Is all the famous art famous because it's good? You might think that reading The Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones' analysis of The Scream in an Edvard Munch show heading to the British Museum on April 11. He called the painting a masterpiece. Certainly, it's the artist's best-known work, attested to by all the emojis and inflatables in its image. But given the back story for this work, its popularity has little to do with artistry.

Road to success

If it's not quality that gives The Scream stardom, what does? Funnily enough, the answer sits in plain sight in Jones' critique, which indicates he didn't notice even though he went to great lengths to chart the picture's rise to fame. In fact, the reason for this painting's notoriety is the same for Mona Lisa's renown - the theft of each and the uproar that followed. You couldn't buy the amount of publicity that the robberies amassed.

Press coverage for the recovery of Munch's painting, for example, recounted how the British police executed a gutsy undercover operation, and it was a page-turner. And newspaper stories about the recovering of the Mona Lisa read like a whodunnit.

Crime Pays

And here's the thing: before the burglary, Leonardo's painting hung at the Louvre without fanfare. According to an Art News report at the time of the heist, no one knew it was missing at first.

Today, the Louvre says it's the most visited work in its collection. Art historian Donald Sassoon acknowledged in his 2001 Book “Becoming Mona Lisa: The Making of a Global Icon” that the portrait grew in importance from the theft. If you separate the painting from its reputation, you'll see Sassoon's point Have you ever really looked at this thing with its large, brown blob – Mona's s gown – crowding out a soft, lilting landscape behind her. No amount of mysterious half-smiling makes up for her jamming that sweet scenery.

Delusions of grandeur

And about The Scream, it isn't even about what people think it is. The yelling doesn't come from angst as Jones imagined when he said the work is the picture of our time. As Munch wrote in his diary in 1892, the melodrama you see in the painting doesn't come from within. “I sensed a scream passing through nature,” the “blood red color of the sky screamed, not him. Yet, Jones buys into the “cult” idea, that The Scream” is the picture of human suffering and not some Norwegian weather pattern.

He even sees a parallel with British artist Tracy Emin “My Bed” (her actual mattress strewn with the debris of an unhappy, love life – empty whiskey bottles, cigarette butts and bed sheets stained with semen and menstrual blood) as a latter-day version of "The Scream," which gives both works way too much importance than they merit.

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