The Price of Everything

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“There are three kinds of people in the world. Those who see; those who see when they are shown; and those who will never see.” Amy Cappellazzo

The Price of Everything is a sobering, sometimes sad and enthralling documentary about the art world, focused primarily on the highs and lows of the art market. if you ever wondered about the relationship between art and commerce this film will give you a brutal introduction to the fickle nature of art as investment and the challenge of being an artist in such a world. The quote at the top of this post made by Sotheby’s Fine Arts Chair, pretty much sums up the reality that the film tries to address. In a world where investors, hedge-fund managers, artists, dealers and collectors craft a value-driven world and ascribe worth to physical objects in an often cynical manner.

The film addresses the disparities and challenges of being in an artist in a world like this, because, as the documentary shows, not everyone gets to reap the rewards of having their work sell for millions or increase in value. It is arbitrary and cynical and market-driven. The film charts the explosion of the contemporary art market back to 1973, when New York Yellow Taxi magnate, Robert Scull auctioned off his collection. This seminal moment changed the art market for ever.

The ‘artistic’ device in the film is a tenuous comparison between the heady successes of Jeff Koons against the obscurity of Larry Poons, whose success in the art market peaked in the 1970s when he created a series of wildly popular dot paintings. His humble circumstances and honest musings about the purpose of art over against the concerns of markets and investors provide some of the film’s most tender moments. of course, It’s a cinematic device, but Poons is a perfect. “The only defence against fate is colour,” he declares as the camera pans his large, panoramic, abstract pieces.

Art critic, Jerry Saltz, also has some great moments of commentary. never one to shy away from an opinion (check out his instagram: @jerrysaltz). The film briefly shows a clip of Jackson Pollock creating one of his famous drip paintings. Saltz says,

When he finished his first drip painting, he asked his wife, “Is this a painting?” He made something that may not even fit in the very large category we call art. What many people don’t know is that Pollock only dripped for about forty-eight months. I would ask of any artist or cynic, “If you invented fire,” which Pollock did, “Are you strong enough to stop making fire and go back to hell? 48 months later, go back to hell and try to make something new again. how many people have done that?””

It’s a compelling critique against making art purely for the market and that notion is gently referenced by a couple of up and coming artists who are wrestling with the prospect of what they will do with their creative process if their success with a particular approach would be threatened by their embrace of some new process or practice.

Art and commerce have been in cahoots for centuries. What is new today is art as investment, the purchasing of art like real estate; something to roll over and make a profit on, and the increasing disappearance of art into private collections as museums cannot compete with private money for available works.

It’s both disappointing and fascinating to watch this film. Nothing it tells you is really that new, but the way it is told and, the way in which the inner workings of the contemporary art market are exposed, makes this really worth watching. The Price of Everything is filled with fascinating characters from all sides of the art world and in spite of the revealed ugliness of a value-driven, cynically capitalist and consumerist world it portrays, it manages to deliver a homage to the creative process of making art, which is always a good thing