Few ever dream of owning a masterpiece; even fewer know the intrinsic value of an art piece in today’s hyper inflated art market. Brilliantly directed by Nathaniel Khan, The Price of Everything is a fascinating journey into the personalities at the forefront of this phenomenon, from high-end investors to auctioneers, historians, art critics, collectors and artists.
Nominated for an Academy Award for My Architect and Two Hands, Khan challenges our preconception of the art world by exploring not only its aesthetic values, but also the business and dynamics in the relationship between profitability and the creation of art. Weaving a historical storyline into the characters — from Rembrandt and Vermeer to Basquiat, Richter, Akunyili Crosby, Warhol, Rauschenberg and Jeff Koons to name a few — the film skillfully highlights the impact of Wall Street speculations influencing investors to either bid on prolific artists such as George Condo or to calculate the potential value of the unexpected comebacks of Larry Poons for instance, whose story is skillfully threaded through the film.
While offering an invaluable glimpse into the lives of heavyweights, Amy Cappellazzo from Sotheby’s, and philanthropist and Holocaust survivor Stefan Edlis, we are progressively pulled away from the sensational headlines of multi-billion deals and into the angst and emotions of the protagonists. “Him,” a statue of a child-like Hitler kneeling in prayer is a striking reflection on a chapter of history Edlis rarely refers to; Cappellazzo is joyful while looking at a small cherished painting, and Russian collector Inga Rubenstein is moved to tears every time she looks at her first acquisition, a large butterfly painting by Damien Hirst.
Unexpected revelations open new doors, questioning if auction houses are a better option than museums basements; if the best way to preserve art pieces is to commensurate their value with extravagant price tags.
While leading us deeper into the realm of creation, we realize that the elite’s wealth, knowledge or status mean little in comparison to the unique way each and everyone of us perceives art.
And for that one ethereal moment where Alexander Nemerov experiences the presence of the master while admiring a Rembrandt, that moment indeed is priceless.
. . .
CYNTHIA BIRET: Why did you make this documentary and how familiar were you with the art world before you started filming?
NATHANIEL KHAN: I come from a family of artists: I have two sisters who are artists; my parents are artists; an uncle and an aunt are artists, and cousins who are also artists. Since a very young age I witnessed the complex relationship between art and money.
And then to see in the last few years the way certain works of art generate huge sales and get recorded in the news, it just seemed like something was happening in the art world that was really fascinating and terrifying at the same time. And this combination tends to make a good story for a movie. I was really lucky that the producers of the film were also looking at this phenomenon, specifically Jennifer Stockman, who had seen it from her angle as the chairman of Guggenheim for 15 years. When the producers and I got together, we realized that we had the making of a very special project with perspectives coming from different angles but converging at the same moment in history when art is being seen partially as a commodity. From Antiquity to the Renaissance and through the centuries there’s always been that relationship between art and money, and some artists enjoyed tremendous success through the ages, for instance Turner who became extraordinary wealthy from his paintings; however, to see the way that art is being speculated on today, when it is being treated almost like a stock, that is something that appears to be a new phenomenon, and certainly has kind of taken over the way people are perceiving the art market.
BIRET: Especially with inflated figures like 125 million, 65 billion, etc…
KHAN: Exactly, and this is part of the reason this film is called The Price of Everything. The second half of that quote is, “And The Value of Nothing,” and is originally from Oscar Wilde. The cynic is the person who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, and given that the quote is from the 19th century, one might be tempted to say that the quote is from today. There is a whole sector of society that it applies to; we live in a cynical society allowing this confusion between price and value to persist and even to grow. When Stefan the collector came up with that comment, I knew that there was something really important about it.
BIRET: The structure of the film impressed me because you’re not just building the film chronologically; you are going straight into the heart of the art studios, the auctions, and straight into the characters. How did you decide on whom to pick for your interviews?
