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Do record-breaking prices make art great? Nathaniel Kahn calls BS

The Philly-born director (architect Louis Kahn's son) will talk with the audience at opening night Friday at the Prince.

Artist Jeff Koons in front of one of his "Gazing Ball" paintings in The Price of Everything, directed by Nathaniel Kahn.
Artist Jeff Koons in front of one of his "Gazing Ball" paintings in The Price of Everything, directed by Nathaniel Kahn.Read moreCourtesy of HBO Documentary Films

Near the opening of Nathaniel Kahn's sharp, highly entertaining new documentary, The Price of Everything, former auctioneer Simon de Pury remarks that "it's very important for good art to be expensive. You only protect things that are valuable. If something has no financial value, people don't care."

And at the end of the movie, paintings just auctioned for millions upon millions of dollars are trucked off to a secure Brooklyn warehouse and packed away, out of sight behind metal grates, presumably until some future moment when the grates are rolled up and the paintings are trucked off to another auction to be sold again for even more millions of dollars.

Kahn, the son of Philadelphia's great 20th-century architect Louis Kahn, calls the moment when the gates come down and the art is locked away out of sight "the tail that snaps around and stings you" at the movie's end. Art locked away unseen in the dark of an outer borough — such a dismal fate for work made to be seen.

From creation to storage, Kahn takes the viewer on a voyage through a phantasmagorical world of ludicrous oceans of wealth sloshing around in search of a bucket of art to drown.

When the film opens in Philadelphia Nov. 2 at the Philadelphia Film Center (formerly the Prince Theater), the filmmaker will be on hand for the 7:30 p.m. performance, along with producer Jennifer Blei Stockman, former president of the Guggenheim Museum, for give and take with the audience.  He'll return Nov. 5, but that screening is sold out.

Best known, probably, for the documentary My Architect (2003), about his father, Nathaniel Kahn managed to gain entrée to the penthouses of the high rollers, the studios of the art makers, the planning sessions of the sellers and the dealers.

"Artists have been collected by patrons and wealthy people and kings and princes and princesses since the Renaissance and no doubt before," Kahn, 55 and a native Philadelphian, said in a recent interview. "But never before have we seen … what we're seeing now — a whole different kind of use of art, and that is art as speculative financial instrument. That is a reflection of the world we live in today."

Here is artist Jeff Koons, as slick-talking as any wolf of Wall Street (where he got his career off the ground selling commodities and other financial instruments), and just as rich, standing in the midst of his art-production factory while dozens of studio workers turn out his artwork — copies of Old Masters with large, shiny Christmas balls affixed to the canvas.

Koons argues that it makes no difference that he isn't "physically doing it" because he created "the systems" through which the workers turn out a Koons.

Here is former plastics manufacturer Stefan Edlis, displaying his fabulous art collection neatly chronicled in a computer spreadsheet for all to see. Edlis, who is actually a nuanced and sympathetic character, points out that "to be an effective collector, deep down you have to be shallow."

Edlis shows off his his own Koons "Gazing Ball" attached to a replica of Gustave Courbet's Le Sommeil. "I have a Courbet!" he enthuses. "A knockoff doesn't get you a lot of credit as an art collector because anybody can do that, but put a gazing ball on it and presto!"

Here is Larry Poons, who with his rhyming fellow artist lends a kind of dialectical tension to the film. Poons was one of the stars of the 1960s world of Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns.

But Poons had an epiphany: He realized that if he stayed in that swirl of New York, he would be trapped into making the same thing over and over. The money and fame and fortune were too seductive. Poons withdrew to an upstate farmhouse and, though he continued to show annually in the city, he showed what he wanted to, not what collectors demanded.

Kahn captures Poons, now 80, at the moment when he is preparing for a new gallery exhibition — on his own terms — of extraordinarily colorful and expressive work, so different from his efforts as a young man.

The impish Poons, craggy and white-haired, tells Kahn that "art and money have no intrinsic hookup at all."

"It's not like sports, where your batting average is your batting average," Poons says. "You know, that's the bottom line …. They tried to make it much like that: like, the best artist is the most expensive artist, same thing."

Price certainly has nothing to do with the quality of art, Poons says. "Art doesn't give a s-," he says.

Kahn, who records all of this (and a great deal more), says that for better or for worse, "capitalism finds a way to make a market out of everything."

"Ultimately, art is about communication," he says. "Art is driven by artists who have something to express that is about who we are and the human experience. It's about their moment in time. It's also about trying to touch the timeless. These are things we definitely need in our society and in our culture. It's about who we are."

So having spent months with Poons and Koons (for a while, Kahn said, the documentary was tentatively titled From Poons to Koons), what are artists telling us about ourselves?

"We are often confusing the price of something with its intrinsic value," Kahn said.

Collector Edlis makes the point in the film, quoting Oscar Wilde's definition of a cynic.

He and Kahn are discussing a painting in Edlis' collection.

"I bought it for $10 million," Edlis says.

"For $10 million in '97?" Kahn responds.

"Yeah," says Edlis.

"What would this piece be worth now?" Kahn asks.

"$100 million," Edlis says.

"Seems a crazy amount of money," Kahn says. "Do you think it's worth it?"

Says Edlis: "Well, let's see. The stretcher is probably worth $80, and we have some high-quality canvas. I don't know about the cost of the paints. There's a lot of people that know the price of everything and the value of nothing. So, apply that."

"The Price of Everything" will also be available Nov. 12 on HBO Go and HBO Now, and Nov. 13 via On Demand.