Federal Politics


Never mind the quality, feel the art's price

Edvard Munch's The Scream. It has been a fridge magnet, coffee mug, t-shirt, Simpsons gag. But above all, Munch's striking expressionist masterpiece is now a price tag. The Scream recently sold to an anonymous bidder at Sotheby's, the hammer falling at just under $US120million ($A119.4 million). Yes, that's millions.

Like other ludicrously priced luminaries - C├ęzanne's The Card Players reportedly sold to Qatar for more than $US250 million - Munch's iconic work is one of the few artworks to make headlines. Not because of its aesthetic charms, nor for the artist's agonies, but because The Scream is now a freakish dollar sign.

In The Guardian, Jonathan Jones recently lamented this transformation of art into commodity. In the hands of the art market, Munch's pathos is magically changed into numerals. ''It is no longer a great painting,'' Jones writes, ''it is an event in the madness of our time.'' The point is not that artworks are bought and sold, and that this is somehow a corruption of art's purity. The point is that, in the eyes of many media outlets, the market is the whole story. And its prices suggest some strange priorities: a single artwork by a dead artist, costing more than 30 living artists paid average wage for 50 years. Put this way, it mocks Munch's early struggles for income, and those of young or unknown artists today.

There is little point complaining: the buying and selling of masterpieces is one of the more benign uses for spare millions. Particularly when the proceeds finance something constructive - a new Norwegian museum and art centre, in this case.

A better reply to the art market's excesses is to ask a simple question: what is the real value of art, and how can we best enjoy it? This does not require the rejection of big ticket masterpieces, but a rediscovery of what they have in common with cheaper, lesser-known works: excellent aesthetic qualities.

Our word ''aesthetic'' comes from the Greek aesthesis, meaning perception by means of the senses. This is a clue to the beginning of a good encounter with an artwork: it starts with sensation, not high theory, plaques or fat wallets. With The Scream, for example, one notices the incandescent horizon, warping above the gaping face. These perceptions evoke emotions (like acute anxiety), and thoughts (like ennui or modern isolation). Then one returns to the artwork: noting the hazy blue indifference of the figures on the bridge, the obsessive precision of Munch's pastel lines - their suggestion of solitude and intensity.


This is what good art does: it encourages a rewarding to-and-fro between sensation, emotion and thought. It is not airy-fairy or overly abstract - one responds to a real object, with real qualities, which can be recognised, assessed and discussed. The result is a richer experience of the world; one's mind gains new clarity, vivacity or subtlety. And one learns about others' minds into the bargain: the eccentricities of their experience.

This is what great artists, living and dead, achieve: they take the vagaries of the human condition, and give them stable, striking form. They make whiskey from experience - a distillation, which gives life new tang.

This aesthetic worth has little to do with economic value, born of demand and scarcity - neither of which are necessary for a good artwork. Something can be old, historically significant and rare - a napkin once used by Napoleon - without adding much to experience. And something can be visually gripping - like younger Munch's artworks - and bring in a piddling income.

My point is not to denigrate old art, or champion contemporary artists. My point is to champion art's value, and to properly distinguish it from outlandish auction figures. Art is not only a commodity, to be bought, sold and speculated about. It is also something to create, and to seek out in galleries, museums, study walls, studios, school yards. It is chiefly an aesthetic spectacle, not a financial one. Better to gasp at paints or pastels than scream at a price tag.

Damon Young is a philosopher, and the author of Distraction: A Philosopher's Guide to Being Free (Melbourne University Publishing).