KHAN: It’s marvelous to hear what you are saying. Ultimately the structure of this film was extremely complex to work out, and it was not evident from the start, because we did not have a story going in. I actually like making documentaries in the style of cinema Verité, following people’s lives even if you’re not exactly sure how they are related; you just know that they are intersecting in these interesting ways, and you start to do a few encounters and scenes with them; but it’s only when you start editing, that the footage itself tells you what else is needed to create the context to grow and become a story with time. This is how this film was constructed and I was lucky that the producers had access to some of the most remarkable people in the art world. Jennifer knew many of them, and I was able to enter this world at a very good level, in the sense that it was much more than having basic interviews. I was absolutely in the studio with George Condo, in the studio with Jeff Koons, in the studio with Marilyn Minter. These are things I felt deeply privileged to have experienced. It’s like going into a temple, because an artist studio is their temple. And it was also a powerful experience to be backstage at some of these auction houses.
BIRET: The personalities you chose to interview appeared very much at ease with you. They were not on the defensive, and seemed to open up easily while giving you priceless information.
KHAN: This is true you know, and one of the reasons for that film is a collaborative art, and I worked in a community of artists, such as cinematographer Bob Richman who worked as an assistant cameraperson for Albert Maysles. In the old days when you had film cameras, you really had a chance to be mentored by a great cinematographer. Nowadays camera people are expected to do everything themselves and I think we’re losing quite a bit of that wonderful apprenticeship process. So Bob is my trusted cinematographer and I also work with Eddie O’Connor, the sound man. The advantage of our team is that while going into a situation like Sotheby’s, we were very light on our feet. We were not setting up a heavy tripod and spending a lot of time lighting, which often results in the interviewee feeling trapped, you know like bug on a pin. While in Amy’s world where she is putting together an art catalog, we’re just there as observers naturally engaging in a conversation while feeling very much privileged to be in that world. We just tread lightly, and ultimately I also stick very close to the lens, which creates more of an intimacy, and the conversation is then akin to playing a scene, or playing jazz with somebody.
BIRET: We were drawn into the characters, and they appeared to be very familiar.
KHAN: Yes very familiar.
BIRET: I also felt privileged to witness this world, realizing that this was a special “invitation” which might never happen again.
KHAN: That’s how I felt too. And of course I went back and visited some people multiple times. For instance, with Larry Poons, I knew when I met him that he would play a major role in the film, so I went back multiple times to see him working on different canvases and also during different seasons to have the sense of the passage of time, as history became a major arc in the film. One of the things that can be so wonderful in a documentary is that if you go back you can see the change and the process of time. When you see a great feature films like Dersu Uzala, from Kurosawa, and realize that it took him several years to make the film, because he was there on the very day that the snow fell from branches of the trees in Siberia for example, you realize that it is a beautiful and rare experience. In a documentary, it’s one of those things; it’s a gift.
BIRET: The story about Larry Poons is very impressive, because he symbolizes everything in the art world.
KHAN: Yes he does, I agree.
BIRET: Here is a talented artist not wanting to lose himself in the art market and is almost forgotten, until he starts making a come back due to the irony of calculations from Wall Street where it makes sense to bid on someone who has a lost their presence in the art world. At what point did you decide to incorporate his story into the film? Was he the only artist you considered and how did you choose him?
KHAN: The interesting thing is that Larry was somebody we did not have in the beginning. We already had some unbelievable characters, but I felt that one of the things I was missing was the actual struggle of the artist. I really wanted to have an artist in the film who would have his trajectory of having been very hot and then sort of dropped by the market, while continuing to work for many years. I described what I was searching to an art dealer friend, and she said stop! I know exactly whom you need to talk to: Larry Poons. So I made contact with him through his wife Paula, and we discussed the film, but I did not want to say too much because you only have one chance to meet someone, and I prefer to avoid any preamble. Larry said okay, and Bob and Andy and I got into a car and drove up State. As we drove up the driveway, I saw this house with the studio outback in the middle of the trees, with the sense of being very far away from New York City, and thought this is fantastic! And as we were getting ready in the car with the camera and everything, here comes Larry onto the porch with his coffee cup. And I just said guys let’s just roll! We’re not going to stop and put a Lavalier microphone on. Suddenly we are filming and we’re just having this incredible conversation which is the scene in the film where he is talking about the relationship about art and money, and that’s like 10 minutes after we met!
BIRET: What an amazing encounter!
