Primarily centred around New York auction houses, art fairs and the colourful characters that frequent them, Nathaniel Kahn’s The Price of Everything certainly doesn’t hold back in its skewering of a contemporary art world defined far more by financial gain and status seeking than a genuine love of beauty.
Khan leaves his subjects to make the point, with the dealers themselves describing their business as “twisted” and “careening towards the edge”, let alone the art historians who long gave up on finding any kind of meaning among the “perverse” glitz and glamour. We learn that banks now automatically recommend art as an “asset class” alongside stocks and real estate, and witness art fairs – replete with trolleys of champagne and selfie-taking – cheerfully compared to financial trading houses.
The perfect embodiment of this brave new world is artist and former banker Jeff Koons, best known for his balloon dogs and shiny coloured globes. Described enthusiastically by a prominent dealer as a true “American salesman” who understands “branding” and “the new”, Koons apparently even invented the notion of a “futures market” for art – selling his pieces before even starting work on them. Interviewed by Khan in his workshop, Koons gives the overwhelming impression of a slick-suited conman. He describes the armies of people who actually produce his works as a “system” for which he claims full credit, and proclaims vacuously that “everything is metaphor”.
A more intriguing character is big-time collector Stefan Idlis. A Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, Idlis regularly pays millions for some truly bonkers works of contemporary art while simultaneously maintaining an ironic detachment from the market. With a wink and a smile, he observes that one needs to be “shallow to be a good collector” and quotes Oscar Wilde: “Most people know the price of everything but the value of nothing”. Having survived dark times, one senses that he has chosen to escape into a fantastic world of appearances and illusions.
We then move from irony to outright rebellion, as Khan interviews the artists and art historians who refuse to accept the status quo. While praising the emotional intensity of works by Vermeer and Rembrandt, eloquent art historian Alexander Nemerov reminisces over times “less defeated than ours” in which such masterpieces were possible. Meanwhile world-renowned German painter Gerhard Richter, lamenting that his works end up in auctions rather than public museums, is mocked by Sotheby’s chairman Amy Cappellazzo for his “socialist-democratic ways”.
The eccentric painter Larry Poons was a one-time darling of the artistic elite in the 1960s, until he got “fed up of “sameness” and decided to change his style, resulting in his marginalisation. Now toiling away without recognition in shabby surroundings, Poons passionately rejects the evaluation of art based on its monetary value. In one particularly poignant moment, Poons stares with disdain at a collection of Louis Vuitton handbags illustrated with famous works from Western art history, designed by none other than – you guessed it – Jeff Koons.
Maximilian Von Thun | @M3Yoshioka