As a student of art history, it is easy to get stuck in the past, preoccupied with the debates of Plato and Aristotle; the precision of the Renaissance; or the politics of Modernism. Within our little art student bubble in the southern hemisphere, we are somewhat protected from the monster that is the contemporary international art market.
In light of this, the documentary The Price of Everything was the perfect introduction to the current state of the contemporary art economy, and faithfully delivered on the promises of the trailer.
The film followed five main subjects, including the insanely wealthy art collector, Stefan Eldris; Modernist artist, Larry Poon; Nigerian-born Contemporary Artist, Njideka Akunyili Crosby; Photorealist painter, Marilyn Minter; and the epitome of lady-power, Sotheby’s Auction Director, Amy Cappellazzo. In following these staples of the New York art scene, the documentary weaved an elaborate web of the interconnections between money and art.
Contemporary Artist Jeff Koons also featured heavily in the documentary, with cameras recording the inside of his ‘workshop’. His ‘hands-off’ artistic practice represents a significant shift in Contemporary Art, towards artists’ complete reliance on commodification of their product. More personally, the audience became familiar with the Koons phenomenon: the more that he talks, the more you just want to punch him in the face.
It was frankly startling to see the colossal cash-flow within this narrow section of the economy. In taking audiences behind the scenes of Sotheby’s auction house – where art truly loses the precious creative integrity that we worship – we witnessed art’s transformation into the ultimate commodity. The film was worth watching to encounter this phenomenon alone.
Although the exposing quality of the documentary was inherently shocking, the film, somewhat oxymoronically, managed to humanize the grueling process of becoming successful in the art world – be it as a collector, curator, dealer or an artist. It forced audiences to realise that when it comes to art, money is the measure. If we want to protect art and its place within the world, it has to be hideously expensive.
Just when I was ready to disregard art collectors as the very core of evil, selfishly hiding masterpieces in their Park Avenue penthouses, we learnt about the past of Stefan Edlis; a collector, and a Holocaust survivor. Edlis showed to the camera Maurizio Catelan’s sculpture, Him; from the back, it looked like a young boy kneeling in his school uniform, but, from the front, we encountered the face of Adolf Hitler. This important scene permitted a new perspective of what art can mean for different people, beyond that of its economic function.
Although the film ended on an uplifting note – with Larry Poon’s successful exhibition, and Edlis having donated 42 pieces of his collection to the Chicago Institute of Art – the film regardless worked tirelessly to expose us to the shocking nature of the art market – or what it means to be considered a ‘successful artist’.
I would highly recommend this film to anyone studying an arts degree, interested in economics, or human behaviour in general, as it creates an extremely clever and intriguing cross-examination of what the art world identifies as valuable, and why this is so.