KHAN: I had seen his work from the past but I did not know anything about his new paintings, so the whole time I was wondering if I would like his new work, while I also asked myself how his art could you possibly live up to the beauty of these trees, and the light, and the dappled forest. And as we walk into his studio, it was an incredible moment, like a cave’s dream, with these incredible colors and light spreading around the entire room and it actually made the outside world look dull; like this marvelous reversing. It was similar to the myth of Plato’s Cave, where prisoners are chained underground and they are only shown shadows of things. And then eventually one of them breaks free and manages to get out of the cave and sees the light and says, Oh my God, we’re living in the shadow world, the real world is so much more beautiful! Well for me it was the opposite. The real world looked dull compared to walking in to Larry’s cave. In that moment I knew that this was going to be a remarkable story. At the time, I was not aware that Larry was going to have this big show in New York. While one could have easily made film only about him, I actually feel that to have Larry’s story threaded throughout the context of all of these other trajectories through the art world makes it much more meaningful, because of the contrast.
BIRET: You actually have a lot of contrast in the film, from Njideka Akunyili Crosby, who is satisfied with making twelve to fourteen pieces a year, to George Condo, who is constantly painting, or even Jeff Koons with his gazing balls. The comparison with the Wolf of Wall Street is fascinating because you are showing an artist who is not only very prolific but also very tuned into the economy of the market. This leads to another contrast with the emotions provoked by the art itself. Because it’s one thing to show the colors and the art, and the market, but when Inga Rubenstein, a Russian collector, describes her reaction to her first painting from Damien Hirst, and you see tears coming down her face, her emotions were very strong and I connected with her, even if we live in different worlds.
KHAN: That’s wonderful. One of the things about art is that we live in an era where people are very out of touch with their emotions. This is one of the scary byproducts of a world that is run less by the sun and the planting seasons, and more by the market. And so when you live in a world that is run by artificial construct, the marketplace, which is a human construct, not a natural construct, a lot of things start to happen to us. Take our relationship to food for instance. An orange used to be special and available only during a certain time of the year; but the market has worked it out so you could always have an orange. The reality is that maybe you should not always be able to have an orange whenever you want to eat one. It used to be that we would value the specialness of the seasons of life, and the specialness of the things renewed by the natural process of life. However we now live in the market world where everything is available all the time and I think that’s something that reduces in many ways our ability to appreciate those special moments when something really wonderful happens.
BIRET: While everything is available all the time, the taste is not as fine or sweet as it used to be, not as real.
KHAN: That’s it. There is nothing like being in the presence of a work of art, you know, the actual thing. Not a reproduction, not a photograph but the real thing. This is why it was important to include Alexander Nemerov going to see the Rembrandt painting at the Frye Art. The idea of standing in the presence of a work of art, it’s very special, there is a ceremony to it. Once again it’s back to the idea of a temple. There is a secret connection between the long-dead Rembrandt and you-the viewer today. And that is something that cannot be commodified. And as much as the market would like to say, oh, I can own that too, I can do a really good reproduction and I can sell it. Or if you are a super duper wealthy person you might even be able to buy the Rembrandt; but ultimately what are you really possessing? Because what matters most are the emotions and the connection with art, and yet we live in a time where we are really disconnected in many ways from or emotions. I actually think that art is one of the re-connectors of our lives, and this is why I worry when I see that art is becoming a tool for the 1%. There is a great danger here, and ultimately even those emotions and feelings you get from a natural work of art, will become difficult to access. And that’s what worries me perhaps most of all.
BIRET: The scene with Gerard Richter who prefers his art to be in a museum because it’s more democratic, is in sharp contrast with Amy Capellazo who compares museum to cemeteries, because many artworks end up locked up in the basement.
KHAN: Everyone in this film has sort of many angles to their character. As much as Amy loves the chase and the deal, at the same time there is this scene in the back of the car where she shows me the painting of a small dog dancing which she has cherished for many years.
BIRET: It’s a very special scene when she opens up her heart to us.
