The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

May 10, 2012

Price paid for Munch’s painting a real ‘scream’

By Adam Smith
adam@athensnews-courier.com

— I was straining my brain Thursday morning playing “Words With Friends” on my phone with a stranger when I received a news alert that made me do a double take.

The alert was the news that Edvard Munch’s iconic work of art “The Scream” had been sold at auction for just shy of $120 million. Apparently, the price constituted a new auction record.

According to The Associated Press, the previous record for an artwork sold at auction was $106.5 million for Picasso’s “Nude, Green Leaves, and Bust.” I don’t know much about Picasso, but the title of his work certainly seems more intriguing than “The Scream.”

After reading about Thursday’s high bidder, two thoughts immediately came to mind: 1) Who has $120 million to spend on one piece of art; and 2) If I had more money than sense, what elaborate purchase would I allow myself?

Considering we’re still living in an economy that has yet to bounce back to pre-2008 levels after four years of trying, headlines like that always make me wonder if the economy is truly as bad as we’re often led to believe.

If we were on the brink of another Great Depression, would someone really spend $120 million on a picture of a guy holding his head and screaming? Then again, maybe “The Scream” is really an accurate portrait of the times we live in. I’ve certainly had days in which I’d like to imitate the famous image.

I took art appreciation in both high school and college, but I’m not sure how much I appreciate art. The only thing I remember about the college class was that my teacher looked exactly like my dad.

In terms of tastes, I tend to be drawn more toward colors than a general message, and would prefer to stare at a real photo of a tranquil sunset or rustic cabin than a bunch of expressionism. I don’t need art to feel important; that’s the job of my ego.

My favorite piece of artwork is one my wife won’t even let me hang in our home. It’s a black velvet painting of a Native American family my dad found in New Mexico.

I’m of the opinion it deserves to be somewhere like the Guggenheim Museum as opposed to collecting dust in our garage. The good thing about a black velvet painting, however, is that I reckon I can just clean it up with a lint roller when and if I’m ever able to hang it again.

As a teenager, I wallpapered my bedroom in rock posters of people like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin and whatnot. I also removed the traditional overhead light in my room and replaced it with a red light bulb, a move my mother was not particularly fond of.

It was a real trippy experience for a couple of weeks until she made me take it down.

I suppose, being a middle-class southerner, I probably don’t know much about fine home décor, fancy paintings and whatnot. I do have the ability, however, to determine what’s tacky and what isn’t.

For the past several years, I’ve been of the opinion that the king of tacky was actually the “King of Rock and Roll.” If you’ve never been to Elvis Presley’s Graceland in Memphis, you’re missing out on one of the great interior decorating cacophonies of the 20th century.

Though the king is sadly gone, his tastes for all things gold, mirrored and rhinestoned live on an impressive display of wall art and furniture. No matter what the cost, it’s a pilgrimage worth taking.

It’s really not Elvis’ fault, however, as I’m sure we’ve all known rednecks with money. I’ve known some and I might even be related to a few.

If I had $120 million to blow on a piece of art or some other frivolity, it’s hard to say what I’d buy. I’d probably want something that means something more to me or my family than a painting that has worldwide name recognition like “The Scream.”

If a picture is worth a thousand words, what’s a piece of art like that really worth? I couldn’t write 1,000 words to say about it, meaning it may not really be worth the $120 million after all.