Munch's "Scream" Now Symbolizes Easy Money and the Easy Life

Agenda-Setting Financial Insight.
May 3 2012 3:33 PM

Munch's "Scream" Now Symbolizes Easy Money and the Easy Life

Edvard Munch's 'The Scream' is seen at a media preview of Sotheby's May 2012 Sales of Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary Art on April 27, 2012 in New York City.

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

“The Scream” has long been a cultural icon. The image of a terrified man on a bridge in Edvard Munch’s 1895 pastel captured something about the dark forces of the modern age. Now his 4,661 square centimetres of board has become a financial icon of the post-modern era.

Exactly what is so compelling about the Norwegian’s work is hard to describe. Sotheby’s marketing blurb - “the visual embodiment of modern anxiety and existential dread” is a good summary of the mood evinced by the “countless books, scholarly articles, films and museum exhibition” which have explored or exploited the picture. The auctioneer’s sale on May 2 was of the only one of Munch’s four “Scream” not in a museum.

That event caught another mood, far from despair. The pastel went for $120 million, a record price for an open sale. The buyer was not identified, so the rich-watchers who care about such things can speculate about which billionaire might have the opportunity to contemplate the pure expression of anguish in comfort and leisure.

There was another striking image on display in Sotheby’s New York auction room: that of hundreds of people with the power to measure their spending on indulgences in $10 million dollar units. When the indulgence in question is so distressing, that is distinctly post-modern. The cultural irony is complemented by post-modern finance: the price would have been lower if the world’s authorities had not abandoned the conservative traditions of monetary policy in favour of the high concept-approach of negative real rates and ample money-printing.

The value also reflects the insouciance of the new hyper-rich. The separation of the top 1 percent from the rest has become a political issue - there was a protest demonstration outside - but the heedless pursuit of luxury seems to be timeless. For the oppressed and the excluded, that will always be something to scream about.

Read more at Reuters Breakingviews.

Edward Hadas is Economics Editor at Reuters Breakingviews. He joined Breakingviews in both 2004 and 2011, with a year in between at the Financial Times as Assistant Editor of the Lex column.



The World’s Politest Protesters

The Occupy Central demonstrators are courteous. That’s actually what makes them so dangerous.

The Religious Right Is Not Happy With Republicans  

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:58 PM The Religious Right Is Not Happy With Republicans  

The Feds Have Declared War on Encryption—and the New Privacy Measures From Apple and Google

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You

It spreads slowly.

These “Dark” Lego Masterpieces Are Delightful and Evocative


Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.


Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Activists Are Trying to Save an Iranian Woman Sentenced to Death for Killing Her Alleged Rapist

Piper Kerman on Why She Dressed Like a Hitchcock Heroine for Her Prison Sentencing

  News & Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
Oct. 1 2014 2:16 PM Wall Street Tackles Chat Services, Shies Away From Diversity Issues 
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?