The House Always Wins: A Documentary on the Art Market

Still of Jeff Koons from Nathaniel Kahn's The Price of Everything, 2018. Courtesy HBO.

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Do you know about impasto syndrome? It’s when you lay it on really thick because you’re afraid of being found out. Nathaniel Kahn’s new art market documentary, The Price of Everything, is filled with the phenomenon. It raises so many questions. What is it that moved you, wealthy lady, when you first saw one of Damien Hirst’s butterfly cemeteries at Frieze? What is it that moves you to tears now just at the memory of that encounter? Does everyone truly believe that these blue chip works are worth tens of millions of dollars? Is all this emotion prompted by the actual works? Does anyone even care?

The film, which is being distributed by HBO, had its New York premiere at the Museum of Modern Art on October 18. There was a red carpet event, though the only celebrities I recognized were Marilyn Minter and right-wing Bollywood superstar Anupam Kher. Network chairman and CEO Richard Pleper’s made some earnest opening remarks about how HBO considers artists to be sacred. He characterized the current political culture as infected by “too much meanness, too much vitriol, too much hostility.” And he finally proclaimed, lest we miss the connection, that “artists are our last, best hope.” It’s worth noting that the November 17, 2016, Sotheby’s auction around which the film is very loosely structured happened a little more than a week after an event that had an outsize impact on civility in politics; needless to say, the election doesn’t figure in Kahn’s documentary at all.

His film is all smoke and Koonsian economics. The only thing sacred in the world he shows is money. If you can accept that, and if you’re willing to hold all uncomfortable feelings about injustice and inequality at bay, then The Price of Everything can be a rather enjoyable romp featuring some great art and a lot of great white people (almost no people of color appear on-screen). This documentary is only asking for two hours of your time. That’s nothing compared to the several decades of blood, sweat, and wealth accumulation that some of its talking heads have put in.

Here’s the shtick: in the leadup to the auction, Kahn speaks with a number of industry veterans. The film is a grab bag of views on art and money from people who have both: artists whose work will go under the hammer, dealers, auction staff, and collectors. There are brief snippets from interviews with art historians, critics, and curators, too. Studio assistants, art handlers, gallery staff, and all others whose labor keeps it all going are only seen, never heard.

The parade of talking heads is occasionally broken by intimate studio visits with artist like Minter or George Condo, who says “time for lunch,” as he signs a canvas that will earn him his next million. There’s also some juicy historical footage from the 1973 Scull auction, the first time that works by living artists were sold at astronomical prices. It was a blockbuster media event, and arguably paved the way for the contemporary art market as we know it today. One clip shows Robert Rauschenberg, outraged by the price his work just fetched (which he would never see himself), angrily shoving dealer Robert Scull, who responds by pointing out that Rauschenberg could now sell his work for gobs more.

Larry Poons and Jeff Koons represent the two simple moral poles of the film: one stands for authenticity, the other for greed. Poons abandoned his celebrated (and lucrative) dot-painting style and disappeared from the limelight just as his career was taking off. Koons, as dealer Jeffrey Deitch enthuses, displays such “natural American salesmanship,” that his becoming a blue chip artist seems a matter of manifest destiny. Kahn constantly cuts between the two artists’ studios, inserting quotes from talking heads who discuss their work. Viewer, beware of whiplash.

Kahn’s narrative lacks nuance. Everyone is presented as a stock figure. And everything is set up to denounce the evils of greed and commerce, as embodied in works of art. So it’s somewhat ironic that his subjects only come alive when they express their need or desire for money. Artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby, for example, speaks candidly about the precariousness of her profession, and the particular challenges she faces as a time-strapped new mom and a slow painter. We later see her reaction of mixed relief and trepidation as she watches her work sell for nearly five times its estimate. Amy Cappellazzo, Sotheby’s chairman of fine arts, is set up rather clumsily as a cartoonish villain who equates a work’s import with its price tag. She comes off as both deliciously awful and immensely likeable.

Only a few subjects complicate Kahn’s narrative. For most of the film, collector Stefan Edlis is shown grinning and looking at his computer, perhaps checking his art investment spreadsheet. But then we see him interacting with Maurizio Cattelan’s Him (2001), a sculpture depicting a kneeling Hitler. At this point we learn that Edlis is a Holocaust survivor—he shows the camera his long-expired German passport, stamped with a “J”—and so it is terribly affecting when he turns the statue (which he owns) to face the wall. In any case, toward the end of the film, we learn that Edlis bequeaths his collection to the Art Institute of Chicago. Perhaps super-rich patrons aren’t so bad after all!

Cue Gerard Richter, who, like all the blue chip artists who are not Koons, is concerned—but not too concerned—about his prices.  “It’s not good when [a painting] has the value of a house,” he remarks. “I like it, but it’s not a house.” Richter says he wishes his works would go to museums instead of private collections. Then Kahn cuts to a scornful bubble-popping from Cappellazzo, who dismisses the German’s sentiment offhand: “For him, that’s just a very socialist democratic way of avoiding having to deal with rich people who want them.”

If anything, Cappellazzo is the sgraffito to other people’s impasto. When collector and novelist Holly Peterson opines that “Rich people are incredibly insecure and incredibly neurotic,” the auctioneer is on hand to remind her that she, too, is an incredibly rich person.

The film’s framing is fundamentally tautological. Kahn finds that the art world is motivated by money while only surveying the part of the art world that is motivated by money. We should know by now that the upper echelons of the art world are no nobler or less bloodstained than those of gold mining, arms dealing, real estate brokering, or whatever other industries the super-rich exploit to grow even richer. But that doesn’t mean that art—and yes, even in this elite segment—can’t occasionally be beautiful, profound, even revolutionary.

The night before the MoMA premiere, I attended a benefit auction at Klaus von Nichtssagend gallery in the Lower East Side. The proceeds went to UnLocal, an organization that provides legal aid to undocumented immigrants. I couldn’t help comparing the two events, even though the benefit netted an exponentially tiny fraction of the $276 million that turned over at Sotheby’s. It was hard not to feel anything but utterly defeated.