I love artists, but I don’t know that the marketplace loves artists.Margaret Lee, The Price of Everything
2018 art world documentary The Price of Everything saw director Nethaniel Kahn illustrate the transformation of the art world into our current era of record-breaking auction sales and vast quantities of art in private storage.
Kahn interviewed tremendously influential advisors, collectors, curators, critics and—of course—artists themselves, and gives a stirring portrait of the constant negotiation done by seemingly all corners of the industry between their genuine, profound appreciation for art itself, and the ruthless marketplace that surrounds it.
The two artists most thoroughly explored throughout The Price of Everything are the conveniently rhyming Larry Poons and Jeff Koons. Poons was one of the progenitors of Op Art in 1960s NYC, working alongside giants such as Lichtenstein and Stella. Koons is of course the art market superstar, with a factory of young artists creating a deluge of art that nonetheless never lowers its value. The film takes an oppositional view of the two, understanding Poons as the artist that followed his craft while Koons is the art world’s “great salesman.”
The market is a separate sort of entity from the actual creation of art. It doesn’t really have anything to do with art. It has to do with something else, and I’m not sure 100% what it is.George Condo, The Price of Everything
Despite the relative success of all the featured artists in the film, each one articulates their techniques for separating themselves from market forces. Marilyn Minter aims to not “even learn about it—I don’t wanna know.” Even Koons is never crass about his work—while legendary collector Stefan Edlis gives a canny interpretation of his “gazing ball” series (it gives collectors the cheap pleasure of a replica in a sophisticated wig), Koons only talks about his gazing balls, and his factory, in terms of art, as he explains straightforwardly that he needs his factory simply to keep up his creative output.
Poons and Nigerian artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby describe a particular problem that comes from striking gold as an artist—the pressure, internal or external, towards stasis. Once it’s clear what people want (or put more kindly, what art connects with people the most), there’s a pressure to simply keep doing that. It’s profitable, and you’ve been assured that it’s “great.” However for both artists, this pressure was something that they found creatively limited.
This particular trouble seems intertwined with the idea of art, or even artists themselves, as a stock. What you want in a stock is growth, but stability, and what many artists need runs in the opposite direction. As Poons himself describes, what an artist needs is to be “free.” They need to be able to explore and of course to fail, without concerns as to their long-term profitability.
99.999% of artists don’t have money. It’s that simple.Jerry Saltz, The Price of Everything
One of the simplest pleasures in the film is watching the artists at work, in their diverse methods (even within the limited scope of painters—the film doesn’t touch on performance, installation, photography or many other mediums). Marilyn Minter’s process looks as exacting and precise as her photorealistic works are fleshy and sensual, while Poons envelops himself in a more than 180 ̊ spread of canvas and then carves out the individual works at the end.
It reminds you that the world of art is not a hierarchy, but a multiplicity. And in limiting the understanding of art to the few superstars that are able to break records at auctions, we lose sight of the masterpieces and styles that don’t suit room decoration, the artists that struggle and strategize to pursue their craft, and the fact that artists are constantly evolving humans attempting to create, and not simply turn a profit.
We created Artifact as a space where people can connect in a more complex and dimensional way to the human and evolving artists that make the art world wonderful. It’s a space that purposefully lets figures sit on the side so that art can be experienced on its own terms, and where artists can have a new level of control over their work and their careers.