Nathaniel Kahn’s The Price of Everything focuses on the moral and economic divide that exists between artists and their work’s financial value, both on the auction block and between collectors. While watching it, the pointed lesson quickly forms that everything besides good old fashioned bohemian creativity is ruthless and greed is not good.
Splitting its running time between interviews with painters, sculptors and conceptual artists and those in the industry trying to establish a ritzy Sotheby’s auction or collectors who buy and sell priceless works like I buy food, Kahn’s affection for those non-vultures soon becomes apparent. Following “has been” artists like Larry Poons or modest newcomers such as Njideka Akunyili Crosby, The Price of Everything establishes them as the good, pure people in a world restless with the almighty dollar. Interviewing them or watching them work, the film takes on a serene beauty, composed of their intimate space and sprawling canvas where ideas are sprayed out.
In contrast, the footage that features those chasing the economic side of the business — such as a woman scheduling and planning a high profile New York auction — take on a hectic and pretentious atmosphere. It’s a distinct contradiction, and one that I’m sure filmmaker Kahn imposed on the process with willful abandon. Like the demarcation of good and evil in an old Western, The Price of Everything has the boundaries solidly drawn.
It’s in these portions that examine the economic side of art and its market solubility where the film breaks down and becomes repetitive. Kahn rolls out a series of almost insufferable talking heads. Besides the aforementioned auction manager, the film spends an inordinate amount of time interviewing art collector Gerard Richter. With an apartment that looks like an art museum, the pride he exhibits in his collection shines through, but his answers and rationalization to questions posed by director Kahn are often met with a flippant response, such as, “Oh, what is art, really? You tell me!” Like everyone else in the film who is not an artist, the insight to their motivations are obscure and even repellent.
If The Price of Everything does one thing right, it’s the time spent watching creative people create. One of my favorite films is a Texas obscurity titled Jackelope in which we’re given patient insight as a group of disparate artists make things from wood, stone or found objects from their homegrown backwoods environment. As a time capsule of the pockets of hippie Texas in the 70’s, it’s essential. As a film about the mundane sparks of creativity in people doing it for love over profit, it’s magnificent.
The Price of Everything hits some of these same notes in spurts before reverting back to its hammering of the carnivorous side of things. Just when we become enthralled with the process of creation, we must endure someone talking lavishly about how the color of this one painting will be just to die for on their client’s lime green Manhattan apartment wall. It’s enough to make one want to fast-forward through the nonsense and get back to the people who seem in tune with humanity.
Understanding the way our world works, and like the title of the film itself, value is ascribed to everything. Kahn attempts something noble here, and gets it half right. And if this film ever becomes a time capsule to a pocket of time like Jackelope, I fear what people will think. Or maybe we can just answer a question with an evasive answer like Richter.
The Price of Everything opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, October 26 at the Lake Highlands Alamo Drafthouse location.