The Price of Everything

“Some people know the price of everything and the value of nothing,” says art collector Stefan Edlis, lending a title to the latest documentary for Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Nathaniel Kahn’s The Price of Everything from HBO Documentary FilmsThis comment is made in a discussion about how one places a value on art. It really is the crux of this documentary.

Kahn speaks to some of the heaviest hitters on all sides of the art world. Artists Gerhard Richter,Jeff Koons, Larry Poons, Marilyn Minter, George Condo, Margaret Lee, and Njideka Akunyili Crosby; Art critic Jerry Saltz, Art historians Alexander Nemerov and Barbara Rose, Curators Paul Schimmel,  Art Dealers Amy Cappellazzo, Gavin Brown, Mary Boone, Jeffrey Deitch, Ed Dolman, Robert Manley and art collectors Stefan Edlis, Inga Rubenstein, and Holly Peterson (amongst others).

The speakers in The Price of Everything have their point of view as to what art is, along with how they view the rampant elitism and commercialization that abound in the art world today. We go from Paul Schimmel saying “Art and money have always gone hand and hand. It’s very important for good art to be expensive. You only protect things that are valuable. If something has no financial value, people don’t care, they will not give it the necessary protection.” to artist Larry Poons saying “Art and money have no intrinsic hook-up at all—they try to make it much like that, the best artist is the most expensive artist.”

“…started out on Wall Street and used art as an opportunity to make money, very successfully.”

My personal feelings lean more towards The Poons side of the spectrum because having worked briefly in the art world myself, the self-importance and bloviating elitism are a little intolerable. There’s some of that on display here but not really amongst the artists. It’s more to do with the dealers and collectors who are the gatekeepers and tastemakers. However, most of them seem to be pretty aware of the art world’s reputation. The art historians and art critic who appear in the film, Alexander Nemerov, Barbara Rose, and Jerry Saltz seem to realize the ridiculousness and absurdity that the art world has become.

The artists run the gamut between grandiose ideas and gigantic egos (obviously I’m talking about Jeff Koons here) to being completely realistic and aware of the mechanisms of the industry (Larry Poons, specifically, seems to know better than anyone). The art dealers seem to be the most far removed from the reality of actually making art, and more about the reality of “seeing” art or appreciating it properly. According to Amy Cappellazzo, there are three types of people “Those who see, those who see when they are shown, and those who will never see.” I find this point of view to be very limiting and somewhat nauseating, but maybe that’s why I’m not one of Sotheby’s top art dealers.

“…the creation of the piece, the planning of the show, the sale, and what happens after the pieces are sold.”

Most of the art collectors seem to have a genuine love for the art that they possess. Although there is, of course, money to be made, the dealers who star in the film are not the evil empire of investment bankers who look at art as investment diversification and don’t actually care about the work of art itself, thank God. I don’t know if I could have stood that after hearing Jeff Koons saying that even though he never physically touches a brush to create the painting for his gazing ball series. He explains (while other people are doing his work and will never see the millions of dollars that he does) that he created the processes that the actual painters are following, so it’s just as though he did actually paint it.

You have to forgive my aversion to talking such as this. Jeff Koons started out on Wall Street and used art as an opportunity to make money, very successfully, I might add. Artists like Marilyn Minter, on the other hand, only started to make the big bucks (or bigger bucks than most artists) once she got older. I do appreciate some of Jeff Koons ideas, I have to admit, but generally, I just want to roll my eyes forever when he’s brought up.

The Price of Everything goes into pretty good detail about all aspects of an art deal: the creation of the piece, the planning of the show, the sale, and what happens after the pieces are sold. It also explores a lot of philosophical questions about the nature of art which will leave me thinking long after I saw the film. If you are a devotee of the arts, an artist, or just a fan of good documentary filmmaking, check out The Price of Everything as soon as you can.

The Price of Everything (2018) from HBO Documentary Films. Written and directed by Nathaniel Kahn.  

9 out of 10 stars

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