“The Price of Everything,” a 98-minute documentary directed by Nathaniel Kahn, tenders a panoptic window on the contemporary art market’s upper echelon via a carefully orchestrated sequence of interview segments with a wide array of prominent art world influentials. Seeming particularly timely in light of the $90.3 m Hockney auction record set just three days after its Nov. 12 debut on HBO, this film is entertaining in its presentation and insightful with regard to art market machinations.
Superficially, “The Price of Everything” celebrates the dazzling glamour pervading the economic summit of the art world by visually and narratively indulging the viewer’s fascination with the glitzy exclusive society revolving around astronomically costly art. After all, this is Hollywood; the top-tier contemporary art market is star; and the movie’s two principal producers, Jennifer Blei Stockman and Debi Wisch, are both avid collectors having served on numerous art museum boards and committees. Yet the movie’s deeper subtext is far from uncritical.
The film opens in the uproarious midst of a contemporary auction, with bids flying, artworks rotating on turntables shepherded by white-gloved attendants, and charismatic Sotheby’s auctioneer Oliver Barker theatrically pattering up prices before sounding his gavel. Such excitement leads into Swiss auctioneer Simon de Pury proclaiming that art must be expensive in order to be good. You don’t need to listen too hard to hear the unsoundness in that paradigm of auction-house sophistry, which sets the stage for its own tables to be turned later on.
What follows is a pageant of interwoven clips featuring 26 mostly elite artists, collectors, critics, and dealers. Opinions expressed individually by a handful of primary characters alternately echo and play off one another. It is clear from the beginning that not everyone is to be believed; but those watching are charged with the task of reading between interviewees’ lines in order to separate fact from fiction. In leaving the viewer to gauge each character’s veracity, the movie slyly reflects the art world’s atmosphere of ethical ambiguity, though there are plenty of visual and filmographic cues to assist in excavating disingenuousness from glib veneers. Listen closely, and equivocations and paradoxes will unravel from many interviewee’s intricate yarns.
Jeff Koons’ soft-spoken tales grow shrewdly taller the longer he talks inside his factory-like studio full of worker bee artists sedulously painting Old Master replicas by numbers. Koons’ stunning success story is counterpointed by near-forgotten painter Larry Poons discussing the unvarnished truth relating to his own promising career that fizzled after he willfully changed his style decades ago. Poons’ unassuming, forthright manner comes across as the inverse of Koons’ silver-tongued salesmanship. Situated amid dilapidated structures on wooded grounds, the canvas-swathed interior of Poons’ small dim studio appears as a messy temple to an eccentric religion of painting, a sobering foil for Koons’ artwork assembly line.
Unsold on Koons’ work, eloquent art historian Alexander Nemerov gazes skeptically at Green Diamond while poetically summing up its profit-driven opulent cartoonishness. Among a few interviewed gallerists, Mary Boone and Jeffrey Deitch barely conceal their enthrallment with Koons’ business acumen. As Deitch veritably beams with admiration while describing an anecdote of Koons’ prowess in his former career as an investment banker, the ironic insertion of a Wolf of Wall Street clip leaves little doubt as to directorial opinion.
Certain subjects’ credibility develops unexpectedly throughout the movie. Initially sounding like a mercenary put-on, Chicago mega-collector Stefan Edlis opens up to provide surprisingly rich insight into his outlook and strategies. Sotheby’s dynamo Amy Cappellazzo divulges auction house tactics while occasionally reverting to marketing lines as the camera follows her preparations for a major auction. A 1973 sale by taxi magnate Robert Scull is posited as a catalyst for today’s contemporary art auction market, whose potential ravages on artists’ careers is alluded to in a poignant scene of Njideka Akunyili Crosby watching a video of her painting selling at auction for a huge sum of money she’ll never see.
Midway through, the movie’s momentum swings towards driving home harsh quotidian realities and long-term economic problems faced by artists even as they succeed. Auction and art fair hubbub are interposed with quieter sequences featuring artists working and interacting with curators and dealers. George Condo paints from a foam plate palette while candidly discussing the mercurial market’s pressures on artists; his friend Basquiat, he muses, probably would never have achieved its lofty values were it not for his untimely death.
Toward the film’s conclusion, Poons finally earns some recognition at a well-attended New York solo show. Someone, apparently Kahn, remarks that this must be what he was waiting for. Slightly reproachful, Poons matter-of-factly replies, “I haven’t been waiting.” (Meaning that he’s been painting regardless of whether others pay attention.)
Lush cinematography and thought-provoking footage render “The Price of Everything” worth watching from start to finish by anyone curious about high-end art market workings. Its closing credit sequence features several Condo paintings being loaded into a moving van that wends its way down busy streets, apparently en route to some exciting show—until the movers anticlimactically disembark at a storage unit, where the paintings are indefinitely cloistered from the light of day.
“The Price of Everything” is available on demand to HBO subscribers through Dec. 17: https://www.hbo.com/documentaries/the-price-of-everything