KHAN: Ultimately they are people with different points of views, and they love different aspects of art but they all genuinely do love art and they are obsessed with it. In a way they are also a little bit pawns in the game of the marketplace and this kind of beast, the beast that is money itself; but the beast is in our head, it’s the idea that we can somehow control the ultimate value of things. And we just can’t, because the intrinsic value of something is in the thing itself. You can buy it and sell it, but you can’t really own or control the intrinsic value of a work of art. And that must frustrate people who think more about things from the sense of price, cost and the idea of ownership: I want to have it for myself. Ultimately you really want to own what you can’t buy, which is the connection, the soul, and the qualities of the art that moves you. Ultimately, Amy loves museums, and we all love our museums. But I think it’s accurate that most of what a museum owns is in storage. It’s just a fact. And it also goes to the idea that art and taste is a changeable thing. They are painters that were at the top of the game In the 1890s that everybody wanted to have, but now some of these paintings are seen as kind of cliché; they don’t hold up today. A Caravaggio, which at one time wasn’t particularly valued, is now worth a fortune, and Caravaggio is idolized by everyone as one of the great geniuses. And it’s not just taste that changes, it’s also society that changes. We are seeing different things in a great work of art. And their ultimate intrinsic value is something that is processed through times, so right now, the auction values for say old master pictures is not nearly as hot as contemporary art. And it does not mean that contemporary art is better than the old masters, it just means that right now that’s what the market is interested in. One of the things I really would like for people to take away from the film is that the price of something is not the measure of its ultimate value. And the price will fluctuate but the value is something else entirely.
BIRET: To watch hedge funds people buying art with the goal to store it away, hoping later to resell it at a greater value is interesting, but it might not always lead to where they want it to lead.
KHAN: That is very true
BIRET: One of the striking scenes of course, is the scene with the sculpture of Hitler kneeling.
KHAN: Yes. It’s called “Him.” That’s an interesting scene. One of the things that I love about “Him” is that when I first saw the piece as a photograph, I thought that it looked like a little doll, and I wasn’t sure how seriously I should take it as a work of art. However, when I encountered it at Stefan’s house (Stefan Edlis) and first saw it from the back, trapped between two bookcases facing the walls, I slowly moved around it. This moment is actually commemorated into the film: as the camera comes around, suddenly you realize that this little altar boy you see from the back is actually one of the greatest monsters of history. It’s shocking. That’s how much power this piece has.
BIRET: Stefan Edlis is also a holocaust survivor. Was it difficult to have him open up about his past and his choice for this sculpture?
KHAN: At first Stefan wasn’t particularly interested in talking to me about his personal biography. He did not think it was important. But when he came and stood by this sculpture by Maurizion Cattelan, suddenly, through this piece, he started telling me about his biography. I attribute that to the power the work of art itself. And eventually he tells me that he is proud that its value has gone up financially, and I accept that. That’s part of his shtick, as we say. But I believe that he genuinely understands the power of the work of art itself. I do think he is able to separate those things. And he would probably keep that piece even if the price went down. A sculpture like that reconnects you with feelings that you might not have been able to access to without it. It’s a remarkable piece of art.
BIRET: We are learning about the history or art throughout the film in a very natural and entertaining way, as it’s threaded through the characters, without being didactic.
KHAN: Thank you. In a way we are working back into the structure of the film. We put it together based on the people and where they took us. And then because of that, one wanted to understand a little more contest, and then the history comes in. History was something that we always wanted to portray, but I wanted it to be organic, not something that you know we kind of shove down your throat because you should know this. It appears right at the time where you’re thinking, when did all this start? That question naturally arises in your mind, and that’s where the history sections belong.
BIRET: It was a journey for me because I was going through one door and then another one opened. I thought ok, now I understand this world, but there is a little bit of mystery that’s tracking me along, and then I realized that there is so much more to discover. Are you already planning your next film?
KHAN: I am planning a couple of next films. One is a documentary and one is a fiction film. And I won’t say anymore about that. This film has opened my eyes to worlds I did not know before. And it’s very inspiring also for future work.
BIRET: Is there anything you would like to add about this film?
KHAN: In this world where we are constantly bombarded with the thoughts that expensive things must be valuable, that they must be important, we must keep in mind that things that are in museums because somebody said so, don’t take any of that at face value. I hope that this film encourages audiences, would it be in the theaters or in HBO, that it’s people making these decisions for their own reasons, and that not all of them are pure. Each one of us has within the need and the desire to experience art, because art has so much to give. So the idea is to trust your own eyes, trust what you like, trust what moves you. Don’t wait for someone else to tell you what’s good or what’s valuable, or what’s important or what will last. Ultimately it’s up to all of us, it’s up to the people, to decide and to think about what moves us. And I think the more people reconnect with this idea, that the value of something has to do with how much it moves you, what it gives you, not the price of it, the more we can begin to heal our extremely damaged society.