THE PRICE OF EVERYTHING
HBO Documentary Films
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Nathaniel Kahn
Screenwriter: Nathaniel Kahn
Screened at: HBO, NYC, 9/26/18
Opens: October 19, 2018
Most people ignore high art as the playthings of the rich, going to museums only when they’re traveling because the Prado, the Louvre, the Vatican are the places to peruse and to take selfies to show your envious friends back home. Even people who don’t know art from shinola have at least once expressed their bafflement at contemporary paintings, derogating them with “My five-year-old daughter can do that.” This brings us to a big question: does a painting have value beyond what people are willing to pay for it, or does a painting sell for reasons that have nothing to do with its intrinsic quality? Going further, is there even such a thing as intrinsic quality in a painting, or is it like gold, a useless metal that has a price only because people give it a price?
Philosophic questions of this nature abound in Nathaniel Kahn’s beautifully photographed documentary, consisting of statements by artists, collectors, dealers, auctioneers, and one art historian. I recall that when I was a kid, the most expensive painting, “Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer” sold for two millions dollars, which nowadays is like chump change when at least one painting recently sold for $450 million.
Those who people Kahn’s doc are the one percent that we hear so much about in the Trump age. Some are collectors who appreciate painting and sculpture. Others are investing, which is not a bad idea if you know what you’re doing because at least one investor sold a painting for well over one hundred times what he paid for it. Some buy art to keep up with the Joneses. If your neighbor has a Poons, you’ve got to have another for your apartment or penthouse.
For me the most interesting scene takes place in New York’s Sotheby’s auction house where the smell of money is so strong you might be able to catch a whiff of its scent from your theater seat. An auctioneer starts a work at one million and without a helluva lot of salesmanship gets the price raised so quickly that you might think he’s selling cattle for prices merely in the hundreds.
Some of the names dropped include Basquiat, Gerhard Richter, Jeff Koons, and Maurizio Cattelan whose works sell for millions. Two people stand out from the rest. One guy, the most approachable and down-to-earth is Stefan Edlis, a Vienna-born Holocaust survivor who three years ago donated $500 million to a museum in Chicago. He even shows us a passport from the Nazi government with a big, blue “J” on the cover to denote his Jewishness. Somehow he escaped from the slaughter as late as 1941, making his fortune here in America. He focuses on pop art and has Roy Lichtenstein works in his bedroom. Another is the diminutive Larry Poons, an abstractionist whose popularity soared during the 1960s, then declined, and then rose again as though it were an offering in the stock market that lucky people held onto when it fell and cashed out when it came back. Of all the characters the people the documentary, he is the one who most clearly states that there is no relationship between the price of art and its real value (that is, if there is such a thing as real value).
Dealers, artists, collectors and art historians will be attracted to this movie, which was directed by Nathaniel Kahn–who has contributed other documentaries including the 2003 “My Architect”—trying to understand his architect father, Louis Kahn, who died bankrupt and alone in 1974 in a Pennsylvania Station restroom in New York. And so will progressives and socialists: this will provide for them more ammunition to deflate our capitalist system which, in the case of art, seems to reward or denigrate people at random with little or no connection to any standard of value.
98 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B+
Overall – B+