CRITPEG: The Price of Everything

Plays Jan. 30 at Cinematheque

Fundamentally, art is the reflection of human experience focused through creative expression. The Price of Everything indulges in the exclusive financial echelon within which this expression is translated into assets, and in the current sensational and provocative trends by which its market is driven.

Documentary filmmaker Nathaniel Kahn canvasses a variety of artists, dealers, curators, historians, critics, collectors and investors, each with fascinating perspectives, to shed light on the business of art.

What the sources collectively illustrate is that the subjectivity of art and the malleability of popular trends make the contemporary art market unpredictable. Hype is everything. The value of a new work is more dependent on how, when and by whom it is promoted than its aesthetic, cultural or political potency.

Kahn attempts to define the logic behind the valuation of art, but his scope gets too ambitious. The film skirts over innumerable reasons for the fortification or diffusion of an artist’s potential within the market. He also begins to expose the root of the socioeconomic rift that so often exists between creator and seller.

A handful of Kahn’s sources cite the 1973 Sotheby’s auction of The Collection of Robert C. Scull as a turning point. It was the first time contemporary American art sold at fine-art prices.

The film features footage of legendary American artist Robert Rauschenberg drunkenly accosting Scull for reselling one of his paintings at nearly 100 times the amount Scull originally paid for it without any intention of offering Rauschenberg a cut. Scull laughs it off, proclaiming the sale would only increase the value of the rest of Rauschenberg’s catalogue.

The 1973 auction drove Rauschenberg to lobby the U.S. congress for a bill that would guarantee royalties to artists on all resales of their works. He
was unsuccessful.

With whatever sensibility he used in curating his private collection, Scull sought – as many high-profile collectors do – to influence and benefit from the market. The Price of Everything vaguely asserts that the impulse to commoditize and profit from art is a phenomenon specifically epitomized in the contemporary American market.

An incredible opportunity is truncated with Israeli art investment consultant Serge Tiroche. Kahn asks what makes one work more valuable than another.

“I don’t know how to put this elegantly,” Tiroche responds. “Financial interests of certain parties.”

Unfortunately, Kahn doesn’t press further.

The film’s title comes from Oscar Wilde. In Lady Windemere’s Fan, he defines a cynic as “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

It could suggest that the obsession with art’s valuation is overshadowing its true cultural import or critical potency, but it is unclear.

Through a great number of conversations with those immersed in it, Kahn still only sketches an impression of the contemporary American art market and its commercialization. What the film needs is focus.

Published in Volume 73, Number 15 of The Uniter (January 24, 2019)

Related Reads