There are few capitalist recreactions as confounding and uninteresting to the hoi polloi as investing in art. Though everyone understands the concept and can perhaps appreciate the economic dynamic at work, most people find the effort involved, not to mention the enormous amount of money needed, to be beyond the pale. Nathaniel Kahn has thus managed to make a documentary for those of us who don’t see the point, if only to clarify that the point is not as esoteric as we think it is. Art is money and always has been. It’s just that in our post-modern world the artists have figured out a way to make it pay for themselves now rather than others in the future.
And, of course, some stubbornly try to not make it pay; or, at least, not make themselves slaves to money rather than their art. In order to present this dialectic, Kahn gives us the comically rhyme-fixated duo of Jeff Koons and Larry Poons, two artists who represent opposing axes of the art-commerce matrix. Koons is the former investment banker-turned-conceptual artist who is probably the richest maker of art in the world at the moment, having learned quite quickly how to leverage auction houses to make his future art more valuable. Kahn’s most important contribution to the conversation is showing how auctions don’t merely make dead painters even more famous, but also how past works of living artists boost their standing for future works, which is why Koons can get a couple of million for one of his balloon animals since the owner knows he can sell it down the line for even more.
Poons, on the other hand, is a former wunderkind abstract expressionist who essentially turned his back on the commercial art world and retreated to the underground to work on things that he had not intention of selling. But as Kahn shows, even that kind of reputation counts for something monetarily. It’s only a matter of time that interest in Poons, cultivated by art aficionados who would like to see him reclaim his place in the canon, develops into a kind of frenzy, and when he premieres his latest monumental piece—a painting that takes up a whole room—the cognoscenti are out en masse. Kahn doesn’t take this fable to the next level, and we don’t know if Poons, who is already quite old, cleaned up, but you can bet somebody else did thanks to his resurgence.
The documentary has other deep dives worth pondering, in particular its portrayals of a clutch of wealthy collectors who really do seem to have nothing better to do. Their understanding of the value of the work they own is not limited to monetary concerns—they know their aesthetics—but under Kahn’s close scrutiny their explanations add up to little more than a scrim of cute idiosyncrasies. In that regard, money actually makes more sense as a measure of the value of a work of art. We really have come that far, and gone that low.
Opens Aug. 17 in Tokyo at Euro Space Shibuya (03-3461-0211).
The Price of Everything home page in Japanese.