The tulip mania of the modern art market gets a pretty thorough going over in “The Price of Everything.” Nathaniel Kahn’s collected interviews with artists, hype-driven dealers, well-heeled collectors and art historians and visits to Sotheby’s and the Frieze Art Fair and elsewhere give us the scale of the business, the birth of competitive modern art collecting and a sense of the recent history of this winner-take-all playground of the richest of the rich.
It’s a movie that begins with a declaration, an admission. “Art and money have always gone hand in hand. It’s very important for good art to be expensive.”
We start to figure out why over the ensuing 98 minutes. While artists and art historians remind us of the role of museums as “gatekeepers,” repositories of what we regard as important art, taste setters for the ages, it is the dealers and their clients with their breathless descriptions of the spatters of Gerhard Richter, the ordered lines of Mondrian, the murkier ones of Mark Rothko or the entombed shark titled “The Physical Impossibility of Death of Someone Living” by Damien Hirst, the artists who are passengers in this dealer-driven runaway train of hype and cash.
Kahn sets up compare and contrast moments that stick and, to a degree, sting as he shows us the soaring prices at auction for the works of Jeff Koons, king of this bubble — up to $50 million for a work that is produced, changes hands and swells in value with each auction. We see the factory where Koons and his crew turn out “gazing ball” pieces, copies of paintings from earlier masters, famous or obscure, with a gazing ball attached altering our perspective and perception of the work.
The viewer can be forgiven for thinking “Thomas Kinkade.”
Koons all but blushes with modesty about how much his work is selling for these days as he oversees an assembly line of “gazing ball” pastiches in the making.
Then we meet Larry Poons, an abstract artist from “James Fenimore Cooper Country” (upstate New York), an aged painter who ponders how money is erasing merit when he isn’t merrily picking at an acoustic guitar.
“Art and money have no intrinsic hook up at all.”
An art historian waxes eloquent, in near tearful reverence in the presence of Rembrandts and Vermeers, chased off the screen by a dealer pulling plaudits out of her nether regions in singing the glories of Gerhard Richter and Mark Rothko.
Kahn gives us archival footage of the seminal Scull Auction of 1973, the selling of the collection of Robert Scull, a New York taxi fleet owner who altered the state of contemporary art in the in the marketplace.
“We are lemmings,” aged Chicago super-rich collector Stefan Edlis says with a chuckle. Others in the realm of the super rich realized, via Sculls, that here was a benign way to “exchange assets,” turning idle cash into collectibles, competitively bidding prices on previously less valuable art skyward, building collections serving as resumes for their good taste, and then bequeathing their collections to museums which put their name on the galleries where their fortunes are on display for all to see.
Edlis is one of several collectors interviewed here, and while some come off as arrogant and aloof (a “We don’t CARE what YOU think about all this” pose.), Edlis seems a bemused enthusiast, acknowledging the comical, possibly misguided use of cash in vast quantities, but loving what he loves and thrilling at the chase.
“To be an effective collector, deep down, you have to be shallow. You have to be a decorator.”
Director Nathaniel Kahn, the son of architect Louis Kahn, is still best known for his “searching for my father” documentary “My Architect.” He keeps “The Price of Everything” in the realm of the real by turning to art historians and sober-minded curators like Paul Schimmel, who acknowledges the “gimmicky” nature of stainless steel copies of Asian bunny balloon toys, encased sheep and “gazing balls.” It works “if you own the gimmick. If the gimmick owns you, it’s over.”
But he’s also the first to tell us “There is no ‘golden age’ without gold.” Money drove Leonardo and Vermeer, Bach and Mozart, or at least motivated them to create. High priced paintings were considered too valuable to lose, and thus were passed through the ages and eventually wound up in museums.
Soberest of all might be artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby, who watches a work of hers auctioned off for a great fortune, smiles and shrugs. When she painted it, she was paid a fraction of that amount. But while she admits financial gain is a dream of most every artist, it is not the be all and end all.
She understands that to build a legacy, an artist must be appreciated and desired, financially, by the taste setters and their dollars, yen, yuan or Euros. To get to “the museum,” living artists have to play this game and hope their work costs enough to be taken seriously after they’re gone.
MPAA Rating: unrated
Credits:Directed by Nathaniel Kahn. An HBO Films release.
Running time: 1:38