'The Price of Everything' Frames an Abstract View of the Art World

The latest from Oscar nominee Nathaniel Kahn ('My Architect') is a documentary masterpiece about Poons, Koons, dots, and balloons.


What a perfect time for the release of The Price of Everything. The documentary surely looks a lot different now than it did at Sundance back in January or at any other festivals it played at since. Thank you, Banksy, for that stunt you pulled at Sotheby’s earlier this month.

The Price of Everything is about the art world, focusing specifically on the market for contemporary art. Director Nathaniel Kahn (My Architect) interviews art dealers, art collectors, art curators, art historians, and of course the artists themselves. There’s a little history, a little prophesy (one dealer says the bubble’s end is nigh), and the occasional wisdom balanced with the intermittent bullshit.

There’s also a lot of attention put on a specific Sotheby’s auction held in November 2016, as the film follows a few minor narratives, one of them starring the poised yet authentic Amy Cappellazzo, Chairman of Global Fine Arts for the brokerage house. Other subjects followed include Larry Poons, the abstract painter who’d fallen out of favor for decades (mainly because he gave up his signature dots and evolved his style), and famed artist Jeff Koons.

Kahn is really juggling too many balls for a 90-minute feature, and he knows that his subject matter — the relationship between art and money — is too broad. I don’t know if he has any kind of thesis or point in the end. And that’s okay. The Price of Everything is like much of the art it showcases: a would-be hodgepodge that comes together as some kind of masterpiece.

As a formal work of documentary, it’s a bit of a mess, yet it’s also brilliantly comprehensive if not directly comprehensible. It’s like Kahn threw everything at the canvas and most of it stuck in a way that makes enough sense, but it’s up to the viewer to determine what all it’s saying about the art world and if that’s positive or negative.

For some viewers that will be as frustrating as any balanced issue doc. As Cappellazzo says, though, there are those who see and those who need to be shown to see, as well as those who just never will see. This film isn’t a guiding hand. Koons’ Gazing Ball series (see the photo above) is the key to my personal take on the film. A reminder that we are part of the art, part of the painting or the film. We are looking at ourselves in our perception of the thing we’re seeing. There is no art without the viewer.

That may seem like I’m reading too much into the documentary, but isn’t that appropriate? Here’s the other side of the coin: The Price of Everything is one of the rare docs that’s been sold hard to me as a critic. HBO, or someone else involved, sent me swag, namely a little souvenir replica of a Koons Balloon Dog sculpture. Meanwhile, I was otherwise drawn to the film because it’s represented by a publicist I trust. It’s not quite the same as the artist and the art business, but it’s funny to me recognizing how much this film is a real commodity for some. To an extent, I was steered.

The Price of Everything is filled with irony, from the literal artworks, such as Maurizio Cattelan’s America (a solid gold toilet sculpture), to the luxury brand collaboration between Koons and Louis Vuitton to the sad nature of the game of art and artists’ worth, placing more value on the latter being dead, to the meta-level of the doc itself.

And nobody can say this film isn’t set on being reflexive when it shows Nigerian-Amerian artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby watching Kahn’s footage of her own painting selling for a record amount at auction way above what she ever made on her work and when it concludes with art critic Jerry Saltz talking beyond the screen at the collective “you” and how “you”/”we” perceive the “absurd” art world and should indeed make fun of it, even though it has, he claims, life importance.

Early on, the doc seems lost, in need of an editor. A number of interviewees feel unnecessary, at least in part as they spout ridiculous or trivial or pretentious commentary. A film like this, that isn’t just going for the middle finger at the art world nor taking it too seriously, has to have some awful talking heads. The kind that I think are bad and others will like just fine. There are art fans who’ll see surface level material, doc fans who will see a good doc because we critics tell them it’s so, and surely there are those who just won’t get it or who won’t like it at all.

Fortunately, the film isn’t a work of contemporary art and won’t have the same fate as most of the pieces seen on screen. It won’t later be sold off for millions while Kahn struggles to pay bills. It won’t be hidden away where the public can’t access it. Well, not unless they can’t afford an HBO subscription.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.