In the art-meets-commerce documentary The Price of Everything, there is footage of a seminal mid-'70s auction of contemporary paintings that many regard as ground zero for the transition of high-profile art into an investment-grade "asset class."
At the event, a perturbed Robert Rauschenberg shoves the collector who is selling off paintings, noting that the proceeds go to the collector and not the artist. The man, unfazed, retorts that the more money he makes on a sale, the more valuable Rauschenberg's next painting is likely to be.
The painter appears to be both intrigued and repulsed, defining the uneasy relationship between art and money that continues to this day, and is explored with wit and verve in Nathaniel Kahn's new documentary The Price of Everything, enjoying a short run in theaters before playing on HBO later this month.
Kahn surveys artists, dealers, auctioneers, and gallery operators to provide a synopsis of the New York art world, and is at its most interesting when profiling artists who represent differing attitudes toward the way money affects their work.
Superstar Jeff Koons holds forth from a facility where various staffers are hard at work creating the next series of Koons' pieces – some of the works are sold years before they are finished, and buyers trade the rights to promised work on a futures market (Koons is identified as a former stockbroker).
He represents the artist who understands and encourages the idea of art as an investment vehicle and status marker. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Larry Poons, a once-marketable painter who fell out of favor when he stopped painting in the style or "brand" his patrons preferred. After years in obscurity, the octogenarian is working passionately, happily, and hardly seems to miss the glamour or riches.
Somewhere in the middle is Marilyn Minter, whose work sells, but who doesn't want to think about why, because if she starts to measure what the market wants, she's afraid the invasive thoughts will distort her choices as an artist.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby watches with resignation as one of her original works sells for nearly a million dollars, while she toils (with new baby in tow) over new pieces no longer as highly valued by a fickle market.
Gerhard Richter is aware that his paintings sell (from one collector to another) for gobs money, and wishes they did not. His paintings, he says, belong in museums and other "democratic" institutions where all eyes can see them.
Collectors get their say, too – wealthy Chicagoan Stefan Edlis talks with a kind of tacky candor about the metrics he uses in choosing the artwork that adorns his penthouse. Red tends to be good, brown tends to be bad, and never buy "anything with fish." Also, he said, he likes art that matches his drapes and rugs.
That sounds vulgar, but Eldis ends up a hero of sorts in the film (every hoarding collector is one donation away from being a beloved philanthropist) and Poons hooks up with a gallery owner who arranges a comeback. He has integrity, and in the end, a few bucks as well.