an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me

Unsold on “The Price of Everything”: HBO’S Art-Market Epic (with a fleeting CultureGrrl cameo)

I recently sat disconsolately through a screener of director Nathaniel Kahn‘s new artworld documentary, “The Price of Everything.” Its dyspeptic take on the artworld turned my stomach. The film miscarries by not delivering what’s promised in its own synopsis:

While holding a funhouse mirror up to our consumerist culture, the film ultimately reaffirms the transcendent power of art itself [emphasis added] and the deep need we have for it in our lives.

Nathaniel Kahn, director

Instead of being elevated by a sense of art’s “transcendent power,” we mostly wallow in market muck. Indicative of the film’s approach is blurb from a review by Owen Gleiberman in Variety that is quoted on the film’s homepage. It extols the “brilliant and captivating documentary about how the artworld got converted into a money market.”

Really?!? The only people who buy the argument that the artworld has been “converted into a money market” where (as described on the film’s homepage) “everything can be bought and sold” are those benighted souls who know and care primarily about financial value, not artistic value. We don’t hear nearly enough from enlightened artworld luminaries—including those deeply involved in the market—who care first and foremost about art and artists.

The promotional blurb on the HBO documentary’s website (linked above) leads us to believe that we’ll enjoy the filmmakers’ “unprecedented access to pivotal artists and the white-hot market surrounding them.” But the only truly “pivotal artists” appearing in the film who have enjoyed sustained “white-hot markets” are Jeff Koons, always up for another shot at self-promotion, and, briefly, Gerhard Richter, who impishly debunks the market (while reaping its ample benefits).

Screenshot (with subtitle) of Richter commenting on a show of his work at the Marian Goodman Gallery

Below is what Richter said when Kahn asked him this at the Marian Goodman Gallery: “What about when these paintings suddenly come up at auction?”

I would prefer to see them in a museum  Then I am immediately happy. Not in a private collection….It’s not good when this [one of his paintings] is the value of a house. It’s not fair. I like it [the painting], but it’s not a house [chuckles]. Money is dirty.

Amy Cappellazzo, chairman of the Fine Art Division of Sotheby’s, theatrically rolled her eyes when Kahn told her about Richter’s preference for museum placement. Awarded a lion’s share of screentime, Amy comes across as a caricature of crassness, especially here:

Museums are great. We love them. But if they have too many [artworks], they’ll never see the light of day. So then it’s like a cemetery. Why do you want your things in a cemetery? [Consider that her interviewer was the son of Louis Kahn, the celebrated architect of such “cemeteries.”] You know, to bury it underground somewhere? Museums for him [Richter]—that’s just a very socialist, democratic way of avoiding having to deal with rich people who want them.

The self-serving subtext is that collectors would do better to consign their treasures to Sotheby’s than to give them to the museums that want to share them with the public.

Rivaling Cappellazzo for excessive screentime is mega-collector Stefan Edlis:

Screenshot of Stefan Edlis at home with wife Gael Neeson

Wooed by the ubiquitous Cappellazzo as a possible Richter buyer, he delivers this set of did-he-really-say-that “rules”:

Red is always good. Red is better than brown. Brown is unsalable. And don’t buy any pictures with fish.

Glub, glub…

The film reacquaints us with the astonishing long-term deal (which I had decried more than two years ago) that was struck by the nonagenarian Edlis and the Art Institute of Chicago: Under the terms of his gift of 44 contemporary works to the museum, they all must be displayed for 25 years in their own fiefdom, set apart from other related works in the museum’s collection. They must be kept on view for an additional 25 years, but can be integrated with other works.

Art critic Jerry Saltz (upon whom Kahn relies to provide some counterbalance to market-mania) came away from watching himself and his fellow players “feeling sick to my stomach,” as he wrote in his New York Magazine review. He was at pains to explain how he had gotten roped into this dubious enterprise. Then again, this was not the first regrettable choice that his appetite for self-promotion has led him to make.

Christie’s experts and the artworld’s most prominent dealers (many of whom are at least as deeply committed to art and artists as to the market) appear to have done themselves a favor by sitting this one out, avoiding the painful exposure of Kahn’s “gotcha” interviews. Also notable for their absence are museum experts, save for brief appearances by ex-MOCA curator Paul Schimmel (who served a short commercial stint with mega-dealers Hauser & Wirth) and the estimable Connie Butler, chief curator of the Hammer Museum.

We see Connie trying to counsel rising star Njideka Akunyili Crosby on dealing with the sudden surge of buyer interest in her work.

Screenshot of Connie Butler talking to Njideka Akunyili Crosby

Crosby asks Butler, “How do I keep evolving this work, how do I keep changing it, how do I not stagnate, especially when you feel like, “Oooo! I’ve just stumbled onto something really cushy. I could just cruise and ride this out for the next 20 years”?

To which the curator sagely replies:

I think the artworld is a really brutal place, especially for young artists. I think it can be really, really tough. Sometimes people are very seduced and it just becomes about production and the money, and I think you have to know that the work is going to continue on, in spite for all the noise around you. This really rapid rise in the art market is artificial and can, of course, go away over time.

If you feel compelled to sit through this film, you can look forward to catching my own fleeting cameo. (Blink, and you’ll miss it.) I had previously boasted on this blog that I was “a few feet away during the legendary moment at the conclusion of the 1973 Robert Scull auction at Sotheby Parke Bernet [as the New York auction firm was then known], when Rauschenberg confronted the collector and declared: ‘I’ve been working my ass off just for you to make that profit!’”

Now here’s proof. That’s baby CultureGrrl, below (on the right), between the somewhat inebriated artist and Ethel Scull (then Robert’s wife), who has placed her hand on his shoulder. She’s about to hug Rauschenberg, after which the artist slugs and berates her husband, who recovers his balance and manages to respond graciously.

Rauschenberg & Rosenbaum
Screenshot from “The Price of Everything”

After Rauschenberg (and the cameramen) retreated to a safe distance, I chatted with the bruised but unbowed collector, who told me that he was pursuing new interests, providing financial support for land art by then lesser-knowns Michael Heizer and Walter de Maria.

Tacked onto the end of this contemporary-art film is a Renaissance non-sequitur, shown in a poor-quality reproduction and accompanied by the audio of its being hammered down at $400 million ($450.3 million with buyer’s premium) by Christie’s auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen:

Screenshot of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi”

If you’d care to devote 98 minutes of your time to determining whether you agree with my downbeat critique, go here (scroll down) for a list of the movie’s limited-release screenings, or catch it on HBO, where it debuts on Nov. 12. Interestingly, the one city outside of North America where it will be screened is Abu Dhabi, where the planned Sept. 18 unveiling of “Salvator Mundi” at the Louvre Abu Dhabi was inexplicably delayed.

Maybe Kahn’s next project should be untangling that saga.

A NOTE TO MY READERS: If you appreciate my coverage, please consider supporting CultureGrrl by clicking the “Donate” button in the righthand column. Contributors of $10 or more are added to my email blast for immediate notification of my new posts.

an ArtsJournal blog