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The Price of Everything

The Price of Everything

[…] From their canny juxtaposition, we learn that, if we want to understand art today, we must recognize that the solid arguments of a renowned art critic will be definitely less influential than the capricious evolution of an art auction.

[…] If the general flavour that we get from this intelligent inquiry into the art world is a mixture of fun and despondency, we cannot but praise the amazing production of Nathaniel Kahn. «The Price of Everything» is never redundant, highly informative, provided with a wonderful tempo, rich in content, both light and profound at the same time…

In his documentary film, Nathaniel Kahn focuses on the art market, the true heart of the established contemporary art scene, but we should not think that for this reason The Price of Everything is a film eschewing the aesthetic questions about contemporary art. It instructively explains how the recent (official) history of art – at least since the pop art movement, and definitely starting with Jeff Koons in the Eighties – has conflated the questions of the monetary and artistic values of works of art. The magnificent editing of precious interviews with high-carat personalities of the art scene in the States sometimes indicate Kahn’s nostalgic preference for a conception of art as something immune to monetary evaluation (see the passionate praise for the more “democratic” institution of the museum…). Despite this, the documentary as a whole rightly stresses the impossibility these days of disentangling art from the impressive speculative bubble that supports it. In front of what appears to be a simple and obvious matter of fact, the figure of Larry Poons – an example of an artist that has deliberately navigated against the stream of the art market “system” (a sort of perfect antagonist to Jeff Koons) – appears under a sympathetic yet ultimately pathetic light. After all, it is worth remembering that money is value, and value is meaning…

Between the counterpart figures of Poons and Koons, we meet a varied series of other examples of artists and, not without a good dose of humour, the opinions and positions of the other more or less important participants of the art scene: the collectors, the dealers, the curators, the gallerists, the art critics, the art historians (a decrescendo?)… From their canny juxtaposition, we learn that, if we want to understand art today, we must recognize that the solid arguments of a renowned art critic will be definitely less influential than the capricious evolution of an art auction (in this regard, Kahn’s highlighting of the historical turning point of Robert Scull’s 1973 private sale is especially informative). Moreover, we learn that the art market that is able to move more millions than passions (yet we see Inga Rubinstein pathetically crying for the colours of Damian Hirst’s butterflies…) is a world largely made of “followers” – as the collector Stefan Edlis admits. Behind the brash self-assuredness of dealers and managers – the “casting” of a caricatural figure like Amy Cappellazzo is quite effective for this scope – we often discover mediocrity and conformism. Nothing to be surprised by, for any speculative bubble needs a critical mass of opinionless investors.

If the general flavour that we get from this intelligent inquiry into the art world is a mixture of fun and despondency, we cannot but praise the amazing production of Nathaniel Kahn. The Price of Everything is never redundant, highly informative, provided with a wonderful tempo, rich in content, both light and profound at the same time – with the only inconvenience being its restriction to the American art scene, almost to New York alone. This is probably not an inconvenience at all, as the art market of New York still seems to be the decisive hub; even if the recent emergence of new centres of monetary powers in the world, if not already colonised by the American art market system, could make imagine a different future evolution of the art scene. For the moment, the bubble seems far from bursting. Self-critical statements such as Maurizio Cattelan’s one are already integrated into the system, and salespersons like Jeff Koons can continue to reign.

First published: February 06, 2019

The Price of Everything | Film | Nathaniel Kahn | USA 2018 | 98’

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