It’s one of the most riveting documentaries you’ll see this year. Nathaniel Kahn takes us into the world of contemporary art and the crazy world of marketing art. When he filmed the documentary, to give you an idea, the global art market was worth around $58 billion. Art it seems has become a business and pieces flip on the market faster than houses flips on the real estate market. From collectors to dealers, to artists, Kahn takes us into the world to show how it really works.
It’s a gripping watch, a fascinating watch. Kahn is someone I could talk to for hours as we both come from the world of loving Renaissance and classical art. The documentary changed his feeling towards contemporary art. We talk below about how his story emerged.
With art, when it comes to Contemporary Art, I’m on the fence. I’m more of a Renaissance art girl.
What was your perspective on contemporary art going in?
The art that I naturally love is more classical art. It’s the art that I grew up with, the art I saw in museums. It’s the art of antiquity, Greek Sculpture, Renaissance Art, Impressionism, Van Gogh. I love Picasso and Matisse. I have come to love the abstract impressionists. I loved Rockwell and Pollock. A lot of my knowledge of art begins to thin. I don’t know so much about the pop artists. I have a resistance to them. My sensibility maybe growing up in the family that I grew up in, Pop Art seems frivolous to me. I knew some contemporary art but not that much.
I think that’s part of some of the reason why I wanted to make the film that one was missing something. Making a film is a wonderful way to engage in something that you’re interested in but you don’t necessarily fully understand. A film as a journey and as a series of revelations, that is my natural inclination as an explorer of the world. I like to go places that I haven’t been before and to find out things that I don’t know about.
Coming from this family of artists, I had seen this relationship between art and money firsthand. It is a fraught one. It is a difficult one. An artist struggles so often with money and problems with money. The film wouldn’t be possible of course without meeting up with the producers who have a much deeper connection with the art world and were able to provide me with such incredible access to that. Specifically, Jennifer Stockman who was one of the producers, was chairman of the Guggenheim board for over fifteen years, so her knowledge and connections within the art world made it possible for me to speak to many of the people who were in the film. I had this rapid immersion into the world of contemporary art.
In San Francisco, I got to walk around a contemporary art museum at night as we were having a screening there and suddenly through walking around, I was confronted by a lot of the artists, that through making the film I had come to know. I realized I had great affection for the art.
One of the things I discovered in making the film, is what the market is interested in. It’s a small portion of what’s going on in that world right now. There’s an explosion of world art that is happening everywhere and amazing art is being made in all kinds of places.
So, with that approach to contemporary art, where do you begin? It’s a huge world.
If you try to think your way through it, you’d sit down and cry. The wonderful thing about being a filmmaker is you start anywhere, you start shooting. The wonder of a vérité film like this is I work in a community of artists. Bob Richmond, my cinematographer is one of the best cinematographers of all time. Bob is my trusted collaborator. Eddie O’Connell was the sound man that I worked with and we are a little band of three. Occasionally, we’ll bring in a camera assistant, but the three amigos go on an adventure. We began with an encounter early on with Jeff Koons, George Condo, and Stefan Edlis. We also encountered Amy Cappellazzo.
With Amy, she asked where we wanted to do the interview. I told her I didn’t really want to do an interview, but what would she be doing tomorrow? She said, “I’m putting together a catalog.” We did it in the back room and she began to put together her catalog and started comping. It’s finding comparable works of art to put up against the works of art that you’re selling. So, suddenly all of the issues and questions that you want to explore are right there with us. To have Amy talk about the pieces of art that she’s selling and comparing them to other works of art is suddenly really fascinating.
You’re also adding the sale estimate of this thing and suddenly these things are colliding. That’s just an example of this scene where you start and it happens.
The film starts having a structure to it and through the auction catalog, these are magic doorways and film is a magic doorway where you go from one space and suddenly through a visual or audio connection, you can be somewhere else. It’s a magic doorway that makes sense.
There was a magic doorway in this that went from the creating of the auction catalog to George’s studio. Suddenly, he’s painting. Now, you have this fundamental connection between the world of marketing art and making art. That connection is actually as I discovered an uneasy one. It’s a complicated one.
That magic doorway is a conjunction filled with interest, conflict and contradiction.
When one starts to string this together, suddenly this footage is beginning to tell me something. I sat with the editor and we sat and began to realize that this is a film, where the feel of it comes from these juxtapositions.
They come from the artists, the people who buy art, and people who sell art.
When money starts getting into art and warps the picture to create a strange reality where it becomes part of the process of making art and the art we get to see, it seems like a dangerous thing. You were asking how do you start? This is how you start, you look at the various worlds.
You also realize you’re missing a voice, the voice of the artist who had been through it all. Someone who was successful and then fell off the map but continued to make art. Larry Poonz was that artist. The moment he came out on that porch, I knew I had met someone who could really guide me because he was someone who could tell me the ups and downs.
Amy said, there are three kinds of people: There are those who see, those who see when they are shown, and those who will never see it. Where do you fall?
I’m a bit of everything. I think it’s all of us. I think the big mistake is thinking other people should tell you what is good art. The biggest mistake of all is that anybody should ever think that the price tag of something is good art. It’s not good art. That’s why the title is The Price Of Everything and the value of nothing.
More than anything else, it’s up to us, the people to see and decide what art really speaks for us. We need to take that power. Art is for everyone. Children make it instinctually. I think from the beginning you want to commemorate your individual response. My deep concern is we live in a world where everything has a price tag.
We scratch our heads and say “who says it’s worth that?” when we see a piece of art priced at a million dollars. We need to take back the true meaning of words like value and worth. Those are financial words, but they’re soul words. Alarm bells should go off when we are told the art market is healthy, it doesn’t mean the artists are healthy. The dance that is right now going on between art and money, if anything, it’s holding up a dark mirror to our world because we are confusing the idea of price with value. We’re confusing the idea of big numbers with health.
It’s important that we realize that the art that will speak for us, it’s up to us to choose.