Just open in theaters, The Price of Everything delves deep into the world of contemporary art. This HBO documentary offers an acute take on art world commerce—both the cultural values and monetary prices that define great art. A standout of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, the film surveys a variety of perspectives from art collectors, dealers, auctioneers, historians, critics, and of course, the art-makers themselves. In this mix of voices and views, artistry, ideals, and motivations at times intersect and often collide. The question of art value versus valuation prompts a range of opinions from celebrated icons Jeff Koons and Gerhard Richter, as well as rising artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby. Former art star Larry Poons, whose art world status had fallen only to rise again decades later, provides an interesting study in the fickle, ever-changing favor of art markets and whether they are really the best markers of value.
Throughout the film, compelling issues surface—from the philosophical to the fiscal— surrounding definitions of art’s worth and the chorus of perceptions. In one of the film’s more poignant quotes, philanthropist and art collector Stefan Edlis references the film’s title saying, “There’s a lot of people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Nathaniel Kahn, award-winning director of The Price of Everything, spoke with CR to shed light on the distinction between price and value, what surprised him most in making the film, and how he characterizes art that is truly priceless.
Some views in the film suggest that elevated prices signify an artwork is exceptional and precious. Do you think great art inherently needs to be expensive?
“Absolutely not. The film begins with art connoisseur and auctioneer Simon de Pury discussing high art prices as a way of proving and protecting value. One way to view the film is as an exploration of this idea, is it or isn’t it true? It is a complex question and my own personal view is that it is not true for art broadly speaking. This question of pricing may be true for art as an investment instrument but not in terms of the social, individual or intrinsic values of what art is. I would like the film to destabilize the idea that price is the same thing as value.
On some levels, financial and creative art objectives are necessarily intertwined. How does the pursuit and influence of money affect art’s essential value?
“Capitalism is enormously effective at doing what it does, but also enormously corrupting as a value system. How can we put a price on a beautiful experience or the feeling of falling in love with an artwork? These things are outside the realm of commerce. That art is used as a type of investment, as a stock, is very telling about our society and current culture. We inhabit a place where everything is commodified and art shows us that. Art is in fact a world within a world—it lays things bare about the culture at large. Art holds up a mirror and it reflects our current obsessions and who we are at this moment in time.
It is ironic that you mention the reflective viewpoint of art because the film features Jeff Koons, one of the most successful—and expensive—contemporary artists in the world. His slick gazing balls are a prominent part of his artwork and his prosperity as an artist.
“It is interesting how art can make you look at and understand the world differently. Koons’ gazing balls revealed a truth to me that I did not understand until I was in the editing room with editor Sabine Karyenbühl. The sphere of the ball is a warped surface, it gives you a 360-degree view of room. The image of our camera in the gazing ball really struck us. In the camera, the gazing ball showed us looking at ourselves. At large, we are becoming a world that is constantly watching itself, constantly self-observed. We are always watching the moment and capturing the moment, but often no longer really in the moment. Famous filmmaker and one of my heroes Werner Herzog referred to this as ‘outsourcing our memories.’ We need to find a way to stay present in the actual moment and realize what is really going on.”
In a then price-defining art auction, Robert Scull sold Jasper Johns’ Target for 5,000 in 1973. Collector Stefan Edlis bought it for million in 1997, and he says that it is now worth 0 million. How do we decide the true value of such an artwork?
“The financial values of artworks and how they escalate is something one cannot predict. History is replete with art that goes up and down, even for great artists like Caravaggio. If you pick art like a stock, expecting it to rise, you are likely to lose because art goes in and out of fashion. Take artist Larry Poons, his work was hot, and then it wasn’t and now it’s hot again. There is the same marvelous creator behind all of his work. Thinking of art as being a financial asset is a fundamentally flawed idea. Jasper Johns’ Target is an example of this. It is the same fantastic painting at 5,000 or million or 0 million. True value is an amazing work of art that makes you see differently. Now that Target is a museum piece, it is out of the speculative world and back to its initial purpose, returned to its intrinsic value. Target is a thread that runs throughout the film, ultimately Stefan [Edlis] gives it to The Art Institute of Chicago. It should not take valuing a painting at a multi-million-dollar price for it to be considered a cultural asset worthy of protection and public exhibition. We need to see that artwork has value in and of itself.”
In a statement about the film, you said: “Money explores an artist’s weaknesses—chase it and you can lose your way, disregard it and you can end up with nothing.” What advice would you give to a young artist?
“I can only speak from my own experience. When I have thought about the work and trusted the work, and followed what I cared about, things opened up for me. When I acted out of fear or took work that I thought I should take, things never came together nearly as well.”
The Price of Everything draws clear lines between art that is profitable and art that is emotionally moving. After making the documentary, how do you view art and the commerce of art differently?
“The two ideas are not mutually exclusive. Artists make art to connect with people and create meaning through their lives and work. But the film taught me that there are complex relationships within the art world, and there is not just one way to define it. Commerce is a part of it, and that is not inherently good or bad, but there has to be a balance. We need to look more closely at the word value and decide what we want to value in our society and our world. An enormous amount of art is being made outside of the white-hot art market arena, art that connects to the global community and to the value of communication and experience, for instance. These are values that money cannot buy. The film opened my eyes to a lot of artwork that I had not seen or did not even know. I had the privilege of filming a whole world of art that I was not familiar with and I am especially grateful to the producer Jennifer Stockman, who introduced me to this world and got us access to it. We hope that the film shows how through art itself, your perceptions can be opened and in turn, your world can be broadened. In the end, that’s what matters, not the price of art, the art itself.”
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createdAt:Fri, 19 Oct 2018 17:45:38 +0000
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