art world

How Does the Art World Live With Itself?

Photo: HBO

The lush new art-world documentary The Price of Everything shows us a system so waist-deep in hypermarketing and excess that it’s hard to look at art without being overcome by money, prices, auctions, art fairs, celebrities, well-known artists, and mega-collectors who fancy themselves conquistadors. In this, it’s a lot like most recent accounts of the art world — which are, all told, pretty accurate. I hate this toxic rot and junkie-like behavior. Yet I love art and the art world. I hate the portrait of that world contained in this movie, but I also recognize in it what I love.

That may sound like a contradiction or paradox, but it feels to me like something else. I used to believe the art world was at war with itself, that money was fighting art and vice versa. But I’ve been living in my own ambivalence about things for a decade now, or more, and I’m starting to think it’s not a war but a new equilibrium state, defined by that ambivalence. It’s not just me. Everyone complains about money in the art world, but few would ever leave. Everyone — from struggling artists to billionaire gallerists — hates the system. But none of us can live outside it, nor would we want to. I mean, why would we? For many of us the question is, how could we?

The Price of Everything is a portrait of this damaged system — a place where big-ticket art made by only a handful of people — maybe 75 mostly male artists — appears in high-end galleries, auction houses, and art fairs before being sold off at astronomically inflated prices. Art and money have always slept together; they’re just doing it more profligately now than ever. The patter of the high-enders in Price is so imperious and spiteful that it’s no wonder the public — and many art-world insiders — have grown cynical about it all. I left the premiere feeling sick to my stomach and ashamed. Oh, and also: I appear in this documentary. More on that later.

Price opens with a balletic dance of white-gloved workers hastening about the immaculate showrooms of Sotheby’s auction house, moving art around tony galleries, paintings by Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Rudolf Stingel, Richard Prince, Jasper Johns, Gerhard Richter, Takashi Murakami, Banksy, Christopher Wool, and many other usual market suspects. Price’s director is Nathaniel Kahn, maker of the 2003 Academy Award–nominated My Architect — a beautiful look at the architecture and life of his late, great father, Louis Kahn. Throughout Price’s 98 minutes, alpha dogs talk money, plot prices, and act snarky about those not as upper echelon as they are. An insane earmark of this film is that all the potentates in it think their behavior is better than that of all the other potentates. Collectors with cookie-cutter collections grouse that no one else is a connoisseur anymore.

Soon we see the above-mentioned works on a stage before an almost all-white, well-dressed crowd that raises paddles, marks catalogues, cranes necks to see who’s buying what, makes knowing gestures to one another, sneers, or appears impressed. It’s a modern danse macabre where the superrich buy their art in public — a performance of power, clout, social status, sublimated sexuality, and price manipulation. The auctioneer is the pole-dancer/dominatrix of the proceedings, cooing and moving in mannered ways, pointing to bidders, calling some by their first names, being cheeky, coaxing, cudgeling, always closing, reciting ever-climbing prices. He intones, “That’s $600,000 in bid to my left; there’s $700,000 in the back of the room.” Soon, “I have $1 million on my right.” The magic number; a murmur goes over the crowd as he looks up at a skybox or a chandelier and crows, “I have 1,200,000.” He gives “fair warning,” hesitates, counts to three, cracks the hammer down and shouts, “Sold!” The crowd erupts in applause; your skin crawls. Mine did, at least.

Cut to Simon de Pury, the so-called “Mick Jagger of auctioneers” (who was once suspended zooming over a room full of rich bidders calling out bids) purring, “It’s important that good art be expensive.” This is a perfect and ridiculous echo of Sotheby’s former Worldwide Head of Contemporary Art, Tobias Meyer, who once chirped, “The best art is the most expensive because the market is so smart.”

The thing is, much of the work on these trading floors is great. Most of it, however, is either middling, iffy, or bad. One collector says, “We’re lemmings”; another that she “always wants more;” another that her friends now own the same sculpture she proudly displays in her home. Then she tells us her friends’ versions are “different colors.” The craziest thing about Price is that while all the artists in it acknowledge the stresses and powerful presence of the market, those in the market, on the other hand, seem not to even notice artists anymore.

