For Whom the Munch Screams? It Screams for Thee

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There were two stories that made the front-page news last week. One had to do with art and an obscene amount of money. The other was a cringe-inducing story about the shameful treatment by the Chinese authorities of yet another political dissident, Chen Guangcheng.

The first story, as you have already probably guessed, had to do with the record amount of money paid at auction for Edvard Munch's The Scream. Of the four existing versions of this world famous image, this was the only one still in private hands, while others are in Norwegian museums.


Edvard Munch's The Scream
Photo by Oli Scarff, courtesy of Getty Images


As one of the most recognizable, the most often reproduced artworks of our time, The Scream has become almost a brand unto itself, a sort of priceless icon. And all of a sudden it is for sale. Is it a great work of art? Is it worth $120 million? Would I spend this amount of money on it if I were a museum director? It is difficult for me to give a definitive answer.

A great painting by Cezanne, a late self-portrait by Rembrandt, or a religious, erotically charged image by Caravaggio--these would inspire me to beg museum trustees to open their wallets. And yet, why would so many people recognize The Scream, but not the works of the great artists that I cherish?

In an interview with the Christian Science Monitor, I suggested that the unique power of this late 19th century iconic artwork comes from its ability to predict and embody all the horror and destruction of the coming 20th century. One doesn't need to know a thing about Munch, Norway or European art history for that matter, to have an immediate gut reaction to this screaming face on the bridge. In its utter despair, this creature screams for all of humanity and therefore, with a nod to John Donne, I want to say: Don't ask for whom the Munch screams, it screams for thee…


(L) Study of Perspective: Tiananmen Square, 1995-2003
Gelatin silver print. Image courtesy of Ai Weiwei
(R) A police officer, right, and a security guard outside the entrance to Ai Weiwei's studio in Beijing, 2011
Photo by Ng Han Guan of the Associated Press

The other story dominating the news last week was the inhuman treatment of a blind, legal activist Chen Guangcheng by the Chinese government. Escaping house arrest he seriously damaged his leg but nevertheless managed to reach the safety of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. After diplomatic negotiations at the highest level, he left the embassy for the hospital, and sort of, kind of, was promised a safe passage to America, if one can trust the promises of the Chinese government.


And that brings me to the shameful treatment of Ai Weiwei, the world famous Chinese dissident artist of amazing talent and unsurpassed courage. His story is eloquently told in a soon to be released documentary by first-time director Alison Klayman, who gained close access to the artist and his family.


Ai Wei wei ad Herzog + de Meuron, Beijing's new Olympic Stadium


The "Bird's Nest" stadium Ai Weiwei designed, became a symbol of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. But disgusted by the government propaganda surrounding the Olympics, he refused to allow his name to be used.

For years he has been a thorn in the side of the Chinese government, literally giving the finger to the powers that be. There is a famous series of photographs of his middle finger in front of Tiananmen Square and other sites of global authority in Paris, Berlin, and Washington.


Ai Weiwei with his installation, Sunflower Seeds, at the Tate Modern in London, 2011


After the disastrous earthquake in China which killed more than 5000 children in shoddily built schools, an event that the authorities tried to downplay, Ai Weiwei started to collect the names of the victims and put them on his blog. Needless to say his blog was shut down and his studio compound in Shanghai was destroyed. Then, under pretense of unpaid taxes, he was imprisoned for three months and only recently released.

If that's how a famous artist is treated, just think what happens to the unknown dissidents in China. It makes one want to scream.

Banner Image: (L) Auction at Sotheby's in New York on May 2, 2012, photo from the Associated Press; (R) Detail of The Scream (1895) by Edvard Munch, photo courtesy of Sotheby's