As a universal symbol of anxiety, The Scream has become one of the most recognizable images in all art.
Edvard Munch’s garish cartoon of an agonized figure clutching his skull-like face has been widely reproduced on t-shirts, coffee mugs, Halloween masks and endless posters.
For the privilege of owning this piece of cultural ubiquity a buyer has parted with $120 million, a record-setting price for a work sold at auction. One is bound to ask: $120 million? For this? Why?
“The art market is very motivated to pursue iconic works of art and things that can be considered trophies,” says one art expert.
What really happened here is part of the new phenomenon of art brands – works of art that combine a memorable name with a powerful, universally-recognized image.
Whistler’s Mother, Wood’s American Gothic, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and Munch’s The Scream have all achieved something that most paintings—regardless of their art historical importance or intrinsic beauty—have not: they communicate a specific meaning almost immediately to almost every viewer. Ipso facto, they are brands. And brands command a premium.
Andy Warhol shockingly anticipated this trend in 1962 with his work Campbell Soup Cans, demonstrating that the most banal trappings of modern civilization can, when transposed to canvas, become Art.
The Scream has arrived at the same place but from the opposite direction, out of the elite world of Art, lifted off the canvas, and transposed to the coffee cup and t-shirt banality of the modern world.