On October 4, a framed painting titled “Girl with Balloon” by British street artist and provocateur Banksy began shredding itself upon being sold for $1.4 million at a Sotheby’s auction, shocking and delighting the art world. Was Banksy, whose very name evokes cold, hard cash, making a sly comment on the art market, on auctions, on the intrinsic value of a work of art? In the immediate aftermath, there was general confusion about just what the buyer had purchased and whether she had to keep it at all. In many ways that stunt exemplifies what Nathaniel Kahn’s highly artistic documentary, The Price of Everything, is all about. Kahn, who was nominated for Oscars for his 2003 film, My Architect: A Son’s Journey, which explored the legacy of his father, Louis Kahn, and his 2006 short, Two Hands, about pianist Leon Fleisher, this time trains his camera on the volatile global art market. “Art and money have always gone hand in hand,” superstar auctioneer Simon de Pury says. “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. They will not give it the necessary protection. The only way to make sure that cultural artifacts survive is for them to have a commercial value.”
Traveling to art fairs, galleries, museums, and studios, Kahn gets a wide range of opinions on the subject, from such art-world denizens as Amy Cappellazzo of Sotheby’s, who savors the chase and the deal and has her own definition of “money shot”; collectors Inga Rubenstein, Holly Peterson, and, primarily, husband-and-wife Stefan Edlis and Gael Neeson, with Edlis getting a lot of screen time showing off his vast collection and discussing various pieces and artists in detail (“There are a lot of people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing,” Edlis says. “The art world is capricious.”); curators Paul Schimmel and Connie Butler; art historians Alexander Nemerov, who talks about the “pricelessness” of Old Master paintings at the Frick, and Barbara Rose, who compares art on the auction block to pieces of meat; gallerists Mary Boone, Jeffrey Deitch, and Gavin Brown (who sees art and money as Siamese twins); and ever-philosophical and acerbic New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz, who laments the prospect of great works of art being sold to private collectors, perhaps never again to be seen by the public.
Kahn also speaks with numerous artists who give their own views on what constitutes value, including Jeff Koons, who is in his busy studio, where his large team is creating his Gazing Ball series, intricate copies of classic canvases, each adorned with a reflective blue ball; octogenarian Larry Poons, who is working on dazzling paintings at his home in the woods of Upstate New York; Gerhard Richter at the opening of his exquisite 2016 painting and drawing show at Marian Goodman Gallery, explaining, “Money is dirty”; Njideka Akunyili Crosby, the rising Nigerian-born, LA-based artist who works in photo-collage and reaching new levels of success; critical and popular favorite George Condo, who exuberantly puts the finishing touches on a painting; and photorealist painter Marilyn Minter, known for her glittery pieces.
Kahn is building up to the hotly anticipated Sotheby’s auction “The Triumph of Painting: The Steven & Ann Ames Collection,” where each of the above artists has a work for sale, although they will not be profiting from it since they don’t own the pieces. There’s terrific archival footage of the 1973 Scull auction, which changed the art world forever, where Robert Rauschenberg approaches Robert Scull after a work of his just sold for an exorbitant price and Scull embraces the artist, claiming that it was good for both of them, even though Scull is the one who pockets the cash. Kahn is ever-present in the documentary, never seen but often heard asking questions, trying to get to the bottom of the beguiling relationship between art and money in the twenty-first century, concluding with a beautiful Michael Snow–like shot that in many ways sums it all up. An HBO Documentary Films presentation, The Price of Everything opens at the Quad on October 19, with Q&As and introductions featuring Kahn, producers Jennifer Stockman, Debi Wisch, and Carla Solomon, and editor Sabine Krayenbühl taking place at select screenings through October 25. Let’s leave it to Poons to have the last word: “There are no rules about what is going to be good and what is gonna be bad. Art doesn’t give a shit. It never has.”