Nathaniel Kahn’s “The Price of Everything” speaks all too conventionally about art and money

There are many possible ways to make a documentary about art and money. One tack might be to focus on the question of art’s value. Where does this value lie? Is art more valuable than a house? Than liberty? A human life? These are interesting questions, but unfortunately, Nathaniel Kahn’s new documentary, The Price of Everything, barely touches on them. Another approach might be to cast a broader net, and discuss blue chip art as one of many models artists have of making money off their work: regional artists selling to a local market, performance artists living off commission, workaday artists making souvenirs for tourists. These lives are interesting too, but Kahn’s documentary makes no mention of them. One could even make a comparative study of the few activities that receive market attention versus the many that have been practiced and continue to be practiced with no relation to markets at all: hobbies, cave paintings, ritual objects, outsider and underground art, decorative doodles in the margins of notebooks. This would be a fascinating typology, but unfortunately, Kahn’s documentary does not attempt it.

In fact, pretty much the only uninspired approach to art and money would be to make an entire film pitting the justifications of market apologists on one side against the stale clichés of titular romantics on the other. Unfortunately, this is precisely the movie that Mr. Kahn has made.

The Price of Everything is not a film of new ideas. It presents a spectrum of familiar positions on art and money through interviews with dozens of artists, curators, art historians, auctioneers and gallerists. As one might expect, this spectrum runs from the cynical on one side to the romantic on the other. The extreme edge of the cynics’ side is occupied by the auction houses, represented by Simon de Pury of Phillips and Amy Cappellazzo of Sotheby’s. In his few lines, de Pury mostly limits himself to well-worn market slogans (the only way to protect something is to make it expensive), while Cappellazzo, in her many more lines, makes it clear that her market realism is not limited to art (Richter’s desire to see his work in a museum is his “socialist democratic” way of avoiding the necessity of dealing with rich people).

The spectrum’s other extreme is represented by artist Larry Poons, who not-so-subtly plays the role of the movie’s hero. Poons is one of the market’s cautionary tales: a well-regarded artist in the sixties once showing with the likes of Jasper Johns, Poons turned his back on the dot paintings the market was ready to reward him for in search of something else—continued artistic growth. The documentary finds him fifty years later, just north of the Catskills in a small but comfortable home he shares with his wife. Here, forgotten by the market, Poons continues to paint every day, pursuing his own inner voice on the backdrop of a truly flawless taste in classical music. Poons is a likeable character, and the way he has built a snug and unassuming life around resolute commitment to his practice is deeply admirable, but his ideas about art are hardly original. Variously throughout the film, we see him turn to the camera with the enigmatic glint of the sphinx in his eye only to drop catchphrases we have all heard before (you cannot learn to see, you must be born with it; I wanted to be like Beethoven or Mozart).

  Forgotten by the market for pursuing continued artistic growth, Larry Poons is the not-so-subtle hero of the movie. Photo credit: HBO

Forgotten by the market for pursuing continued artistic growth, Larry Poons is the not-so-subtle hero of the movie. Photo credit: HBO

Occupying the exact center of the continuum is one of the film’s few interesting voices, the collector Stefan Edlis. It is Edlis who, paraphrasing Oscar Wilde, gives the film its title: “There’s a lot of people that know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Edlis himself clearly knows both. Throughout the film, we see him recite, without flinching, how many millions of dollars he paid for which piece and what it is worth today, before transitioning to a genuine expression of what it means to him and why he bought it. It is the unselfconsciousness of a clear conscience, and it allows Edlis to see both the art and the market with wit and clarity (is Urs Fischer’s house made out of bread “art?” Well, it’s certainly not food...).

  The sharp-eyed and witty collector Stefan Edlis occupies a position in the exact center of the film’s spectrum between market cynicism and romanticism. Photo credit: HBO

The sharp-eyed and witty collector Stefan Edlis occupies a position in the exact center of the film’s spectrum between market cynicism and romanticism. Photo credit: HBO

In these and other moments, The Price of Everything does have its pleasures; from the mischievous observations of Stefan Edlis, to a brief but informative history of contemporary art’s rise to prominence in the market, to a truly inspired montage where Larry Poons, George Condo, and Marilyn Minter are each shown painting to a pristine melody by Carl Maria von Weber. But those viewers who want to chew on unconventional ideas about art’s relationship to money will be disappointed. The only true surprise is how few art world insiders seem to have anything interesting to say on the subject, and how seldom the basic binary between market cynicism and worn romanticism is challenged. This is most evident in the film’s resolution, which oddly enough, comes in the form of Larry Poons’ reconciliation with the art market. Near the end of the film, we see all that thankless work pay off in a solo show on Fifth Avenue, with a gracious Poons standing in a knot of gallery goers receiving praise. There is no doubt that he deserves it. But the message that following your inner voice is its own reward is undercut by the fact that it is a purely market-centric idea of reward that is ultimately given him: “Now he is found.” As the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari once said, capital “would like for us to believe that it confronts the limits of the Universe.” If Nathaniel Kahn were to look around, he would see not only the Poonses of the world, but millions of people doggedly pursuing their aesthetic obsessions with far more divergent relationships to remuneration and reward. Strangely, in a movie that bills itself as an in-depth look at art and money, Kahn criticizes the coextension between art and market, but never actually questions it.