This weekend, I was a respondent, along with Johnetta Tinker and David Guerra, to the film The Price of Everything, at an event sponsored by the Arts and Business Council of Boston. After the screening, Johnetta, David, and I answered questions from the audience and from panel moderator Almitra Stanley, who works with the Arts and Business Council.
The Price of Everything, by Nathaniel Kahn (My Architect), looks at the role of money in contemporary art, a topic I’ve been interested in for some time, and have taught at the Tufts University Experimental College and elsewhere. There were leading figures galore in the film: the renowned curator Paul Schimmel (whose 2005-2006 exhibition Robert Rauschenberg: Combines kept me at the Metropolitan Museum in New York for hours.), critic Jerry Saltz, auctioneer Simon de Pury, Amy Cappellazzo, Chairman (sic) of the Fine Art division and Executive Vice President at Sothebys, art historians Alexander Nemerov and Barbara Rose, gallerists Mary Boone and Gavin Brown, collectors Stefan Edlis and Gael Neeson, and artists George Condo, Marilyn Minter, Larry Poons, Jeff Koons, Gerhard Richter, and Akunyili Crosby, among many more. It was a breathless romp through the highest of the high end, focused on the glittering world of contemporary art sold at auction.
Here are some of my responses to the film, and to the questions I was asked:
· It’s important to remember that the art world depicted in the film is one of the art worlds. There are many. I didn’t say it during the panel, but it’s also important to remember that the reasons we hear so much about record-setting prices at auction are (a) that the auction houses want us to hear about them (they’ll be offered more works to sell), and (b) very few other purchases of art are matters of public record. When we talk about art and money, auction prices are the main source of information about prices.
· Gerhard Richter said, on seeing one of his smaller paintings in the gallery that represents him in New York, “It’s not good when this is the value of a house, it’s not fair. I like it, but it’s not a house.” Here it’s relevant to note that the price of housing is also unfair. But I don’t think the question about a painting’s relative value is just an ethical question. Richter, I agree (as was stated in the film) is a great artist – in my view, he is asserting his “doubt and belief in painting” over and over again, in works that usually have something important to say about living now.
· An interviewee in the film made a brief reference to the influence of “the financial interests of certain parties.” Those “interests” are what got me interested in the whole subject of money and art. See, for example, Don Thompson’s analysis of the Nahmad family of gallerists “defending their inventory” of works by the visionary Italian artist Lucio Fontana.
· When I was asked what I think makes a work of art great, I had a different answer than before. For now, I think it’s when a work re-arranges my habits of thought, when I can feel in its presence that the ways I’d been thinking are being made apparent to me, and that the work is insinuating itself into how I think. (I didn’t say it exactly like that, but I tried to.)
To those remarks, I’ll add this:
The film looks only at one kind of art that - regardless of its subject matter or style - we can think of as inhabiting traditional forms and formats. Everything featured in the film was either sculpture or something that goes on a wall. That’s an exceedingly narrow view of a world in which many artists are making works that are immaterial, that exist only in digital formats, that are actions, and/or that are made especially to circumvent the art market that is examined in The Price of Everything. Just like the dancers in downtown New York were doing in 1960, as reported by the incomparable Jill Johnston.