Friday, May 4, 2012

The art world and its marketing mavens scored another major coup this week with the record breaking sale of Edvard Munch's "The Scream," one of the most recognizable art works ever produced. The price $120 million, is hard to fathom for most people, but the wealthy art collector, whose identity has not been released, is sure to get what he paid for. The painting is one of the few works of art to have passed into the iconography of popular culture, instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever seen it as a symbol of existential horror and soullessness. Like Picasso, whose "Nude, Green Leaves and Bust" was the previous record holder for most money raised at auction, Munch would most probably be either horrified, or releasing maniacal laughter at the mountains of disposable income paid for his masterpiece. Although purists will argue that art, being the highest expression of man's spiritual longings and intellectual yearnings, is essentially priceless, the truth behind the figures is a little more mundane. The people running Sotheby's aimed high and pulled in marketing muscle to break the bank for this sale. With multiple catalogues published ahead of time and designer staging effects used to display the pastel crayon drawing for the press, they managed to elicit a feeding frenzy of art world interest ahead of the auction. Even the most dedicated collectors do not part with nine figure sums unless there has been some elbow grease applied to the effort. The lesson is clear for us mere striving and starving artistes. The world of art and the world of money are mediated by the world of advertising. If you can't massage the messaging, you can at least take heart from the fact that Munch, like many artists, suffered social stigmatizing at the hands of the powerful, in his case the Nazis, who categorized his work as degenerate. But Munch's work ethic was formed not by a motivation for wealth, but in his own words "the compulsive result of Man's urge to open his heart."
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