How do we put a value on art? How do we put a value on anything? Modern culture is as responsible as anything for putting our own contemporary art out of reach, out of sight of most art lovers, and it’s all because we’ve declared it to have value. Nathaniel Kahn’s thought-shattering documentary THE PRICE OF EVERYTHING takes the viewer into the exclusive world of contemporary art auctions, where works by artists who most people have never heard of, can go for as much as $100 million.
“There was just so much that I didn’t understand behind the scenes,” says Kahn about filming his first auction back in 2016, “its all happening very quickly, there are lots of players involved in this that aren’t in the room. Not just the buyers and sellers but also the artists whose work is going on the block here, how do they feel about this? How do the people who are the collectors know what to buy and what is a good price for it and they should think about these things?”
These questions became the blueprint for Kahn’s exclusive peak past the auction catalog. His film, premiering today on HBO, weaves its way through a world few have access to, but serves as an almost cautionary tale for how we all live, and what we value. “It is a reflection of who we are as a society today,” the director says about what he discovered making the film, “art is always showing us who we are. Its revealing to us our current obsessions, our interests, what we value and where we might be headed and where we come from.” The art market, as it currently exists, is just a reflection of how we value these things.
The Price of Everything succeeds because Kahn does such a superb job of tackling this topic from every side, coalescing views from people from Sotheby’s chairman Amy Cappellazo, influential collector Stefan Edlis, and rock star artist Jeff Koons into a film that leaves the audience with many more questions than one though possible on the subject, questions we should be asking ourselves. “I feel that we live in a time when everybody wants to have the packaged answer of what exactly the nature of something is,” he says, “they want things to be one way or the other, but the reality is life is filled with complexity and the artworld is filled with that too.” Kahn’s hope is that if Art says a lot about who we are, then it is time we start looking at how we value art and decide is that what we want to have said about us? “I do feel like we live in a world that has fundamentally confused the idea of price and value,” Kahn says, “if we only think of things in terms of their monetary value, and we think that the monetary price is a measure of its value then we lose the idea that the intrinsic of things is actually what matters most.”
For Kahn, you cannot put price on an experience, or on love, or on a connection between people. In our conversation, he talked about visiting the Frick with Art Historian Alexander Nemerov, and seeing the old master work like Rembrandt’s self-portrait, which serves in the film to remind us that true value of art is the connection it has with us. “When you are looking at Rembrant and he’s gazing out at you and his eyes meet yours,” Kahn explains, “though he’s been dead for several centuries, his eyes follow you back and forth. He looks at you the entire time, and that painting is alive because it becomes alive in you.” Rembrandt is literally saying to who are you, what are you doing in your life, what are you leaving behind? “That connection that happens,” the director says, “is priceless.”
Of course, it does have a price. In 2009, a painting by the dutch master sold for $33 million. Strangely, that number matches many prices in the Contemporary Art Auction scene, where works by Keith Haring, Anselm Kiefer, Zeng Fanzi and Adrian Gnenie sell for over $10 million (I’ve heard of one of them). “My initial sense of it was similar to what many audience members I expect will feel,” remembers the director, “who is making these decisions? How are they deciding what something is going to bring at a sale? Going in I sort of felt ‘how can people be doing this to art?’ this seems somehow a violation of art to be used in this way. Especially when you realize art is being used as an investment instrument.”
This becomes one of the central issues I wrestled with personally watching the film. 100 years from now how will a museum be able to choose the great works without being extremely influenced by the amount of money that was spent on them? Furthermore, are we not shutting people off from these works because people are buying them as investments and locking them up? “You see a work of art and its bought at an auction and it goes in someone’s collection,” explains Kahn, “it hangs on someone’s fancy wall somewhere or more often than not it doesn’t hang on any wall. It goes into a storage area and is hermetically sealed like in a time capsule for another time when maybe the price of that particular artist has gone up.”
If art offers a reflection of ourselves, what does it say that what we value the most, we want to lock away… THE PRICE OF EVERYTHING is a film in which everyone involved seems acutely aware that the market is not operating in a way connected to our true values. Part of Kahn’s true skill is to get the documentary subjects to let them into their worlds, without holding back. “You go to talk to people and you might call it an interview,” he remarks, “its really more of an encounter, or a scene. I’m much more interested in meeting people in the context of what they do.” For example, in the film, we get to see Cappellazzo putting the catalog together for an upcoming auction, “to understand how art is actually looked at by people who sell art, who create a context for a contemporary picture that is being sold,” Kahn explains. At the same time, in elucidating her process, the Sotheby’s chairman admits of the Art Market “the way it is accelerating now is a double edged sword.”
Another place Kahn catches a subject in their element is Stefan Edlis, who in the midst of a conversation, offers up “some people know the price of everything but the value of nothing.” Even if at that stage in the process of filming Kahn didn’t know what the movie he was making was about, Edlis told him. “The moment he said it, and the gravitas with which he said it,” muses Kahn, “the way he stopped – its one thing to be talking about the things in the catalog, that’s interesting enough, but then if you have this moment where someone is looking at something from the past, they are in the present surrounded by their own collection, and then they say something that seem to universalize all of it then you have one of those moments you as a documentary filmmaker dream of.” Kahn is quick to point out the quote has its origin in Oscar Wilde. “I’m not sure that he knows its from Oscar Wilde originally,” he says, “he may, he’s a deeply educated guy, but he did not quote it as being Oscar Wilde saying it, he actually said he heard it from someone at some point, its clearly a quote from elsewhere but he’s adapted it in his own way.”
So what does all this mean for our future art lover? Will they be able to the enjoy one Jeff Koon’s metallic Balloon Bunnies? Kahn is hopeful. “I do believe if you look at the history of great collecting, many of the public institutions of today like the Prado or the Frick, those were private collections and ultimately they became public, he says, “maybe it comes from my faith in art itself that great art will be seen. I believe that the art that really speaks with great humanity and eloquence and timelessness, that that art will eventually make its way into a place that we can see it. Atleast that’s my hope. And that certainly has been the case in past.”
THE PRICE OF EVERYTHING premieres tonight on HBO.