The Price of Everything: new documentary shines light on obscenity of art world

Painter Larry Poons in The Price of Everything.
Painter Larry Poons in The Price of Everything.

THE Jake Gyllenhaal Netflix horror Velvet Buzzsaw might seem a strange starting point for Nathaniel’s Kahn’s documentary The Price of Everything. But having happened to have watched the genre film straight after the doco, it serves as a useful companion piece.

The Price of Everything is not exactly a horror movie, albeit it does deal with the havoc created by artists, both the living and the dead. Neither are the documentary subjects quite so obviously detestable as pretty much every character in the movie. But the fiction somehow brings the fact to a logical conclusion.

It’s all paint by numbers. As the documentary opens, we’re ushered onto the auction room floor, with various high-end pieces sold, mostly by phone, the gavel eventually coming down on a $98 million piece.

Kahn shines all sorts of lights and invites you to choose the prism through which you filter your art appreciation. Prominent are artists Larry Poons and Jeff Koons, collector Stefan Edlis and Amy Cappellazzo from Sotheby’s Auction House. Events are leading up to the opening of The Steven and Ann Ames Collection in New York, in November 2016.

Edlis has somehow managed to make a collection of 200 works from 40 artists into a priceless selection of ruling-class taste. He can tell you bits about certain aspects of artistic value but at the end of the day really doesn’t know what art is. He must know something, as pieces scoffed at when he bought them are now worth tens of millions of dollars. Most are traded rather than sold; what does Uncle Sam care about sculpture and brushes anyway?

There is plenty of defence of the importance of placing extraordinary value on art, as well as lots of thinking aloud about how ridiculous and perhaps immoral that might be.

Artist Gerhard Richter, revered as perhaps the great living artist, muses on the process but would prefer to see his own oeuvre hung in a museum for everyone to experience.

“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,” he says while appraising his own work.

Art historian Barbara Rose is more blunt when considering Poons, an artist many thought dead and buried as a valuable commodity. However, he’s on the way back, partly because the market has rediscovered an undervalued artist they can remonetise.

“It’s a calculation, it’s sick,” she says.

“It’s a completely perverse and upside down art world.”

Much is made of the importance of the Scull Auction in 1973, which Rose describes as a “totally pivotal moment”. A noted art identity, Robert Scull, auctioned works in a celebrity event that seems to have created the momentum for the obscenity that followed.

“There’s a lot of people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing,” Rose says.

The ’70s are often identified as the historical moment when economic factors shifted, leading to what some now call neoliberalism. Bank managers earning a decent wage but mostly revered as honest Joes gradually morphed into CEOs who could probably give you a good appraisal of just how much honesty is really worth.

So, it would seem, have the fortunes of the art world also migrated, according to some.

“They are like Siamese twins, money and art right now and you cannot separate them,” art dealer Gavin Brown says.

“And so the purpose of art has morphed, become perverted or mutated and I think art itself is having a hard time finding its way out of this situation.”

With insights into some of the most defining artists of our time and the art world they inhabit, Kahn’s documentary certainly helps the lay person find their way into the conundrum.

“I think without doubt everybody knows it, we are careening towards some kind of edge, or some end,” Brown says.

“So the reckoning has begun?” asks the documentary maker.

“Erm, I’m not sure. I think I can smell smoke,” says Brown.

Kahn gives us the smoke and the mirror.

The Price of Everything (M)
Directed by: Nathaniel Kahn
Reviewed by: Martin Turner
4 stars
In cinemas now