Art Appreciation: Edvard Munch


The Scream by Edward Munch is one of the most famous paintings ever, but my interest in it was aroused today by this passage from the book I’m reading, The Marshmallow Test by Walter Mischel:

“The ant in Aesop’s fable instinctively knows what it has to do to prepare for the future, and when summer comes it drags off the foods it will need for the winter. But we don’t have the ant’s instincts, and evolution has not yet adapted our brain for dealing concretely with the distant future. We easily become anxious about frightening events that are imminent but rarely visualize the future in vivid, hot terms. Those rose-colored glasses and the feel-good psychological immune system protect us from dwelling on such anxieties. They allow us to avoid focusing on terrifying prospects like cancer, impoverishment, lonely old age, and ill health, and it these anxieties do become vivid, most of us soon self-distract.

In this way, we avoid the anxiety that Freud found in his patients, and that the painter Edvard Munch depicted in The Scream. An icon of anxiety in the modern world, the painting shows a terrified person trembling on a bridge in ominous surroundings, hands cupped against the ears, eyes wide open staring at us from a horror-struck face. Our defenses protect us from lingering too long on such an image, but they also make it unlikely that we’ll behave like provident ants rather than self-indulgent grasshoppers. Consequently, people continue taking all sorts of risks, like eating too much and smoking and drinking too heavily, ignoring the long-term consequences that are far off, uncertain, and easily discounted. The vast majority of Americans arrive at retirement age with funds completely insufficient to maintain anything remotely like the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed. The problem begins with how we naturally think about the future self and how that future self is represented in the brain.

He is overwhelmed, and so he screams.



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