The Price of Everything

by Karin McKie

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday October 19, 2018

'The Price of Everything'
'The Price of Everything'  

Nathaniel Kahn provides a stark take on how consumerism has skewed the fine art market in his sobering documentary "The Price of Everything"

The intersection among painting, sculpture and commerce has entered an unsustainable bubble. Former commodities broker Jeff Koons' stainless steel Balloon Dog was sold for $52 million while Larry Poons' vibrant abstract dreamscapes have yet to entirely catch on due to his lack of "career charisma." The older artist lives in the country and says that "my only defense against fate is color."

The collectors and critics interviewed note that, like it or not, "the only way for cultural artifacts to survive is for them to have commercial value." So the costs are inflated by auction houses like Sotheby's and gleefully paid for by competitive bidders, keeping up with the collectors where there are "only a few leaders, and a lot of followers." These are "people who know the price of everything, and the value of nothing."

A Christie's representative says that the supply of master works was limited and diminishing, so mid- and late-century artists were elevated to fill the voids and the dealers' coffers, including Frank Stella, Jasper Johns, Willem de Kooning, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Keith Haring, Julian Schnabel, Cindy Sherman, Ai Weiwei, Jean-Michel Basquiat (the "token Black guy"), and Gerhard Richter, who observes that it's "not fair when a painting has the value of a house."

Yet most recognize the game: "to be an effective collector, you have to be shallow, a decorator to pick what goes with the carpets." This is antithetical to most artists, who want to express themselves, do the work and make a living, but realize the undue fiscal pressure on the process.

"That white heat is really dangerous for artists," one says.

Product is less important than who's the most underrated and whose value can skyrocket. After all, Jackson Pollack "only dripped for 48 months."

Several acknowledge that the current art market is "perverted, mutilated," and that it will be hard to get out of this current situation. Some buy art to "flip" it, to turn it around quickly for a profit.

"We're careening towards an end," another says, as the recent exhibition of a gold toilet (not in Trump Tower, but in a museum) portends.

Contemporary art is merely a luxury brand at this point, the film maintains. If only uber-wealthy private collectors can afford this art, the pieces remain out of the public access provided by museums, and end up in private residences around the world. "We must say goodbye," a critic says. "I won't see that piece again for my natural life."

Institutions are supposed to be "gatekeepers of culture for future generations, so it just doesn't vanish." This sober reflection on money polluting art, on the 1% appropriating everything, serves as a necessary document for preserving output.

Watch this along with "Generation Wealth" to see how greed is overtaking the culture.


Karin McKie is a writer, educator and activist at