Review: ‘The Price of Everything’

Doc playfully probes the business of art

8 mins read

The Price of Everything
(USA, 98 min.)
Dir. Nathaniel Kahn

“I think there are three kinds of people in this world,” says Amy Cappellazzo, Chairman of Global Fine Arts at Sotheby’s auction house, to director Nathaniel Kahn in The Price of Everything. “Those who see, those who see when they are shown, and those who will never see.”

Cappellazzo is obviously one who sees. As the guide to the high-priced lots of Sotheby’s, she is a gatekeeper of the art world. Her eye matters when it comes to cataloging, evaluating, and circulating the exquisite artworks that pass hands and exchange exorbitantly high sums of money. As a tastemaker, Kahn gives Cappellazzo, and many other aficionados of the art world, the opportunity to share her sense of what makes a great work of art. Cappellazzo offers the most engaging interviews that reveal a great appreciation for the textures, colours, and complexities of certain masterworks, like a pair of Gerhard Richters that she holds in high esteem while guiding the director through the programme book of her upcoming auction. She totally appreciates the business of art. Through her wisdom and that of others, The Price of Everything playfully probes the delicate, if frequently vulgar, practice of juggling the commercial and cultural values of art. It’s all a matter of exchange.

Cappellazzo is also the most entertaining interviewee in The Price of Everything in that she isn’t afraid to interrupt Kahn and denote the occasional whiff of bullshit in his line of questioning. For example, Kahn asks if masterpieces continue to be made in the contemporary era and the question takes the art lover back a step. She observes the silliness of his question and argues that one has to believe in greatness even as styles, modes, waves, and aesthetics change. Contemporary art is just like independent filmmaking: anyone can make a movie these days with the aid of crowdfunding, digital technology, and self-distribution. The market might be inundated, but just because there is way more crap produced nowadays doesn’t mean there are fewer masterworks.

The conversations that Kahn finds within The Price of Everything take stock of the fluctuations of the art scene and the myriad variables that determine greatness. Value isn’t necessarily the monetary figure attached to the work, nor the aesthetic and/or technical perfections of a piece, but in the relationship a work of art creates between one or more onlookers. By questioning the value of something, we ultimately find it.

Kahn finds another great character in Stefan Edlis, the Austrian-born and Chicago-based art collector who escaped the Nazis at the age of 15 and discovered his passion in contemporary art. Edlis gives Kahn jovial tours through his brightly lit apartment, which is tastefully adorned with a collection featuring the hottest artists on the planet. The collector has a keen eye, but he isn’t afraid to laugh at the absurdity of the art world, either, noting that some of his artworks are investments that paid off brilliantly, like a stainless steel Jeff Koons bunny that looks like a stupid balloon. Edlis says he purchased it for a just under a million dollars and estimates its worth at $65 million today. At the same time, he shows how he lost a few million on a dead goat that Damien Hirst immersed in a tank of formaldehyde. He laughs recalling how cleaned up white goop that leaked from the goat while the artist faded in popularity. Edlis, like Cappellazzo, is one who sees.

One might say that Kahn is one who sees when he is shown, and the argument can be made that The Price of Everything will make anyone see the beautiful if perverted synergy within the relationship of art and economics. Kahn assembles an impressive roster of artists, critics, dealers, and collectors and captures the lucrative absurdity of the art scene from all angles. Everyone agrees that the contemporary scene is becoming more of a transactional affair than one of cultural or historical appreciation, but that sense also makes it more urgent to appreciate greatness. Artists like Nigerian sensation Njideka Akunyili Crosby tell Kahn about the excitement of selling a painting to an adoring customer who dished out oodles of money—only to learn that he “flipped” the painting and resold it, much in the way people do with real estate, enjoying the piece mostly for its return in value.

Similarly, Kahn gets impressive access to artists like Jeff Koons who are happily in on the ruse. Koons invites Kahn into his workshop, which is really an assembly-line factory for overpriced objets d’art. Koons has few original pieces—his works often repurpose existing pieces with, say, a metal globe in front of them to create an interactive element of perspective—and the original works in his collection are so heavily reproduced that they diminish their own rarity. Despite bastardizing his own oeuvre, Koons’ art rises in value because he drives the mania of supply and demand in the voracious art scene. Even better is the fact that Koons doesn’t actually make the art himself! Koons’ underlings churn out copies of the artworks and piece them together. He’s a luxury brand, like Prada or Louis Vuitton, and proud of it.

The Price of Everything, like the very artworks it depicts, doesn’t necessary bring anything new to the table since the questions it poses are all well circulated within spheres of culture vultures and casual art fans. Audiences who saw Barry Avrich’s doc Blurred Lines: Inside the Art World last year will find the canvas familiar as talking heads reiterate the same points about the relationship between culture and capital. However, like these artworks that are fantastic to some and folly to others, the pleasure is all about the interaction and the exchange. One can tour the same gallery a few times—especially if the company is as fun and cultured as these folks are.

The Price of Everything opens at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Nov. 23.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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