And yet, those artists continue to work, some of them magnificently, and they are wonderful high points in this film, as well. Price brings us into artists’ studios, where we’re allowed to watch them work in silence, often alone. This is amazing access. To me, an artist working is still one of the more mysterious sights there is to witness, and we see it so rarely. I love these scenes.

We’re not dealing with unknowns here, however. Each of the artists Kahn pictures are either now or once were famous. As they work, he queries them about money. All grant the market’s shadow and admit that life is easier when money comes and that it’s good not to suffer. Each of the artists, however, also informs Kahn that with or without money, they still can’t not do what they do and will always do it. Marilyn Minter says, “I don’t care if people buy [my paintings], I just need to make them.” MacArthur winner Njideka Akunyili Crosby talks about “urgency”. All explain that the market and art are very separate things — a message, it seemed to me, repeatedly lost on Kahn, who seems to want to reduce the work to its value and the art world to its business.

In contrast, the artists he interviews talk about art as being the only “defense” they have “against fate.” These artists gave me faith.

Except maybe for Jeff Koons. We see him in his sprawling studio overseeing scores of assistants quietly making his paintings, matching colors down to the tiniest scintillas of pigment. As Koons speaks in his Ronald Reagan-voice about wanting to “make people happy and give them permission,” Kahn peppers him with questions about costs, prices, power, and being “the most expensive artist alive.” This stops even the squirrelly Koons, who looks hurt, winces, and says he’s “humbled.” Then he plaintively adds, “All I have are my interests.” For this one second, even an artist as annoying as Koons is deeply human, vulnerable, desperate. Like all artists.

Success can be disorienting — for individuals, and to whole communities. Only 40 years ago, the art world was small, artists did what they did with no market, no money, and little outside audience. People with no money started galleries on the fly that became places like Larry Gagosian or Paula Cooper; people who never bought art before started buying some of this art for low prices. A few, ahem, with no training whatsoever called themselves art critics and began writing art criticism. Over the course of these decades, however, art and its market have become central fixtures of mainstream culture, so that artists are now celebrities, prices are news, collectors try to enter art history by paying the highest prices for art, and auction houses — once dusky places — are now hubs where contemporary art sometimes goes from studio to trading floor without ever being shown at all. It’s amazingly thrilling to witness art playing a huge role in culture and to know that many of these self-made people built this art world with their own obsessions and sweat. It makes me proud, even. But we seem to be in some end-game phase that is more than disorienting to many in this world.

The top-heavy approach of Price has been a feature of art-world documentaries made for the general public since Morley Safer’s infamously snippy 1993 60 Minutes takedown. In that 13-minute clip, Safer mocked new art, artists, auctions, art fairs, rich collectors, high prices, and all the other low-hanging fruit Price features. Some of the same people are in it, including, of course, Koons. It’s like there’s software specifically for making such films.

Which brings us to me. Aside from vanity, neediness, and FOMO, I said yes to appearing in Price because I loved Kahn’s My Architect. The bigger reason, however, was the film’s producer, Jennifer Blei Stockman, former president of the board of the Guggenheim Museum. I’ve known her from afar for over 20 years. Liked her. In the 1990s she called me out of the blue and asked if I’d speak to a group of art-interested women in her Greenwich, Connecticut home. I was still driving a truck then, just starting to write. She offered money; someone said her husband was the former Reagan budget director David Stockman. I took the money. All I recall is the group being tickled by Jeff Koons’s pornographic paintings featuring himself and his Hungarian-Italian porn-star ex-wife.

In 2015, Stockman emailed me about being in a film about the art world she was co-producing. I said “Sure,” assuming that — as with most of these excited calls about “making a film about the art world” — this one would vanish, too. But Stockman followed up. I tried to get out of it, then recalled that she once got me and my wife into a packed Guggenheim performance. Stockman was passionate, pleading about how bad things have become and that they were trying to portray the real art world … “The one we love, Jerry.” I bought it.

