybe it’s not so good after all.’
The harsh truth is that FG-M is probably right. It ain’t that good. But that’s the art market. The great (and sadly, late) James Eamon MacCobb, having given a Guinness laden poetry recital in Dublin, walked into the Hugh Lane gallery and, pointing with a very gnarled stick at a Francis Bacon exclaimed that if he, MacCobb, had painted that at school, he’d have had his ‘arse kicked from midnight to breakfast time.’
It was not a protest, it was a harsh Dublin commentary on the obvious. We were all looking at Bacon and not at the painting. That’s what has happened for the past decades. Munch was a very good painter. The Scream is not a good painting in oils and it’s an even lesser prize in pastels. That’s art. That’s also the way the people who buy (and sell) can spike the market until no struggling gallery can afford a good painting for the greater audience who will never make it to a Gulf oil gallery.
But like the rest of life, it’s worth what people will pay for it. Maybe that’s what Munch was painting.