At MoMA, “The Scream“ is to some nothing more than cardboard and pastels. When it comes to art world classics, don't believe the hype

Excuse me, it’s a pastel on cardboard.

That’s the thing you need to know, certainly not the most important thing, but a key fact about Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” that’s getting lost in all the fuss. The artwork went on loan to the Museum of Modern Art on October 24, 2012 to considerable fanfare – news stories, a publicity campaign, even a blurb on Taxi TV. Last November, it sold to MoMA trustee and financier Leon Black for $120 million (as reported in The Wall Street Journal). That’s the most paid, ever, for any work of art at a public auction.

Did I mention the cardboard? And the pastels, those things in the marker aisle at Staples?

The medium is key because for years, even centuries, the great paintings have been considered to be oils on canvas, an artist’s more thoughtful, labor-intensive and fully realized works. This “Scream” is one of four images Norway’s Munch did of the iconic, indelible shriek in his lifetime, two of them pastels. Since the other versions are in Scandinavian museums, this one’s a trophy. MoMA had a press conference to herald its temporary six-month display.

Edvard Munch, The Scream

It’s far from the only show getting the hard sell for fall 2012. Fifth Avenue is lined with banners depicting Marilyn Monroe to herald the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Regarding Warhol” show (it’s gotten terrible reviews). The Guggenheim’s talked-up “Picasso Black & White” is a scholar’s pick, but not a fall blockbuster. The Whitney’s big 50-year retrospective is of Richard Artschwager. He’s a skillful sculptor, pioneer minimalist/conceptualist and furniture maker — but the show omits virtually all his furniture, as if pretending it doesn’t exist grants him more artistic weight.

"MoMA’s Matisse show several years ago illustrated that people will join as members if it means getting in early to famous-name shows the whole town is talking about."

It’s a curious season for New York art lovers: maybe never has there been such a disconnect between the city’s best museum shows (the Met’s glorious but small “Bernini: Sculpting in Clay” and ingenious “Faking It: Photography” come to mind) and the ones getting the sales push. There’s a method to the madness. MoMA’s Matisse show several years ago illustrated that people will join as members if it means getting in early to famous-name shows the whole town is talking about. (MoMA’s website thoughtfully points out MoMA members can get in to see the Munch an hour earlier than the general public.)

You could make a good case that “The Scream” isn’t worth it (although, while you’re at MoMA, there’s certainly enough else that is.) Its display value comes from its emblematic nature, relative rarity, its worldwide recognition — on coffee mugs and inflatable pillows — but, most of all, most deafeningly of all, from its record price.

And here’s the two things wrong with that:

1. “The Scream” is to art history as “Honus Wagner” is to baseball-card collecting. The Honus is among the rarest of all cards, and the collector who wishes to have a complete collection, a definitive collection, must own one. But nobody is arguing that that means Honus Wagner was necessarily a great baseball player. (As art critic Blake Gopnik has noted, “The Scream” is “a one-liner.”)

2. While Mr. Black paid handsomely for the painting, should he ever choose to gift it to MoMA, or to the Metropolitan where he also serves as a trustee, he has a potential whopping tax deduction. Art can be given as a “fractional gift,” say 10% of a painting a year and the total amount of deduction over time is generally based on the fair market value of the work. Which in this case has been publicly established as $120 million. Tasty.

“The “Scream” rigmarole reminds me of something I saw at a New York auction house (we’ll call it Chrisby’s) at its sales preview of Impressionist and modern art a few years ago. On the wall was a barely finished Claude Monet, a spill of paint really, some vague proto-daisies, it had come up for auction three times in the last few years in New York and London and had never sold. That’s what’s called in the business a “retread:” Experienced collectors know even Monet can have an off day, or paint something he never intended to have leave the studio.

A teacher or tour guide who was bringing a school class through the auction house paused in some confusion before the work and, unable to call up much passion for it herself, read to her students about it from the sales catalog.

The kids couldn’t stand the painting. One little boy pointedly preferred the adjacent Salvador Dali. The young woman insisted he was wrong, that Monet was more important, so this painting was better. Off to the side I caught his eye and wickedly, slowly, shook my head “no.” As he turned the corner to an aisle of Picassos, he broke out in a secret grin.

He’s most probably a teenager now, and perhaps even an art lover — and I bet he isn’t buying into “The Scream.”

IMAGE CREDITS FROM TOP: Munch: The Scream Coffee Mug, courtesy of CafePress; “The Scream”, Edvard Munch, 1895, courtesy of the MoMA.