Thursday, November 29th, 2018

What “The Price of Everything” Says About The Value of Art

Jeff Koons in a scene from The Price of Everything, the documentary under review
Jeff Koons in a scene from The Price of Everything, the documentary under review

When art and money are suddenly thrown together, oppositional mayhem soon follows, even in a film like Nathaniel Kahn’s documentary, The Price of Everything, (currently at HBO) where the director’s position appears to be held in abeyance. Regardless of how the content is presented, the differences continue to escalate on an uncharted scale in a way that is provocative and tendentious. Though not discussed in the film, the reference point to most of what I heard and saw was the early 1980s when big money overtly entered the scene only to transform contemporary art into a full-fledged commodities industry.

Still, controversy either rages or lingers, depending on one’s point of view, as to how major promotional and investment strategies got so quickly involved with artists across the board – mostly emerging or blue chip, usually ignoring less known mid-career artists– to the extent that the terms of qualitative criticism formerly applied to works of contemporary art would soon become extinct.

The manner by which the film dealt with the variety of interviews is impressive. Whether artists, dealers, collectors, auctioneers, or critics, they did not appear edited in a way that ensured instant closure. Rather each interview held a certain openness that allowed for an indeterminate dialogue to proceed randomly throughout the film. For example, when the curator Paul Schimmel speaks near the opening of the film, one may eventually find his comments reflected in the words of Jeff Koons who appears later in the film, despite the fact they never appear on the screen together. The same could be said of the opposition between the words of Sotheby’s Executive Vice President Amy Cappellazzo and those of renegade painter Larry Poons. Although both are bound to disagree on the connection between money and art, they are still maintaining a dialogue—perhaps on the defensive, but a dialogue nonetheless. While clearly aware of his cinematic tactics, Kahn avoids making universal proclamations as to where art is going once it has gotten the attention of auction houses, curators, and collectors who might actively engage with all three, most likely on separate occasions. It seems important that the point of view of the director stays hidden.

The film offers no blame as to who is responsible for the mess that has come about in recent decades once investors began to discover the logic of creating a market for contemporary art. How could they not? Rather the film points us in the direction of a selected few whose words regarding investment in art take on a character of their own. Even so, we are given opinions more than researched points of view, which will tend to leave some viewers in considerable doubt as to how art got that way and what will happen as a result. More than a few viewers of The Price of Everything have made comments to me to the effect that they thought the content backing the film was substantial, but also depressing.

A kind of business-minded art language is spoken throughout The Price of Everything that often takes the form of banal rhetoric. This occurs between established art world figures (mostly painters) and those who directly or indirectly sponsor them. Listening to the bland, superficial, and predictable jargon of major auction house representatives is not so different from hearing one of the collectors in the film identify a kitsch assemblage in her parlor as a work of “conceptual art.” Or, for that matter, observing artists prance and paint in their gorgeous studios while describing the aesthetic pulse of blue glass spheres or telling us the reason why it was important to paint over one figure in order to keep the other. As participants in the film, they all reside on the same playing field. Yet one might further detect a festering boredom or listless cynicism in their speech. At these intervals, Kahn rarely misses the opportunity to entertain his finely tuned audience by allowing irony to surface, specifically when the painter Gerhard Richter complains that it is not good if one of his paintings is the same price as a house. On another note, we read irony in relation to the various professionals discussing deals that involve hundreds of millions of dollars motivated by the belief that their purchases will ensure art for generations to come. Here, one might pause briefly before raising the question: Who is kidding whom?

Nevertheless, the tale is told and the narration continues as it does between the wily “haves” (Jeff Koons) and the presumably overlooked “have nots” (Larry Poons). The resounding rhyme of these two names first presented themselves in the late eighties when then “postmodern” Jeff was showing in lower SoHo on Wooster Street directly across from an exhibition of new work by the rejuvenated “modernist” Lawrence. The change of Larry’s first name was apparently an act of promotion to clarify the fact that he was no longer painting dots but was extending his densely chromatic surfaces into heroically studded pours. Some of these works were alluded to as the subject of a forthcoming retrospective of paintings, shown in the artist’s studio in the early stages of preparation. This moment in Poons’ legacy was fortunately included by Kahn’s perceptive eye, which suggests the filmmaker’s rigor in coming to terms with the immanence of art as being more than an index of material fortune.