Before I begin, I probably ought to admit that this kind of documentary is like catnip for me. Although some of the things seen or said within it are objectionable, I’m afraid that I do get a little tingle of pleasure whenever I watch anything featuring rich people attending exclusive events or buying expensive things (and, indeed, when said rich people are so brazen and proud and shameless in discussing such matters). And The Price of Everything, a 2018 documentary about art and commerce, features lots of very rich people buying lots of very expensive things, and making sure that you know exactly how much of their money was spent – the bastards!
Made by Nathaniel Kahn and released in 2018, the film mostly concentrates on the American art scene and American-based collectors, though there are some voices from other countries, such as that of a Russian or Eastern European collector living in New York – she cries when discussing the Damien Hirst hanging in her apartment, and it’s one of the few surprisingly disarming moments in a documentary that often feels slightly, but not transparently, cynical. (It’s interesting to note as an aside that we also hear from British employees of auction house Sotheby’s, an American multinational that still trades heavily on its British heritage.) Kahn also focuses on the people – dealers, artists etc. – who benefit directly from the largesse, and whenever any of these interviewees betrays their smugness with a little smirk Kahn is there, leaving micro-pauses so that the moment is noted by the viewer.
Such moves suggest that the director finds this mega-commercialisation of modern art fascinating but disgusting, and that he’s ‘out to get it’, though in truth this is a fairly even-handed examination of ‘big’ commercial art; even those who make huge profits are able to look at the situation objectively and question whether a bubble is about to burst, or whether it’s a healthy state of affairs (of course it isn’t). Kahn devotes plenty of screen time to those who feel that the astronomical prices attached to work by the chosen few (George Condo, Jeff Koons, etc) are damaging for modern culture more generally. Critics and people employed by big city galleries and museums, for example, lament the fact that works purchased by the super-rich are then lost to the world, hidden away in luxurious apartments or ultra-secure basements, as opposed to being on public display. I tend to agree with them – that it is a shame – but it’s also worth saying that there’s something refreshingly open and honest about several of the wealthy collectors here that I appreciated; they’re not necessarily always being boastful, and although one or two of them aren’t particularly articulate when describing the art they have bought and enjoy seeing in their homes, their lack of erudition shouldn’t be misread as a lack of passion, or used to suggest that they’re somehow not deserving of these works. I’ve seen that kind of reverse snobbery in reviews of this film, and it strikes me as being pretty ugly.
It’s intriguing to see the different artists at work. Most are still directly involved in the production of their own artwork, laying paint on canvas themselves, as it were, while Koons is emblematic of the famous artists who have developed a factory of sorts, employing studio-based staff to produce pieces that will later have the artist’s name attached to them. (He is unashamed and open about his methods, explaining that if he did everything himself he’d only be able to make one work a year. I don’t think he is driven by a need to exploit his own popularity for commercial gain, it’s more to do with finding a way to get all of the ideas in his head out into the world; at least – giving him the benefit of the doubt – that’s how I read it. But his working practices do seem crucial to a film that is asking why certain works sell for millions of dollars and why others do not.)
It’s a shame that The Price Of Everything always feels like a gentle, 90-minute discourse into the commercialisation of modern art, as driven by the super-wealthy. It neither fully skewers its intended targets (if indeed there are any) nor reels in horror at some of the practices depicted or the astronomical figures that are bandied about in auctions; so it feels to me that Kahn is at times sitting on the fence a little too comfortably, and that taking a side or having an opinion that is expressed more clearly would have been welcome. Many of the artists featured feel awkward about or bemused by the prices their work can command, though they also cosy up to the commercial movers and shakers, posing for pictures and answering questions in a sort of dutiful manner that I don’t think is necessarily driven by a sense of politeness; more about playing the game. It is a shame that Kahn – perhaps out of politeness himself – doesn’t directly ask the artists who feature about this. But, as a glimpse into a world I’ll never be a part of (and don’t wish to be a part of) this is often fascinating viewing. (3.5)