Nathaniel Kahn’s polarising new film, The Price of Everything, offers a look into the inner workings of one of the world’s biggest commercial markets
We’re familiar with the struggle of art over commerce and the well-documented but impossible-to-comprehend sums of money that works of art can comand. But it’s nevertheless shocking and compelling to see the mechanics of an often opaque process revealed in the new documentary feature, The Price of Everything.
Filmmaker Nathaniel Kahn’s exposé of the big business of art infiltrates the world’s most illustrious galleries and auction houses, as well as accessing the home (and Excel spreadsheet) of one of the most prolific private collectors. Kahn also interviews the artists capitalising from the inflated prices, and those who feel held to ransom by the market.
The film has been criticised for fetishising the excesses of the art world, trading on the Emperor's New Clothes critique that’s often used to undermine modern art in the war of classical versus conceptual. But, while The Price of Everything is exclusively concerned with the art establishment rather than art itself, it also has something interesting to say about the world at large. The film paints a frightening portrait of a capitalist society careering towards an uncertain future, where hyper-inflated prices cannot possibly continue on their exponentially expanding trajectory. Where and how can it possibly end? And (when) will this bubble burst?
As the film gets its theatrical release, we premiere a clip (below) and take a look at some of the shitty things we’ve learned about the art world and the insidious, corrupting influence of capitalism.
SUCCESS CAN BE COMMODIFIED
“Art and money have no intrinsic hook up at all,” muses New York painter Larry Poons. “It’s not like sports where your batting average is your batting average and that’s the bottom line.”
But Poons’ enduring idealism is at odds with the key takeaways from The Price of Everything, which reveal the extent to which art is commodified based on quantifiable, commercial factors. Jeff Koons – whose work is characterised as a “glittering compromise with commerce” – is addressed by Kahn as “the most successful living artist in the world”, a title bestowed on him because his pieces have sold for more than 50 million dollars at auction.
“It’s sick,” says art historian Barbara Rose, speaking of this financially-oriented system of evaluating the merit of art. “It’s a stock market calculation. It’s a completely perverse and upside-down art world.”
“DEEP DOWN YOU HAVE TO BE SHALLOW”
According to prolific collector Stefan Edlis, “To be an effective collector you have to be shallow – you have to be a decorator. You want this thing to work with the rugs and the furniture.” Leading the cameras around his Chicago apartment, with its impressive views of the city’s skyscrapers (themselves monolithic monuments to capitalism), Edlis grants us a privileged glimpse of some of the most famous art of the 20th and 21st century. His walls are adorned with work by some of the most notable names in modern art: Jeff Koons, Warhol, Maurizio Cattelan, Jasper Johns, to name a few.
To us mere mortals, it seems obscene for one person to live amongst such majesty, not to mention to spend on it. But Edlis is increasingly likeable, and somewhat redeemed, when he later donates 44 works (with a combined estimated worth of $400 million) to the Chicago Art Institute, so they can be in the public realm.
According to painter George Condo, “The market is a separate entity to the actual creation of art.” The film certainly illustrates this division. Many of the artists featured are repulsed by the financial machinations of the art business. Painter Gerhard Richter voices his antipathy towards the industry, “I’d prefer to see it in a museum, not a private collection. This is the value of a house?” he says, gesturing to one of his own paintings. “It’s not fair.”
Sothebys’ Amy Cappellazzo may dismiss Richter as “old guard” in this respect, shrugging off his comments as “just a very socialist/Democratic way of dealing with the fact that rich people want it.” But the truth of Richter’s parting words is indisputable: “Money is dirty.”
“If you have something to say, it will eventually get seen. But it might not be in your lifetime. And if you’re female you’re bound to be old or dead” – Marilyn Minter
IT’S A SLIPPERY LEDGE
“The art world is capricious and the reasons aren’t always clear as to why some artists lose traction,” observes Edlis. Larry Poons is one such artist. A rising star on the 60s New York art scene, he “slipped off the ledge” and found himself sidelined after his paintings took a new direction and the winds of favour changed.
Poons is the moral compass of the film. As a heartwarming character whose integrity has always remained intact, his story acts as a counterpoint to that of former Wall Street commodities broker turned art superstar, Jeff Koons.
The contrast between the two artists’ practices couldn’t be starker. We follow Poons, working in isolation in his chaotic rural studio, paint splatters everywhere, inspired by Rembrandt's “quick flicks” of colour. We cut to Jeff Koons’ pristine art laboratory, where his mass team of technicians are meticulously following his instructions and precisely stencilling multiple ‘gazing ball’ pictures according to the ‘systems’ he’s initiated.
One of the closing shots of the film is Poons looking in through a shop window of Louis Vuitton x Jeff Koons collaboration – a poignant illustration of the boundaries between art and luxury becoming nauseatingly blurred.
