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Has public art become endangered?

Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1895, oil, tempera and pastel on cardboard, 36” × 28.9”

The Scream sold at Sotheby’s on May 2, 2012 for $120 million, the highest amount received for any auctioned piece in the history of art. Early estimates predicted that this 1895 artwork, a pastel and one of four versions, would sell for approximately $80 million.

Born in 1863, Edvard Munch was a leader of European Expressionism. His painting The Scream, with its image of a figure holding his head, mouth-open on a bridge under a blood-red sky, became a symbol of a world in which God and materialism had failed.

Twelve minutes into the auction, an anonymous private buyer won the final bid. The irony of a work with an antimaterialist message selling for a record price was overshadowed by a concern about public versus private art. The Scream is the third high-profile work in recent years to be auctioned for over $100 million. As famous paintings increase in value, they become out of reach for the average museum to acquire. In the future, will the great artworks of history no longer be available for public viewing?

This is just the latest drama for the Scream paintings. In 1994 and 2004, The Scream was stolen from Oslo’s National Museum and later recovered. Copycat art crime became a recurring problem in Oslo. Public artworks were vandalized, even Munch’s tomb.

When I was an undergraduate, I had an instructor who talked about theater as a living art, and he used painting as an example of a dead art. “The art is hanging on the wall — it’s done! It’s over.” I can’t agree. Sotheby’s Scream auction once again proves that painting creates its own living drama, wrapped up in intrigue and notoriety, sometimes over 100 years after the paint has dried.

Sharon Anderson is an artist and writer in Southern California. She can be reached at www.mindtheimage.com
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