The Price of Everything: Nathaniel Kahn on the Intersection Between Art and Commerce (Interview)

Nathaniel Kahn - The Price of Everything

The documentarian talks about the relationship between art and money, the over-the-top personalities of high-powered art collectors, and what happens when artists have to commodify themselves.

The world of contemporary art is a wild, wild thing – millionaires bidding incredible amounts of money to collect works from modern artists based on reputation, potential future valuation, or even (on occasion) the actual aesthetic value of the piece. In his upcoming HBO documentary The Price of Everything, filmmaker Nathaniel Kahn (My Architect) takes an in-depth look at this strange mix of art and commerce, getting unfettered access to art collectors and the artists who themselves toe a precarious line between artistic statement and financial solvency. 

We were lucky enough to sit down with Kahn himself to talk about the film, these issues, and the value of artistic merit in an increasingly commodified art world. Check out our podcast minisode featuring the interview here, and read the edited transcript below. 

Thanks to our sponsor Overcast as part of the Chicago Podcast Coop!)

What turned you on to this particular story?

I come from a family of artists, so I grew up with this relationship between art and money. Since I made My Architect, I’ve watched, as with everybody else, this growth of the contemporary art world that has now grabbed headlines – with some works going for tens of millions, even hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s fascinating and also kind of shocking, and something that fascinates and shocks is usually a good thing to make a movie about. 

The second part of it is that the producers who made the film with me were much more connected and knowledgeable about the contemporary art world than I was. Jennifer Stockton in particular had been in the art world for many years, being Chairman of the Board at the Guggenheim. She was able to provide access at the level I needed to be able to film the people you see. That coming together of interests was essential to make a film like this. 

Speaking to that access, that’s one of the most fascinating things about the film – you get this broad swath of people, from art collectors to appraisers to artists to historians. What was it like having that level of access? What insights did you glean?

It’s incredibly thrilling to have that level of access. Specifically, Chicago plays an important role in this film – Stefan Edlis and Gael Neeson are amazing collectors, and I met them through Jennifer. They just immediately captured my imagination – not only to see their collection, but also how they built it, how they put together this interesting slice of what’s happening in the contemporary art world today. By no means is it comprehensive – there’s a lot going on a collection like that has nothing to do with – but it has to do in part with market art, art that is favored by the marketplace.

So the story of how they put it together – how they began, how they built it, and ultimately how they give 42 incredible pieces to the Art Institute of Chicago – is essentially the story of this persistent role in history of collectors who enjoyed their collections. And then, ultimately the best ones (in my opinion) give it to a great collection like the Art Institute, where it can be seen and enjoyed by the public. That’s how I always viewed art growing up, by going to museums and public institutions. 

The film is composed of many intersecting and interlocking stories, and one of them is the story of Stefan and Gail – them as collectors, and where their collection has ended up.

You also had so many other larger-than-life personalities in the collecting world. It was so fascinating to see the ways they approached their art, whether as acquisitions or something they were genuinely passionate about. Was there a common thread that drove these collectors who treated art as – well, somewhere between a commodity and genuine appreciation?

No, we can go there – we need to look these things dead in the eye. Art today, my sense of it seems off to me. Art is being treated as a commodity in the sense you have your stocks, your bonds, and your art. That makes me sick, that’s very upsetting to me – that’s now how I think of art. 

Especially the hard questions you’d ask of Amy Cappellazzo of Sotheby’s, who always had such fascinating answers for you.

Whether it’s Stefan and Gail or Amy, who is a genius at selling art, knowing how to position it and place it in collections – or the artist themselves. Now we’re looking at the three groups we talked to – the people making art, the people buying art, and the people selling it.

The film finds a structure in a way by going between those groups. I went in with this bias – and I still have it, I have to admit – toward the artist. There’s no question that my heart goes out to the life of the artist. The artist in the film intersect in many different ways with the market. Some of them are highly successful, some of them only after suddenly getting attention after years of slaving away at the market, some of them are young and white-hot at the moment. And Larry Koons, of course, is the story of someone who was at the top of the art market, fell off that, and now by the end of the film has this amazing resurgent show. That story of the artist who persists in spite of hte vissisitudes of being not at the white-hot center of something, having to do the work because they love it. This inside burning force, that was important to portray in the film. 

