Nathaniel Kahn’s The Price of Everything is an examination of the skyrocketing sales of modern artwork over the last few decades. Yet the documentary isn’t a simple anti-capitalist harangue, as Kahn understands that money is a defining element of art-making, whether or not we wish to admit it. Artists and audiences alike are influenced by money, if only by their refutation of it, and Kahn sees art auctions at places like Sotheby’s and Christie’s, where pieces by artists such as Jeff Koons can sell for $50 million to wealthy private collectors, as crass yet intoxicating acts of mercenary bluntness. Laypeople might not able to see the art that’s sold at these events, but, without the cache of the sales themselves, would they want to? Such auctions correspond with the consumer’s increasing obsession with box-office sales, as there’s something insidiously pleasing about applying an objective measure to a subjective entity. Humankind is obsessed by the reassurance of qualification.
Near the opening of The Price of Everything, an auctioneer observes that money is the only way to protect art, because something without value isn’t prioritized by society. The sentiment is appalling yet profound, pragmatically claiming that capitalism works on certain levels. As Kahn proceeds to interview an impressive gallery of players in the art scene, including artists, salespeople, and collectors, an urgent emotional riddle comes to drive the film: Art and money are hopelessly intertwined, even on micro levels, but why? Of course, the people of this film also have a vested interest in capitalism, as they belong to the one class that benefits from its priorities.
When Kahn asks Sotheby’s executive Amy Cappellazzo if she wonders about the worthiness of her buyers to appreciate the art they attain, she’s poignantly stymied by a question that’s at odds with her life of marketing as hunting. Cappellazzo gets off on the thrill of influence and money—of mingling and negotiating with the world’s most powerful people. Yet Kahn doesn’t score cheap points on Cappellazzo, as he’s similarly drawn to the auctions, cocktail roundelays, and insider’s gossip. Cappellazzo is also shown to be an aesthete who speaks rhapsodically of visual artist Gerhard Richter, who’s seen embracing the socialist implications of museums while attending the very sort of auction he decries. Time and again, Kahn reveals money to be a warped expression not only of greed but of love, and this nearly paradoxical observation informs the film with a disturbing, irresolvable power.
It’s fitting, then, that Kahn quotes Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street here, as that film similarly understood money and fame to be toxic yet inescapably dazzling embodiments of our need to at least vicariously experience power. You might be a nine-to-fiver barely getting by, but if you quote an auction sale or a film’s box-office take, you can still imply that you’re a little bit in the know. Koons, the most financially successful living artist, was once a Wall Street trader—a fact that almost too neatly blends Kahn’s obsessions with money and art, as every successful artist must be a salesperson. Kahn positions Larry Poons as Koons’s polar opposite, as the former is living out in the country somewhere claiming that money and art are mutually exclusive, while the latter faux-naïvely deflects his status as an über-player. Once a toast of the elite, Poons abandoned his minimalist aesthetic, embracing florid abstraction and slipping into obscurity while Koons honed his own style into a diamond-hard expression of postmodern vulgarity.
We see bits of Poons’s new work throughout The Price of Everything, one of which is a kind of splatter painting that wraps nearly 360 degrees around a room, though the fevered majesty of Poons’s new art isn’t fully discernable until he enjoys a comeback and nets a new exhibition in New York. Hanging on gallery walls, these paintings are revealed to be astonishingly emotional and chaotic refutations of the neat formalism that Poons once employed. We’re allowed to experience this art, even from the far remove of a film or TV screen, for two reasons: because rich people came looking for Poons again, and because Kahn was able to get financing for The Price of Everything, which could just as easily have been titled The Price Is Everything.