Sometimes, tucked into the news, you’ll hear a report of an Andy Warhol ‘selfie’ going for 7 million dollars. You might have muttered to yourself about the ridiculousness of it all. For me, the thought has always ended there. For Director Nathaniel Kahn, it’s a question that deserves an answer. How did it all get so ridiculous? Enter HBO’s new documentary The Price of Everything.
A vibrant cast of artists, collectors, auctioneers and art dealers fill this documentary which explores the ins and outs of how modern art reached its very expensive heights. A particularly notable change happened in 1973, when collector Robert Scull sold a large selection of his pop art and abstract expressionist pieces at inflated prices. The glamour around the auction encouraged people to bid, even though true critics were appalled. “The art is sold like a piece of meat” observed one.
There’s a particularly memorable piece of footage taken at that auction, where artist Robert Rauschenberg punches Scull in the arm, exclaiming at the markup he made on selling his art after purchasing it so cheaply. Scull retorts “But now, you’re going to make the profit.” From that point on, art has been traded like stocks. Did you know that on US television, the art market is reported on the same way the stock market is, with forecasts in investment? I didn’t.
So while the cold-hearted and kind of senseless moneymaking machine that is art auctions in 2019 is laid bare, Khan also offers us a beautiful insight into the heart of these artists whose work is sold for ever ballooning profits. One particularly charming figure is Larry Poons, an abstract artist from New York who moved past his most well recognised and money making style because of his mantra “art isn’t business.” It’s an attitude like that which enables such compelling pieces to be created. But is it right that people can essentially get rich from speculating with that art?
The characters in The Price of Everything struggle back and forth with all the usual existential questions about art. What is it? What isn’t it? What does it mean to humanity? Despite that, Khan doesn’t hide from the fact it has also become an absurd money-making business. I found it ironic that as a debate around a capital gains tax on housing rages in New Zealand, the capital gains on a commodity like art go largely ignored.