Philip Hensher: All very well in a gallery, but can you imagine living with the icon of urban depression?

A City acquaintance had a Damien Hirst medicine cabinet, to the occasional confusion of his guests
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The Independent Online

One of the most useful words to art dealers, seeking to offload something that, frankly, you wouldn't want to live with, is this: "challenging". It is usually limited to the work of a contemporary artist which, despite looking like a pile of poo, is being sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But occasionally a work of art comes on to the market from a previous generation which can only be referred to as "challenging".

Munch's The Scream, in any of its four versions, is all very well if you come across it in a gallery. But who, really, would want to live with it permanently? Try thinking of coming down to breakfast and facing the icon of urban depression and fear every day – one just can't imagine it. Try explaining to your beloved family that you've cast an appalling cloud of moany angst over their favourite room forever more, at the cost, Sotheby's predicts, of $80m.

It is a vulgar response to art to say: "Well, I wouldn't want to have it in my house". A lot of art, especially in recent years, has been produced expressly for public display. An artist like Anselm Kiefer, Joseph Beuys or Jeremy Deller works best in galleries or public spaces. When you come across the work of a contemporary artist in a private setting, it can be disconcerting – a City acquaintance of mine had a Damien Hirst medicine cabinet in his dining room, to the occasional confusion of his guests.

Plenty of surprising things are in private hands, and not all of them are kept in vaults. I heard from the curator of one national institution that when they borrowed a famous classic from a Gulf sheikh, it had evidently been hanging in his dining room. Before displaying it, they had to clean rather a lot of dried food from the surface – the sheikh's family, in disgruntlement at the hideous thing, liked to flick humus at it when no one was looking.

Personally, I would rather hang a dead cat in my house than any one of the versions of Munch's The Scream. Almost anything else seems preferable – a Cy Twombly scribble, a shouty Jackson Pollock, a Lucian Freud of a clinically obese nude.

Possibly the Olsen family, the current owners of the version now coming up for sale, have just decided what a number of really very attractive objects they could buy for $80m. And if not, what a relief that blank space on their wall must be.