The quandary at the heart of The Price of Everything, the art world documentary recently acquired by HBO, is summed up in a scene with the great German artist Gerhard Richter. Gesturing to one of his own paintings, Richter explains, “It’s not good when this is the value of a house. It’s not fair. I like it, but it’s not a house.”
Fairness and basic human needs such as shelter, however, are far from the minds of most of the participants in Nathaniel Kahn’s busy, stylish account of money and contemporary art. The opening credits bloom and fade over a breakneck montage of art auctions; the shouted numbers are in the millions, the artworks—Stella, Warhol, Richter—are chivvied along as props in the play of conspicuous consumption. As hammers fall, the voice of ex-auctioneer Simon de Pury intones, “Art and money have always gone hand in hand… It’s very important for good to be expensive… The only way for cultural artifacts to survive is for them to have a commercial value.”
It’s a statement so silly (plenty of extant cultural artifacts predate money by millennia) that one can only assume it is meant to shock rather than to be believed, a gauntlet thrown in the face of wimpy platitudes about art’s ineffable value. But viewers who anticipate a filmic celebration of capitalism as a force for cultural good, or alternatively, a condemnation of commodification, will be disappointed. The Price of Everything develops no particular argument, posits no solutions, uncovers no scandals. It isn’t a polemic, it’s a portrait, and in its mix of the grotesque and the earnest, a pragmatic and recognizable one.
Once upon a time, the buying and selling of art was conducted discreetly in back rooms; auctions were the dingy purview of specialist dealers; and contemporary art barely got a look in. Today, the contemporary art market is a glossy subject of public display and fascination (this is quite different from the art itself being fascinating to most people). Record prices for paintings appear above the fold in newspapers; the villainous art dealer is a common cinematic trope. The attraction is only partly explained by eye-popping sales: the global trade in art in 2017 was estimated at $63.7 billion, which is a lot of money, but tiddlywinks in comparison to other commodity classes (the Japanese automobile maker Toyota alone pulled in four times that amount that year). Unlike the automotive industry, however, the art business is mostly privately held and unregulated, so its workings are opaque. Then there is the fact that nobody needs a painting to get to work or put a roof over their heads, as well as the reality that aesthetic experience is stubbornly subjective. Finally, there’s the discomfort many feel in talking about art as a commodity class at all. Add moral anxiety to mystery and money, and you’ve got a hook.
Kahn’s film makes the most of this hook, trading on the very lures it critiques: big numbers, famous names, slo-mo shots of the privileged class enjoying its privileges. The closest it gets to “gritty” is the picturesquely dilapidated country house of painter Larry Poons and the East LA studio of MacArthur fellow Njideka Akunyili Crosby. Kahn, whose Oscar-nominated film My Architect (2003) focused on his father, Louis Kahn, is comfortable in this milieu. He is never seen on camera, but we hear his voice affably chatting with the rich and (art world) famous who occupy the lens. Most of his conversation partners are shown at work—the painters paint, the dealers schmooze, the collectors survey their spreadsheets—which is unexpectedly humanizing. For better or worse, these are people doing their jobs.
Kahn does not editorialize explicitly, but he clearly has his favorites, and they do not include the woman looking at paintings with her sunglasses on, declaring, “I want more. I want more. I always want more.” He devotes the greatest amount of screen time to Poons, an art star of the 1960s whose later painterly abstraction fell out of favor with the high-end market. Scrappy, funny, and unkempt, Poons acts as a foil to market darling Jeff Koons (the rhyme is a lagniappe), whom we see roaming his antiseptic factory, while assistants slave away producing his art. Poons, meanwhile, is shown in a shambolic barn where everything is coated in accretions of paint, including the artist. Musing on his fall from art world glory, he says, “All the success, all the sameness finally began to look like sameness… I wanted more… I wanted to be, you know, Beethoven.”
