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The Scream’s $80-million question Add to ...

Edvard Munch’s The Scream is not the Mona Lisa. This may sound obvious, and in one sense it is; but the news that one of the four versions of the Symbolist masterpiece is to be sold at auction in New York this May, for an estimated $80-million, is a good opportunity to reflect on the fractured nature of the work.

First of all, there is no single painting known as The Scream. Multiplicity is built into existence from the start, as the Norwegian master experimented with materials and details of composition. We all think we know The Scream, but what is The Scream we think we know?

The Mona Lisa is a better fit for the kind of warning Walter Benjamin issued in his 1936 essay “The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Mass duplication threatens to dispel the special aura clinging to the singular work of genius. Throngs of people still mass in front of, or near, Da Vinci’s glass-protected signature work (itself an example of portraiture that takes on a life of its own) but it’s doubtful they experience anything auratic. The main reason to visit the Mona Lisa is so you can complain that there were too many people there to see the Mona Lisa.

The Scream has other resonances, even though it has been reproduced at least as often as the Mona Lisa. Its iconic status accrues not because of its relation to genius so much as its universal resonance. Here, we see the tortured face of the modern age prefigured, its silent howl a haunting depiction of alienation and dread in the face of … well, pick your favourite candidate: middle-class conformity, war, technological change, cultural confusion, ideological strife, the intellectual wasteland of the Internet, whatever.

Which is just to say that iconicity is a cultural quality, not an aesthetic one, and has as much to do with accidents of history as with the history of art. The Scream works because it is at once sharply delineated, an unforgettable image produced in a hothouse fin-de-siècle moment, and as open-ended as Mona Lisa’s ambiguous mouth-not-eyes smile.

Of course, the cycles of aesthetic production and consumption being what they are, you could not forget this image even if you wanted to. There are at least five levels operating in the reproductive economy of The Scream, each necessary to its status as the quintessential post-postmodern artwork. (I know, I know; but I will explain.)

First, of course, is Munch’s own urge to replicate. I saw The Scream at the Art Gallery of Ontario some years ago, but I don’t know which of the four “originals” it was. Second is what we might call the straightforward proliferation of the image, in posters and postcards you can buy at the gallery gift shop or those sales held every September on college campuses.

Nothing novel there: The same fate has befallen Monet, Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Klimt, Van Gogh, and many others. But The Scream has also, third, insinuated itself into less obviously aesthetic copies: on coffee mugs and fridge magnets, kites and finger puppets, even (one of my favourites) an inflatable toy that carries the excellent warning that it is “not to be used as a flotation device.”

Then comes the genius move, off-loading The Scream into a wholly new form, the fourth level, where reproduction is no longer based on image. For that inflatable comes with a companion piece, a matching body complete with Munch’s swirling brushstrokes, but now rendered in yellow hues and sporting on top, instead of the anguished face and collapsed-O mouth, a familiar circular happy face.

In a nice nuance, where the arms of the traditional Screamer reach to the mouth in a very human posture of horror, the arms of the Smiley-Face Scream are spread wide in an open-armed offer of a hug. I like to place my two examples next to each other: Hug me and I’ll scream!

This playful object is more than a manipulation of The Scream; it is a sly comment on the ubiquity and hence kitschification of the original image. Iconicity has now met its maker, and the result is irony. This is what everyone complains about when they complain about postmodernism.

But notice the existence, now, of a fifth distinct level. I mean the appropriation of the postmodern commentary on cliché into new mediums like film and television comedy. Witness Macaulay Culkin’s gestural reference to the painting in the original Home Alone (1990), something that could only be attempted by director Chris Columbus against a cultural background of pervasive Scream immersion.

Or consider an even more ideal example. In an episode of The Simpsons, Bart is peer-pressured into stealing a street sign that bears his name, Bart Boulevard. When he shows the stolen sign to local thugs, Jimbo and friends, they one-up him. “Check it out,” Dolph says, “we stole The Scream!” He brandishes it until Kearney starts to beg: “Put that away! It creeps me out!”

You don’t have to call that post-postmodern if you don’t want to, but see how great this joke is. The Simpsons, the lowbrow comedy famous for alluding to highbrow things, cites the theft of The Scream in 2004 (it was recovered), thus adding it to a list of special celebrity, namely things that have been parodied on The Simpsons.

But it goes one step further. This cartoon version of a painting reproduced without end, one version of which has been stolen, still has the uncanny ability to creep out a kid. Never underestimate the awesome power of art!

Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto. His most recent book, with Joshua Glenn, is The Wage Slave’s Glossary. A collection of his essays on democracy and imagination will appear this fall.

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