May 26, 2019

The Price is Wrong

“In his latest film The Price of Everything, Kahn traces the notoriously inflated state of the contemporary art market back to 1973, when the infamous Robert Scull sale began to tip the scales. Scull, who made his fortune in the taxi business, collected work from relatively unknown living artists who were part of both the Abstract Expressionist and Pop Art movements, including Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, often for the low cost of $1,000–$2,000 (still a good chunk of change for a starving Soho artist). Then, in the early seventies, he turned around and sold their work at auction for thousands more, making $2.2 million in total from the sale, equivalent to $12 million today. This legendary auction established the rubric for contemporary art flipping, and the bubble inflated from there. With the globalization of the art market, a golden age was born. And as curator Paul Schimmel says, “there is no golden age without gold.”

Kahn’s documentary poses the question “What is the relationship of art to money?” to a handful of prominent figures in the contemporary art world, including richer-than-god Koons, Sotheby’s chairman Amy Cappellazzo, self-styled populist critic Jerry Saltz, and the painter Larry Poons. Their answers, while often brazen, land ambivalently, creating an incomplete portrait of an art world that seems completely resigned to the status quo.

“Art and money have always gone hand in hand. It is very important for good art to be expensive,” premier auctioneer and art collector Simon de Pury pronounces in voiceover during the film’s opening montage. “You only protect things that are valuable. If something has no financial value, people don’t care.” The Price of Everything follows the loose thread of his claim as it traipses behind Poons in his folksy studio completing work for an upcoming show, Cappellazzo preparing for a Big Sale, and collector Stefan T. Edlis as he shuffles around his penthouse full of iconic and expensive art, all of this action backed by a baroque orchestral score. We also trail de Pury through Frieze New York and catch up with Saltz, who, in a choice bit, paws a beaded sculpture by Francesca DiMattio in the Gavin Brown booth before inserting two fingers into the opening of a PVC pipe placed at its center. Oh, Jerry! Kahn depicts an art world full of people immune to their own vanity, milling in circles at fairs and private events, a lukewarm jacuzzi of the blasé liberal elite sipping very expensive champagne. But without any incisive critique or explosive insider information about the art market, the spectacle begins to wear thin.”

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