At the other end of the system, Kahn follows Sotheby’s Amy Cappellazzo as she prepares for a November 2016 contemporary art auction, and collector Stefan Edlis who, with his wife, Gael Neeson, recently presented the Art Institute of Chicago with forty-two works valued at almost half a billion dollars—the largest gift in the museum’s history. Cappellazzo and Edlis both take unabashed pleasure in art and the deals made around it. When Edlis describes his brand new, $2.5 million Koons painting as “modestly priced,” he is being accurate by the standards of his community (one can certainly pay more). But elsewhere—in the living rooms of most HBO viewers, one imagines—this is an outrageous, even stupid, amount of money to pay for what Edlis himself calls “a knock-off” (it’s a copy of Gustave Courbet’s 1866 soft-core porn canvas, Le Sommeil, executed by Koons’s assistants, with a garden gazing ball stuck in front).
The film goes some way to unpacking how we got here: it includes footage of the famous 1973 auction in which Robert and Ethel Scull reaped large profits, selling art they had bought just a few years earlier, often from the artists. The artists saw none of those gains, of course, prompting a famous on-film fracas between Robert Scull and Robert Rauschenberg. Equally revealing, at one point the camera slides past a Poons painting and we hear Scull say, “I’d never seen it stretched since I bought it.” Filling out the story, Phillips auction house executive Ed Dolman explains the synergy between a diminishing supply of available important old master works and a rising class of “younger people, enriched beyond imagination, with a thirst for the new and the now.”
There is a consensus among Kahn’s informants that contemporary art is being monetized in ways that, while not unprecedented, are newly brazen. Dolman mentions the Koons “futures” trade—the buying and selling of promissory notes for works not yet produced. On CNBC, Cappellazzo discusses art as “a very attractive asset class,” while the ticker tape scrolls below.
The irony is that art is wildly unreliable as an investment. In the 1880s, Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (circa 1665) was sold at auction for about $30 in today’s money, while Ernest Meissonier’s 1805, Cuirassiers Before the Charge (1878) commanded about one million. The Vermeer is now undoubtedly one of the most valuable canvases on the planet, while the Meissonier is… not.
But really, why should we care? If the rich aren’t going spend money on things like public education or curing malaria, does it really matter which baubles they accumulate? Some figures bemoan the disappearance of art into private collections; others worry that the gravitational mass of so much money distorts the production of art. In one affecting scene, Akunyili Crosby—then thirty-four years old—watches the live stream of the Sotheby’s November auction as her painting, estimated at $200,000–$300,000, sells for $900,000 (over a million, with commissions). The collector who sold it had owned it for less than four years. The expression on her face can only be described as dismay.
“Without doubt, we’re careening toward some edge or some end,” says gallerist Gavin Brown. “I think I can smell smoke.” Perhaps. At least one of the film’s talking heads, dealer Mary Boone, could shortly be doing prison time for tax fraud. But the doomsaying may be premature. The excess, myopic worldviews, dubious self-justification, and passive acceptance of extraordinary disparities of resources that characterize the art world are simply a reflection of the world at large. As long as there are mad amounts of money going around looking for a place to park, it seems likely that art will continue to represent an “attractive asset class.” And name-brands within any given asset class will tend to rise and fall.
Though the art market is often described as capricious, it has a clear logic: the art that commands the most money at a given moment is that which best reflects its collectors’ view of themselves—pious or powerful, beautiful or deep. Edlis observes, with self-deprecating charm, that “to be an effective collector, deep down you have to be shallow.” Koons—whose shiny objects, vendor-babble, and dead smile recur like a fugal motif throughout the film—has provided this service for decades, celebrating the crass while flattering his buyers that they are clever and superior for being in on the joke.
Will Koons be the Meissonier of the twenty-first century? Noting the dearth of Koons works in the 2016 fall auctions, Edlis remarks that “the real estate people started thinking of Jeff Koons as lobby art.” “The kiss of death,” Cappellazzo agrees. “You never get out of the lobby once you’re in there.” They both shrug.
Nathaniel Kahn’s The Price of Everything is streaming on HBO.