Documentary Review: ‘The Price Of Everything’

Review by Jacquelin Hipes

Most great documentaries have a common feature: objectivity. The filmmakers may organize the information into a narrative, something accessible and readily processed by viewers, but they won’t tinker with facts or chop footage into the small clips that best suit their purpose. How then does one go about crafting a documentary on what is arguably one of the most subjective topics available: the societal, monetary, and spiritual value of art? Filmmaker Nathaniel Kahn does so with a comprehensive list of interviewees, guiding the topics under discussion just enough so that viewers can follow the overlap of collection, curation, and investment, without coloring over the unfiltered opinions of his subjects.

The Price of Everything wisely avoids foisting answers on its audience, although it acknowledges a stunning number of questions in its lean 90-minute runtime. The world of modern art collection has chugged along quite smoothly (read: profitably) for fifty years; attempting to offer a “unifying theory” of compromise between the varied members of an ever-evolving organism would date the film irrevocably. Kahn has instead taken a strictly educational approach. Enthusiasts might find the brief history lessons or behind-the-scenes look at a Sotheby’s auction a bit rote, but for viewers who have always left art to the museums rather than welcoming it into their homes and checkbooks, his tour of the economy of taste is elucidatory.

Three major players (and one minor) make up this world: artists provide the wares; collectors purchase them; while gallery owners and, later, auction houses facilitate the movement of artwork throughout the community. And what about museums, you might ask? Often reliant on private donations and public funds, art museums could spend their entire annual budget purchasing just one piece at auction. They hardly factor into the conversation, a Sotheby’s employee likening them to a socialist alternative to private collection.

By the film’s conclusion, it is admittedly difficult to look on private collectors with an entirely kind eye. Those multi-million dollar price tags that regularly feature at auction rarely, if ever, benefit the artist. He or she most likely sold that painting years ago for a few hundred or thousand dollars; a collector—or, just as likely, an investor hoping to turn a profit—then sits on the piece until the market is right. The principal remains the same as secondhand bookshops, but when you see the light dim in an artist’s eyes after learning their singular work will sit in a living room or storage locker, unseen by all but a few, you start to understand why Indiana Jones was so worked up at the beginning of Last Crusade.

Two artists in particular stand out, each with very different approaches to their craft. Jeff Koons rose to prominence in the mid-1980’s and is well known for running a factory-esque studio, employing art students to help churn out enough work to meet the demands of his clients. He has collaborated with fashion brands like Louis Vuitton and holds a world record auction price for a living artist. To his great financial success, Koons has commercialized every aspect of his work possible, even pre-selling pieces he won’t begin for several years for seven-figure price tags. The opposite of Koons is painter Larry Poons, whose “dot paintings” were wildly popular in the 1960’s. After working in that style for several years he shifted focus. Rather than follow, the alleged tastemakers abandoned him, although Poons continues to turn out (in this writer’s opinion) beautiful artwork to this day. He paints in a barn behind his house in upstate New York and likens his personal aspirations to the passionate craft of Beethoven.

The juxtaposition of Koons and Poons illustrates some of the strongest opposing forces in the modern art world: economics versus passion, the wants and needs of an artist pushed up against the demands of a multi-billion dollar market, and the ever-elusive question of what makes art art.

And notice how I wrote “men” up there? The film checks in with several female artists as well, none of whom boast the same financial success as Koons, although you’d have no trouble finding those willing to argue they possess just as much (if not more) talent. One of them even quips that, as a female artist, you’ll only start making money and gaining recognition after your death. She says it with a laugh, but at a time when the disparities between men and women in nearly every kind of workplace can dominate our conversations, it’s a sad reminder that even in the fine arts a composition isn’t allowed to stand on its own merit.

Kahn wisely allows his many subjects to tell the history of modern art collection, as well as letting them stand as an illustration of the possibilities the future holds. In such a complex community of creators, collectors, and the brokers that join them, there are no simple explanations for what drives the happenings in a studio or an auction house. Yet The Price of Everything embraces this complexity, beautifully capturing the strange, insular, contradictory, and addictive world of art collection.

OPENING IN THEATERS AT THE ALAMO DRAFTHOUSE LAKE HIGHLANDS ON 10/26 AND AIRING ON HBO 11/12.

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