IT’S ABOUT SUPPLY AND DEMAND
“At the end of the last century, auction houses were worried what they would do,” recalls auctioneer Ed Dollman. “Masterpieces were diminishing. Markets were getting smaller. New collectors with vast wealth and a thirst for ‘the new and the now’ were coming into the market.” But, while old masterpieces may be a finite commodity, contemporary art is in production and there is a limitless supply for the demand. “The money is an inevitable consequence of demand and supply. So there’s a temptation for artists to over-produce.”
To what extent does this commodification of art impact the art that’s being made and what work gets seen? And how can artists resist being drawn into the system of supply and demand? “My gallery would like it if I made more sellable things,” says painter Marilyn Minter. “But (the art market) is too dangerous to learn about it. I don’t want to even know.”
Artist Margaret Lee understands this peril. “I don’t think that the marketplace loves artists. If we allow the market to determine what is good then there is no place for me.” It’s a depressing thought. But it’s also important to remember that The Price of Everything only shines a light on the strata of blue chip art, and there’s a whole other alternative world of art that hasn’t been so corrupted.
OWNERSHIP IS INVOLVEMENT
In 1973, prominent New York collector Robert Scull staged an auction of modern art that is now considered one of the most defining events of the contemporary art market as we know it. “The idea that art was being put on the auction block like a piece of meat was extraordinary to me,” says art historian Barbara Rose. The idea that you could make money from the work of living artists by buying low and selling high was a transformative, pivotal moment. “Rauschenberg was there and he was really incensed, because the artists got nothing out of this.”
The Price of Everything shows the moment Rauschenberg confronted Scull for flipping his work at such a premium: “You need to send me some flowers. I’ve been working my ass off for you to make that profit!” Scull retorts by reminding the artist how much the auction will inflate the price of his work in general. “I’ve been working my ass off too. We’re working for each other.” This brief but loaded exchange reveals the reciprocal nature of the relationship between artist and collector/dealer. The people doing the buying and selling had become as integral to the production of art as the artists themselves. “Ownership is involvement,” claimed Scull. “Aquisitionship is involvement. With art, it’s the most exciting kind of involvement. Of course, some nice shares in IBM are involvement too.”
NOTHING IS PRICELESS
The art market’s attempt to put a figure on ‘the price that makes for pricelessness in the world’ is at the heart of this film. “You wanna know what that’d be worth today?” Amy Cappellazzo from Sotheby’s gestures gleefully at an image of a painting by Matisse. “Forget about it. A couple of ‘hundo’ (hundred million). Priceless. But then you work backwards.” The word ‘priceless’ has come to be meaningless in a culture that commodifies everything.
The voice of art historian Alexander Nemerov acts as an antidote to the cacophony of insane, almost abstract, sums of money referred to throughout, reminding us of the true value of pricelessness. “This Vermeer, for example, has got it all over every evaluation – professorial and commercial – that could ever be put upon it, because it deals with what could be called – in times less defeated than our own – ‘the soul’. It’s pie in the sky to think that this could be separated out from a culture that values things – that values material things – that can even put a value on that which is immaterial, like light itself.”
THE ‘MONEY SHOT’ IS VERY MUCH A THING
Sothebys’ Amy Cappellazzo is preparing for an auction, deciding how the work should be presented to potential buyers. “The money shot is when you have a painting you’re selling and a picture of the artist standing in front of the painting… the holy grail of comps. Winner. That’s as good as it gets.”
Invoking terms more usually associated with stocks, bonds and real estate, Cappellazzo agonises over a pair of Gerhard Richter paintings. She decides to make the red painting (which is ‘sexier’ and has more ‘va va voom’) more prominent than the darker work (which is ‘soul’ as opposed to ‘body’, therefore less viable). Collector Stefan Edlis concurs, imparting the general wisdom, “Red is better than brown. Brown is unsalable. And don’t buy any pictures with fish.”
IT’S STILL JUST AS MALE AND PALE AS IT ALWAYS WAS
Auctioneer Simon de Pury describes how ‘global’ the art market has become. “You have collectors from all parts of the world buying art from all parts of the world,” he claims. But The Price of Everything illustrates that the art world elite is still as male and pale as it always was.
There are exceptions to the rule, of course (Jean-Michel Basquiat, Cindy Sherman, Tracey Emin, Njideka Akunyili Crosby etc.). But the canon of contemporary art (the ‘darlings of the art world’) is dominated by white men (Jeff Koons, Warhol, Rauschenberg, Keith Haring, Gerhard Richter, Lichtenstein, Hockney, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Jasper Johns, to name a very few). Women – especially living ones – are not so visible in the upper echelons of the market. “If you have something to say, it will eventually get seen,” says artist Marilyn Minter. “But it might not be in your lifetime. And if you’re female you’re bound to be old or dead.”
The Price of Everything is in US cinemas now, and coming to UK cinemas soon