The new documentary The Price of Everything is nothing if not layered—kind of like an onion. And like an onion, the more you peel into it, the more it makes you want to cry.
Nathaniel Kahn’s complex film explores the dynamics of the contemporary art world where individual works regularly fetch astronomical amounts at auction: $91.9 million earlier this week for Edward Hopper’s canvas “Chop Suey,” and $110.4 million last year for an untitled Jean-Michel Basquiat painting that sold for $19,000 in 1984.
The sums have become so impressive that money managers now promote art collecting to the wealthy as an “investment asset class,” as the accounting firm Deloitte once put it. According to a report by Artprice, “the world leader in art market information,” between July 2016 and June 2017 contemporary art “generated a global auction turnover of $1.58 billion.”
“I very much wanted to investigate in this film this hyper-commoditized environment that we are in,” Kahn explains. “Not just in the world of art, but in the world of everything, where everything has a price and everything is looked at from a financial angle. What is the effect of that on artists and on their creativity?”
The Price of Everything is currently playing in limited theatrical release and has qualified for Oscar consideration this year. It debuted on HBO on Monday and is available on HBO’s streaming platforms. For his comprehensive study, Kahn followed collectors, gallerists, dealers, critics, auctioneers, art stars like Jeff Koons and Gerhard Richter and young talents like Njideka Akunyili Crosby, a MacArthur “genius” grant winner who last year painted a work called “Bush Babies.” In May it sold for $3.4 million.
“She has kind of catapulted to the top and that is an amazing story,” Kahn says of Akunyili Crosby, lauding her “very, very healthy attitude” towards astonishing auction prices.
“Success has to be defined differently from just what the market is saying about you. Success has to be something from within,” Kahn tells Deadline. “It’s about your process…It’s about maintaining your rhythm as an artist and pushing forward from the instincts that come from within.”
In other words, it’s about avoiding the temptation to basically recreate the last painting you did because you know it will rope in $3.4 million.
One artist who has resolutely followed his muse, even if it meant slipping from the perch of most-coveted painters, is Larry Poons. He leapt to fame in the 1960s with a series of abstract “dot” paintings but fell somewhat out of favor by moving toward much different imagery. Poons, now 81, could be called the hero of the documentary, still making art on his terms, when he isn’t busy racing motorcycles.
“They’ve tried to make it like the best artist is the most expensive artist,” Poons declares in the film. “Is that not true?” Kahn asks him. Poons replies incredulously, “How could that be true?”
Kahn is not out to automatically condemn wealthy collectors and assorted figures enmeshed in the current art scene, and he notes with some admiration that many of them are truly “obsessed with art” in a good way. But he is against buyers who would stash away important works, depriving the public of the opportunity to experience masterpieces.
“A lot of times, this art gets bought and put in storage, for a later day when it will be hauled out and go back to auction,” he comments. “That’s a problem.”
And, like Poons, the filmmaker questions a system that would set up auction houses and acquisitive 1-percenters as the final arbiters of what is worthy of attention and what isn’t.
“We need to be skeptical of systems of power, of all kinds, today,” Kahn asserts. “That’s always been the case, but now more than ever.”
Kahn, son of the famed architect Louis Kahn, is ultimately on the side of those who make the work.
“My heart still does lie most deeply with the artists, it always will. That will never change. I grew up with that,” he tells Deadline. “I come from a family of artists. All the hoopla of the art market, none of it exists without the artist who is willing to take the great risk and the great leap facing the empty canvas and trying to communicate what is within.”