Going in, I felt that would be the major focus, but I found through doing the film that the conflict, or relationship between that position and that of the market becomes a really fascinating one. The people we’re talking about on the market side are also obsessed with art. They’re all in love with art in different ways, which feels somewhat contradictory. That was surprising to me, and it destabilized my own sense of bias. In the end, art reveals to us, at it always does, who we are right now. It’s holding a mirror up to us right now, saying “this is what our society looks like.” It’s a society in conflict with itself, monetizing and commodifying almost everything.

It also raises some fascinating questions about the extent to which these collectors spending millions of dollars to acquire art is too far a deviation from genuine appreciation. Though an argument can be made that that’s also valid in its own way. I remember Amy Cappellazzo at one point responding to someone’s argument that art belongs in museums by saying it was a “socialist democratic way of keeping rich people from having nice things”.

Ooh, ouch! But also, what I love about the people in this film is that they are voicing opinions and feelings held by many. We have to learn and accept that there are many different points of view, and we have to listen to them even if we disagree with them. But also, the people we disagree with also have to learn that their opinions may be wrong, and accept when they make mistakes. We need to discuss these things! We live in a world in which civil discussion is becoming increasingly difficult – people want to shout their opinions and be heard, and that’s the end of the story. We have to be able to speak to each other. But make no mistake – there is evil in the world.

Part of the problem is this intense commodification of things where these increasing disparities between the people who have a great deal and those who don’t. When art also becomes the tool of the 1% to make more money, it’s revealing something that ultimately we need to look at.

And the artist also has to be motivated by money, as well. Art is ostensibly language and speech, but when you have to produce pieces – there are artists in the film who have an assembly line, or other artists counting the number of pieces they’ll make in a year – the distinction between art and product becomes muddied.

Well, yes, but also you listen to the people speaking there – Njideka [Akunyili Crosby], for instance, and her amazing art which takes time to make – she says clearly she is not going to be pushed by the market to speed up her process. It’s not about the quality of the work, it’s about the thought that goes into it for her. We have this mistaken idea we’re taught that time is money. Time is not money – time is time, and money and money. For artists, time is time; a work takes as long as it takes. An artist paid by the hour is an entirely destructive idea; they have to follow their muse, what is deepest inside them, and sometimes that takes a very long time.

Leonardo once said, “A work is never finished, it’s just abandoned.” I think when you look at this idea that the market would put pressure on an artist to speed up production – that is extremely concerning. This is part of the danger for an artist working in a system that has become hyper-commodified, because they’re constantly aware of these forces. But art will always explore your weaknesses, so if you give in to those other thoughts, things very quickly can go south. You’re not listening to an inner voice anymore, you’re listening to an outside voice saying, “Make more, make it faster, make it like the last one.”

I have a more sincere admiration for artists than ever before, ones who are able to survive in one way or another. And of course, we have so many other artists who don’t make a lot of money (99%). It doesn’t mean their art is not fantastic! It all depends on the moment, and if you have the right dealer, all these things that are out of your control. All you can control is showing up, one way or another, and doing the work. That has to be the bedrock in this environment that is hyperaware of money, fame, comparisons.

The release of this movie is kind of serendipitous, coming off the heels of that Banksy story of the self-destroying painting after being bought for more than a million dollars at Sotheby’s. Does that fit into the thesis of your film at all?

The Banksy thing was so fascinating – we were in London doing a screening of the film, so it was the talk of the town. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, it’s very emblematic of our moment: here’s this work of art by this fantastic street artist, whoever he may be. It goes up for auction, it gets sold, an alarm goes off, and the painting starts moving down through the frame and shreds half of the painting. And it’s not really shredded – people say it’s a shredder, but it stops halfway through, but instead it just gets cut into strips. If it had really been shredded, it would have been destroyed. As it is, it’s transformed.

So now, of course, the work is different now – you only see a bit of the heart-shaped balloon at the bottom of the frame – but now everyone’s talking about the value has doubled overnight. That’s Banksy reminding us how capricious and silly it is to value something for its dollar potential. That at the end, the ultimate value of art is to imitate what it is to be alive, what it means to be human. We’re allowing money to control all of that, now more so than ever. That’s an ominous thing. The Banksy moment was a perfect example – that should show us how inaccurate the idea of valuing a work of art based on its price.

In making this film, we really wanted to disconnect the idea that the price of a work of art was the same thing as its value.

The Price of Everything is currently running at the ArcLight Theater in Chicago, and comes to TV screens on HBO November 12th. 

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About Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, you can find his other film work at Consequence of Sound (where he is a Senior Staff Writer), Crooked Marquee, IndieWire and UPROXX. He is also the co-host of Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast.

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