I had been waiting for this documentary for almost ten years.
In the early 2010s, I was an art history graduate student working at a mid-level gallery in New York’s Chelsea scene, wanting to experience the world of contemporary art firsthand. I was certainly in for a surprise, finding that art galleries were more akin to Wall Street than the avant-garde collective of makers I had romanticized. Instead, I witnessed the art market operating as a form of currency and exchange; paintings were financial assets analogous to stocks and bonds. In essence, galleries were more concerned with business transactions than with cultivating creative ecosystems for cultural artifacts. As filmmaker Noah Baumbach observed about millennial creators in Francis Ha, “the only people who can afford to be artists in New York [today] are rich.”
In director Nathaniel Kahn’s carefully crafted documentary The Price of Everything, he investigates the multivalent nature of “the art world” by composing a Venn diagram of overlapping spheres: makers, dealers, critics, and buyers. Kahn thoughtfully captures the nuances of his varying characters’ positions. Wealthy collectors and auctioneers are not villainized and art critics are not monolithic in their cultural assessments.
Kahn highlights two figures that possess diametrically opposed artistic visions: Jeff Koons and Larry Poons. Koons, one of the wealthiest living artists, offers a tour of his studio, where his many workers incarnate his concepts as reproductions in an environment resembling a cross between an assembly line and a scientific laboratory. A businessman first and foremost, Koons is guileless and transparent about art as a form of production and commerce par excellence. Unsurprisingly, his latest collaboration with fashion house Louis Vuitton is truly a marriage between two luxury brands: famous masterpieces by Da Vinci and Manet are screen-printed on status-symbol Speedy handbags, complete with Koons’s rabbit luggage tag.
In striking contrast, Kahn visits the home of Larry Poons, one of the one seminal 1960s painters shown at the Green Gallery, who retreated from the art world because he was critical toward a market that demanded production and replication. Resembling the late Harry Dean Stanton in his endearing sincerity and zero-shits-given persona, Poons offers the perspective that some artists are not interested in conforming to the demands of the market, but instead are committed to the interior path of self-discovery. We are privy to his latest abstract expressionist murals, tucked away in his dilapidated shed studio, which sing with continuity and freshness.
An important part of Kahn’s thesis is that the business of art is most problematic for the plastic arts, items that can be bought, sold, or traded, such as painting and sculpture. Dance, music, and performance art complicate monetary exchange, as they are time-bound, event-based, and thereby less easy to commodify. Artistic mediums and movements have consistently innovated in response to social concerns and economic markets. For example, the emergence of performance art after World War II responded to the threat of human annihilation in the devastation of the Holocaust, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. Conversely, the financial prosperity of the Reagan era necessitated a revival of the plastic arts (i.e. a resurgence in painting) as the demand for physical indicators of wealth increased.
Of course, art has always had a relationship to money, whether in the form of ecclesial commissions and Renaissance patronage or, now, as a form of real estate. However, there was a distinct evolution in American art from the bohemian Greenwich Village scenes of the ’50s and ’60s to the blighted Lower East Side of the ’70s and ’80s, a scene in which societal wealth afforded the luxury of art making. (Another film at Full Frame, Sara Driver’s Boom for Real: The Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat, looked more closely at this.)
Kahn asks what the democratization of art might look like. Sotheby’s art chairman, Amy Cappellazzo, remarks that museums are not necessarily the best alternative, as tens of thousands of pieces archived in their permanent collections will never be seen by the public (“a kind of mausoleum,” she notes). Throughout the documentary, Kahn shows us that what we value in society, we put a price on and consequentially deem as important. “How are we to separate what we intrinsically esteem from what we own?” Kahn asks, underscoring that one cannot possess the phenomenology of the work, particularly beauty. How might a consumer culture alter its priorities from owning art to appreciating it for the experience alone? Is that even possible in America?
Kahn shows us that art, for all its multicolored radiance, is essentially gray in its fiscal and moral ambiguities, hospitable to opposing ideologies within a polarizing society. Art is also prophetic, offering us a literal picture of where our cultural values reside and where they are headed. On this hypothesis, Kahn concludes, “In our current position of late-stage capitalism, the art market is the mirror of our entire culture; it shows us that too few people have too much money, and we are most certainly in trouble.”