In the foul weeks after the 2016 election, I met Stockman, Kahn, and a small crew in the office of the director of the Whitney Museum. Equipment got set up; lights went on; I sat down. Facing me was Kahn with a clipboard. He started asking questions. He did this for hours. I appear in the film three or four times.

During Kahn’s questions I noted themes. First, his many queries about what art “means.” He seemed to make the same mistake as lay audiences do, imagining we’re supposed to understand art. The reasoning is that if you don’t understand it, maybe the art is trying to put one over on you, take your money, that it’s laughing at you, means nothing, or is somehow fake and bad. I told him “understanding” art has very little to do with it; we don’t “understand” Mozart, the Mona Lisa, or Rothko’s floating, fuzzy, Buddhist TV-shapes. We dive into them. Instead, I said, we understand movies, TV, and sports. We understand the Kardashians. And money.

Maybe I was exasperated, defensive, or afraid. I kept saying I hate all this stuff, too, but that galleries are still where new art comes from and that I love going to them. Most dealers have no money. Only about 1 percent of 1 percent of all artists make any money. I told him he’s really asking about a teeny sliver of the art world. I talked about artists living on the edge and said that a lot of good art is still getting made and shown. At one point I got carried away and I think I said we’d all stand over the imaginary caskets of all the speculators until we were sure they were dead, then dance on their graves. Thankfully, this was cut.

Still, he persisted. Finally, exhausted, I had what I thought was an insight into the real deep content that lay behind his questions. I stopped him in the middle of another question, looked at him and said, “You’re a cynic! You hate the art world!” Everything stopped. There was silence in the room. From the crew, from him, from me. I saw Stockman behind him staring at me, amazed. Kahn and I looked at each other for a while, blinking. Nothing. He seemed to catch his breath and finally say, “Yes, I am cynical.”

Then I went a step further. I said, “You hate the art world and these mega-structures of power and things like this for destroying your father, ignoring his greatness, and allowing him to die forgotten, in poverty. The art world is a stand-in for what tragically and unjustly happened to him. And to you.” Total stillness. His eyes misted. After a moment he admitted he was crying. Kahn then spoke movingly about how awful and brutal the creative sphere can be to artists, how hard and callous it is. I told him I knew this, that maybe it’s always been that way. But it is also a reason to love artists, and not to spurn them or be cynical about what they do or even the market their work enters. I told him that the art world is now broken but that it will also change again when the money goes away. I said that the film sounded like it was to be his revenge for his father. After seeing it, I still believe this.

The film’s two heroes — or villains, depending on your point of view — are super-uber-mega-collector Stefan T. Edlis and my old friend and sparring-partner Amy Cappellazzo, chairman of the Fine Art division of Sotheby’s. When we first see Edlis, he sits at a desk in his above-the-clouds skyscraper Chicago apartment, scrolling on his computer as he reads from an inventory of his vast collection. For much of the film, the nonagenarian recites the prices of what he paid for his works, making comments about big killings and market drubbings. Cappellazzo’s patter — while a spot-on reflection of what’s going on in this world — nevertheless made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Cappellazzo pelts us with prices and investment strategies, talks about hedge funds and selling short. She holds a photo of Willem de Kooning standing in front of a painting of his that she’s about to auction off, says she’ll put it in her auction catalog, and calls the picture a “money shot.” You think, “This world should explode.” Later, Cappellazzo seemingly implants a neurotransmitter into the cerebral cortex of a young collector who in no time is lusting for an artist she’d never heard of the instant before (estimate: between $150,000 and $200,000). For me the film’s nadir is Edlis and Cappellazzo offering crackers sales tips: Red is better than brown (goodbye, Rembrandt); no pictures with fish (bye-bye, Matisse); green is always good; once an artist is installed in the lobby, he/she is only “a lobby artist” (hasta la vista, Calder).

For me the deep content of Price — as with so much about the current moment — goes back to the undercurrent of contradictions and conflicts surfacing in the summer before the 2016 election. That July, I was flown in to speak at the rich persons’ self-help summer camp known as the Aspen Ideas Festival. On my last night there, I attended a fancy art-world dinner of about 20 people. There I met Edlis for the first time. Minter and Stockman were present, too. Seeing as this was Aspen, it was a collector-heavy dinner. The evening was typical conversation about shows, museums, gossip, the news, and whatnot. Until midnight.

