Red is good – brown is bad – and nothing with fish. So goes our education in the alchemy of divining an artwork’s appeal, as delivered by one of the collectors featured in Nathaniel Kahn’s new documentary The Price of Everything. Through candid interviews with artists and industry specialists the film takes us on a pacey journey through the high end of the commercial art world. What does our current relationship with art, creativity, and the commercial structures we have built around them really say about our appreciation of value?
With record sales happening left, right, and center, a huge part of popular discourse about art focuses on its price tag. And at the heart of the film are the complex dynamics—sometimes harmonious, sometimes uneasy—between commerce and creativity. “Art and money have always gone hand in hand,” says auctioneer and collector Simon de Pury. “It’s very important for good art to be expensive. You only protect things that are valuable. If something has no financial value, people don’t care.” Meanwhile artist Larry Poons asserts that “art and money have no intrinsic hook up,” and Gerhard Richter asks if it really adds up for a painted canvas to cost more than a house. The film’s title evokes Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic, who “knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Even the most naïve art lover knows the “value” of an artwork has very little to do with any intrinsic material worth. But is our fascination with price in the world of contemporary art causing us to lose sight of true value? And what are the costs of the excesses of a soaring art market?
Today the contemporary art sector dominates all other categories of fine art in a market fuelled not only by passionate collectors but by speculation and buying for investment purposes. As the supply of Old Masters and Modern artworks diminished, a young, wealthy set of collectors turned to collecting living artists. The Robert C. Scull auction in 1973 is considered the start of the bullish contemporary art market. The film includes archival footage (including a tense exchange between Scull and Robert Rauschenberg about the profit enjoyed by the former on the sale of a work by the latter), linking early speculative investment in art and the relationship of the secondary market to living artists. Edward Dolman, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Phillips, remembers strong initial resistance from auction houses to the new, unproven, seemingly risky sale category that now accounts for more than half the value of the entire art market.
Collector Stefan Edlis appears in The Price of Everything by Nathaniel Kahn, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by US Four Productions
In the ensuing years the top end of contemporary art has become synonymous with luxury. The Price of Everything takes us inside multi-million-dollar auction sales, as well as the vast studio of Jeff Koons, where an army of assistants manages the physical production of artworks while the artist discusses $25-35 million commissions, and we’re introduced to an exclusive collaboration with Louis Vuitton handbags. The question of “value” in these vignettes seems to square firmly with the notion of art as commodity, or even as brand. But this high-level system of production strikes a strong contrast with other artists in the documentary, whose style and working processes are less fitting with the lavishness of the current market.
Despite the fact that collectors are clamoring for work by living artists, the market can be surprisingly disconnected from the creators themselves. The film follows MacArthur Foundation Grant Award-winning artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby as she watches one of her works get “flipped” and sold for a huge profit at auction—none of the resale value is transferred to her, and there is a risk that the new leap in price may set a difficult precedent for her to follow. Akunyili Crosby’s artistic process is labor-intensive and time-consuming and, despite demand, her output is limited to around 12 works a year. Her response to the sale is surprise, disappointment, acceptance. Could the heat of the art market be at the expense of artists themselves?
Artist Larry Poons appears in The Price of Everything by Nathaniel Kahn, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Bob Richman
Another unexpected casualty of the market’s influence may be the evolution of an artist’s oeuvre over time. Under growing expectations to produce more—and more similar—work, it may be harder than ever for emerging artists to aim towards traditional career development, forming a full range of early, developing, and mature styles. This is by no means a new calculation, however. Larry Poons, an 80-year-old American abstract painter who came to prominence in the 1960s but did not follow an expected career trajectory, emerges as the film’s hero of non-conformity. He challenged critical and commercial expectations, refusing to continue producing work in his early op art style. The implication is that Poons did so at the expense of the greater success conferred upon his peers. The flipside, however, is that he has achieved longevity: in his rural, snowy farmhouse studio he prepares large-scale abstract works for an upcoming show. Other artists react differently. George Condo works quickly, almost despite the market, virtually producing a finished artwork before our eyes and happily recreating a character form he has used in previous works. He says that although there is no need to sell everything, it is important not to ignore a creative impulse.
The commodification of art is not a new phenomenon. In a Q&A, director Nathaniel Kahn made the point that, viewing the art world as a microcosm of the wider world, what we spend money on reveals our values as a society. In this respect, on some level the surging interest in contemporary art could be seen as positive: by focusing appreciation on the work of living artists, collectors are supporting and embracing a diversity of voices for the benefit of future generations.
But in a world where appreciation is as market-based, and the values are so noteworthy—as the film’s closing shot of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi selling for $450 million reminds us—we must be mindful of the effects of a top-heavy market on the lower and mid levels of the industry and on the creative processes and livelihoods of artists in particular. As art writers, readers, art lovers and appreciators, we can also aim to push a discourse which consciously focuses on the creative, cultural, intellectual, and emotional values of contemporary art, not solely the financial spectacle.
The Price of Everything premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, January 18-28, Park City, Utah. It will open in theaters in at least a dozen U.S. markets before debuting on HBO.
Antonia Ward is a Los Angeles-based writer, and regional liaison for global art membership organization The Cultivist.
(Image at top: Jeff Koons appears in The Price of Everything by Nathaniel Kahn, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by US Four Productions)