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(Oscar-nominated documentary director Nathaniel Kahn’s latest film The Price of Everything is currently airing on HBO. Like what you see here on Hammer to Nail? Why not pay just $1.00 per month to help keep us going?) 

“Art should be expensive. You only protect things that are valuable.” So says auctioneer Simon de Pury at the opening of Nathaniel Kahn’s new documentary The Price of Everything, now playing on HBO. In the film, Kahn (My Architect) explores the world of contemporary art and its ever-rising bull market, with prices soaring into the stratosphere. If one has the money to burn, then why not splurge on art, whether for the love of it or as an investment? Indeed, what harm comes from profligate spending, beyond the lost opportunities to spend the funds elsewhere? As collector Stefan Edlis comments, however, the folks who collect art “know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Is there an objective worth, then? What price quality? These are just a few of the questions asked in the film, as well as some about the effect on the art and artist, him- or herself, when the value of the work increases beyond expectation.

Though there are many people profiled in the film, from art dealers to collectors to historians to artists, journalists and more, two main protagonists emerge by the end, the one the unwitting antagonist of the other: artists Larry Poons and Jeff Koons. Once a darling of the art world, when young, Poons quickly became disillusioned at the crass commercialism overtaking his field. Now an old man, he has been largely forgotten – some think him dead – even though he continues his exploration into the themes and aesthetic forms that move him. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum lies Koons, the most commercially successful living artist on the planet today, who presides over a vast workshop of assistants who help him mass-produce piece after piece. A former investment banker, Koons knows how to promote brand, and is not above licensing his work to partners such as Louis Vuitton. Until recently, he has avoided any loss of prestige through such excess, though now that he is being displayed in office-building lobbies, that may change. As Sotheby’s dealer Amy Cappellazzo says, lobbies are the kiss of death to value, Time will tell, for Koons.

Beyond the individual characters – and there are many, all fascinating – the film addresses great metaphysical issues of the human condition. What is the price of meaning, and who gets to decide? Rising artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby watches in awe as her latest work sells for almost one million dollars. Now what? Does she keep on doing the same thing? A nice house would make her secure, but is that why she paints? Perhaps it’s best not to think about the money, and live like Poons, since, as art critic Jerry Saltz points out, most artists barely make ends meet: you better love what you do, first. And that, perhaps, is the great lesson: everything may have its price, but the only value that matters is the one you personally ascribe to an object. Edlis, a Holocaust escapee who made his fortune in plastics and who, at the end of the film, donates part of his collection to the Art Institute of Chicago, laughingly muses at some of the money he has lost when certain pieces have decreased in cachet. He loves them anyway, and regrets nothing. Revising the opening statement, perhaps we only protect the things that have meaning to us, personally. The price of everything is what we make of it.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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