On Art’s To-Do List: Climate Change

Andrew Russeth in the New York Observer:

ScreenHunter_33 Nov. 15 17.28Before Norwegian businessman Petter Olsen sent his version of Edvard Munch’s The Scream to the auction block at Sotheby’s New York in May, where it sold for $120 million, he spoke to the press about what he thought the work meant. At the time, Mr. Olsen’s pronouncements sounded, at least to me, a little bit off. The Scream, we’re all taught, is about existential angst, the individual crying out, alone in the universe, but Mr. Olsen, who’d lived with the work his entire life, had a more expansive view.

The Scream for me shows the horrifying moment when man realizes his impact on nature,” Mr. Olsen told the Financial Times, “and the irreversible changes that he has initiated, making the planet increasingly uninhabitable.” After last week’s storm, which killed more than 40 people in New York, destroyed homes, and damaged art, artist studios and galleries in Brooklyn and Chelsea, that reading of the painting seems painfully on point. Munch couldn’t have known about the coming climate change, but it’s all there in the work—in its original title (Scream of Nature) and in the sky and land that appear to undulate behind the bald figure.

Until visiting The Scream two weeks ago at the Museum of Modern Art, to which it has been loaned for six months by its new, anonymous owner, I had forgotten that it has three figures: besides the alarmed man who gets all of the attention, there is another man in a top hat, his head bowed as if in deep despair, and a third man, further in the distance, who stares out at the landscape, strangely unaware—or in denial—of the fact that the world is coming undone around him. Factoring in those other two, it’s easier to follow Mr. Olsen’s thinking: when it comes to the effects that humans are having on nature, most of us are the second or third person.

More here.