Nathaniel Kahn/ USA/ 2018/98 mins
@Glasgow Film Theatre from 2nd Jan
“There are some who know the price of everything and the value of nothing,” or so we are told by art collector Stefan Edlis in Nathaniel Kahn’s contemporary art documentary. Opening with scenes from New York auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s, the film is an exploration of the extraordinary and outrageous high-end art world, featuring interviews with art dealers, collectors, historians, and artists themselves. It guides us through a spectrum of perspectives on this multi-billion dollar sector, from the extreme of Edlis spending millions guided by seemingly arbitrary rules (red is always better than brown; the more textures the better; don’t buy work with fish in it) to renowned artist Larry Poons, living and working in a rural setting away from the big city, driven by passion and a compulsion to paint for painting’s sake. As a result, The Price of Everything tows a balanced line between cynicism and wonder.
However, the film is more than just a sensationalist shock-fest of splashes of paint fetching outlandish prices. It raises more significant points about the schism between art socialism and art for the bourgeoisie. We see art dealers like Amy Cappellazzo refer to museums as “art cemeteries” and wax lyrical about the glory of rich collectors being privy to beauty. In contrast, artists like up-and-coming Njideka Akunyili Crosby (who watches one of her paintings being re-sold at auction for hundreds of thousands of dollars) yearn for their work to be celebrated in museums for all to see. When painter George Condo is asked whether art or life is more important, he chooses the former, as “it lives forever”. The collectors aren’t painted as completely heartless vampires, though. Inga Rubenstein is moved to tears when describing the colours in the first Damien Hirst piece she encountered in a gallery. And even Edlis, who, after earlier telling us “to be a good collector, you have to deep down be shallow,” is shown in the film’s climax donating 42 prolific contemporary pieces to the Art Institute of Chicago, acknowledging that the collection should be seen by the public.
Perhaps one area that could have been probed further is the gulf between the wealth of the artists themselves and those who subsequently profit from their work. This interesting moral conundrum is addressed a couple of times, particularly via Akunyili Crosby, but isn’t given any lengthier focus.
As an exploration of a world we all know of, but perhaps not in real detail, The Price of Everything succeeds. Kahn introduces us to the inner-workings of the industry, from the actual production of some of these works (Jeff Koons is filmed with his army of painters in an industrial work-space, while George Condo is documented creating an entirely new piece) to the lavish auctions where they are sold off for exorbitant amounts. On the other hand, it is also a commentary on the value of art and whether or not the industry is doing a disservice to what it claims to be about. If it’s still not much clearer to the audience why certain pieces deserve higher price tags than others, then it becomes apparent that that’s probably normal: even the art dealers and collectors interviewed have difficulty answering the question themselves. It highlights the (expensive) ridiculousness of it all.