From down the table, I heard Edlis animatedly carrying-on about how Trump could be good for America. I was stunned. In my dumb pre-election art-world bubble, this was impossible. Across from Edlis was none other than David Stockman, who I’ve met and chided over the years. He, too, opined that the whole system needed to be shaken up and seemed to suggest that he was voting for Trump. I barked, “You’re just a seeker trying to make up for the damage you did with Reaganomics.” This had no effect on him. I said he’d better tell his daughter how he was voting, first. This seemed to stop him, but only momentarily. Down the table, meanwhile, it got worse. A woman married to one of the world’s largest machine-gun manufacturers babbled about being adamantly against any kind of gun control.

The three artists present, two gallerists and I were astonished and began arguing with this group. I think dealer Jeannie Greenberg Rohatyn actually got up on a table and yelled at them. But they all gawked at us like we were just dumb clucks who should shut up and stick to art. It was exactly like when right-wingers tell liberal musicians to “shut up and sing.” Art dealer Michelle Maccarone and artist Carol Bove got up and walked out. I never said anything to Edlis. Minter and I, however, started bellowing that none of them “had any idea what art really was and they shouldn’t be around art at all.” They only smiled more — thinking, probably, how cute. Minter and I soon left, too. After she and I parted on the walk home, I grew cold, more aware than ever of a fact that many in the art world tacitly know but live with — something we don’t talk about much. Probably more than half of all current collectors, advisors, auction people, and others in the art world are Republican. And voted for Trump.

That paradox is part of the reason I said nothing to the 91-year-old Edlis. As I walked home, I thought, “Who am I to judge him?” The film sheds light on this, too. As a boy, Edlis looked into the eyes of Hitler, heard him speak in Germany. He and his family barely escaped the Holocaust. In the film we see his old passport, emblazoned with a large red “J” for Juden. These are the ever-present incongruities in today’s art world. In one of the most moving scenes in the film, Edlis shows us a sculpture by Maurizio Cattelan. It’s a masterpiece titled Him, a super-real, child-sized, lederhosen-clad, mustached, adult Hitler, kneeling, hands clasped in prayer. The work is not front and center in the grand room. It is displayed facing a wall between two large bookcases — hidden, lurking, insidious, uncanny, frightening. Watch and listen to Edlis in the scenes with this sculpture. He cannot or will not say the name Hitler. He refers to Him only as “him.” The work and Edlis are melding, redoubling, delivering, and redeeming one another. He never looks directly at Him, either, only gesturing with his head or a nod or his hand. We feel something that he feels while looking at the sculpture. In this way, Price gives us a glimpse into the metaphysical transformations that art creates.

Soon in the movie, Edlis says he hopes that he might do something “meaningful” in his life. It’s moving. Soon we learn that he and his wife have generously donated more than 40 works from their collection to the Art Institute of Chicago. Not just the junk. Included in this gift are works by Jasper Johns, Lichtenstein, Warhol, Richter, Koons (the $65 million Rabbit), Cindy Sherman, Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg, John Currin, Brice Marden, and many others.

Welcome to the art world of 2018. A place of cravenness and tropospheric wealth, yet a world that still provides comfort, safe spaces for people to do their work, take chances, assert themselves, step outside themselves, act, and maybe do “something meaningful.” A place where Koons can make you crazy and still make good work; where Cappellazzo can act batty but shine with intelligence; where former art-star octogenarian Larry Poons — cast as the film’s Tiny Tim battling against the evil Scrooge art world — might be on famous-male-artist automatic-pilot, not really pushing his work enough, but is obviously still following a deep calling.

The movie is amazingly well made. A masterpiece of its genre, a blinkered picture of a very big, very knotty ball of art world wax. Oh, and it also never mentions that its title is taken from Oscar Wilde, talking about cynics who know “the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

How Does the Art World Live With Itself?