When I say things that I like to think are to some degree hyperbolic, such as that the art world is a sea of toxic, relativistic, bullshit, this is the art world I’m talking about, and I fear my colorful exaggeration is a woefully inadequate understatement. This film is about the blue chip art world, and the rich kids who play there. It’s an insular world of insane power and privilege, and staggering stupidity, especially in the realm of appreciation and understanding of art.
This film features a few characters I find despicable, and they only seem worse the more I see of them. I thought I was softening on the oligarchs of the art world and their factory produced foyer fodder. I guess the problem is that they aren’t softening, and the harder they throw their pitches, the harder the line-drive smacked back to the mound.
Jeff Koons, who I’ve never liked — and this despite his performance as the benign, lovable, harmless, Mr. Rogers of the most exclusive tier of the art world — started to seem sinister when he was regurgitating the same utter tripe that Damien Hirst has, that his hand is in every brush stroke made by assistants doing soul-crushing tedium in his name. You see Koons in the foreground making this same, tired, threadbare argument, and in the background a team of artists reproducing masterpieces of the Western canon, with tiny brushes, and color prints of little sections they are working on, which they flip back and forth to reproduce the original as painstakingly as is humanly possible. In effect, they are human printers that use oil paint instead of ink.
This seems mean to me because Koons is being disingenuous. He’s no more involved in the drudgery of the painting process than he was in the process when the hired Italian artisans created his porcelain Michael Jackson and Bubbles sculpture, in an edition of three.
He gave them the publicity photo, suggested changes, and they did all the work. He didn’t possess the skills to be involved himself in the actual production, so couldn’t possibly say his hand was in every single action of sculpting. Because his painting process is an elaborate version of paint by numbers, he could conceivable do it himself, so he can make the claim. But his hand is not involved at all, and he holds in disdain those who make their own art, yet feels compelled to insist that he miraculously does, without touching it, because he knows this is his Achilles heel. What he is really involved in is paying people to make art in his name.
Both Koons and Hirst desperately try to give the impression they are involved because, well, the pieces only succeed because of how well they were produced (which is to perfection). Imagine the monstrosity Koons would have created if he tried to make his own Michael and Bubbles sculpture using his own hands, eye, and non-existent skills. So, when he insists his hand is in every stroke, there’s underlying anger born out of defensiveness, because deep down he knows very well he can’t take credit for anything other than coming up with the project. That is considered a fully legitimate approach in the art world (whether it really is or not), but, again, the idea is not compelling, and the work only succeeds because of the expert craftsmanship. When he, Hirst, or McCarthy (he hired animatronics experts to design his giant mechanicals) try to make their own work with their own hands, the results are panned by the critics, mostly because they are not only far from perfect, but ugly. At this point they realize they can’t themselves produce the work they take credit for, and it becomes a very sticky, defensive issue.
I don’t have a problem, really, with artists paying others to produce a project. The issue is taking credit for the work other people do. You can say, “I came up with the idea, and I supervised,” but you absolutely cannot say, “my hand was in every brush stroke” and quite often you can’t say “I could do this myself”. Those are lies.
Koons will take it even further in accruing all credit to himself. With his gazing ball paintings, he presumes to one-up old master paintings, and make their best works into his own repertoire. His rhetoric about how affixing blue gazing balls to the front of copies of old master paintings improves them is the most insultingly asinine thing anyone could serve up about art history. You see, folks, you can add value to the Mona Lisa by sticking a bauble in front of it, which the viewer can look in to see his or her own reflection. Same color bauble no matter the painting. That people buy these deluded-to-the-point-of-insanity artifacts for millions is tragicomedy.
Is it so hard to triangulate knowledge? Is there a deliberate quest to not connect the dots? When someone puts forth an idea or theory, I thought the first thing one does is apply it to slightly different situations and see if it still seems convincing. Well, what would the musical equivalent of Koons’ improvements on old master paintings be? Adding an infuriatingly annoying electronic beat to Beethoven string quartets? Inserting reflective paper between chapters in novels by Dostoevsky? You are going to improve a classic work of art by inserting something trivial and gaudy into it?!
Later in the film it comes out that Koons is having a little trouble because his art is ending up in lobbys, in which case it is “lobby art”, when it’s supposed to be mansion or penthouse art. Where the hell are you supposed to put his gargantuan, gilded lawn ornaments?
What is the point of making art XXXL, other than to sell it for more money to the people who have ceilings high enough to accommodate it, and bank accounts grandiose enough to purchase art by the square foot? It runs the very serious risk of being an enormous waste of material. Is it an attempt to compensate for the art being vacuous?
We learn that art collectors living in swank apartments in NY will have the same painting on the same wall. Art is reduced to name brand fashion items which all the kids are wearing, because all the other kids are wearing them, because they saw the commercials on TV, and, well, the popular kids started wearing them.
I used to work for JPMorgan in Manhattan, on Park Avenue, as a long term temp. That’s right, it was actually against the law, and a way to not provide workers with any benefits, but, who the F could afford to sue JPMorgan? It was, however, a better job than being an assistant for Jeff Koons, so, I can’t complain too much. Among us temps, mostly creatives who couldn’t make a living, there was a trombonist. He had rather sophisticated tastes in music, not surprisingly, and we talked about some of the prog bands we both liked. One day I inquired as to what kind of music his daughter listened to. His answer just summed up so much, that I never forgot it: “She listens to whatever is being peddled.” And so it is with the adult, super-rich kids who buy name-brand art. They are no more sophisticated about it than the teen who has Justin Bieber posters on her wall.
There’s a scene in which a woman talks about how she got into collecting art, and it all started with her seeing a Damien Hirst butterfly painting in an art fair. When I say “butterfly painting”, I don’t mean a painting of a butterfly, or butterflies, I mean real butterflies affixed to canvas. It’s on the wall behind her as she becomes so emotional about the astounding beauty of the color that she sobs and has to go off camera. Meanwhile the art on the wall looks like butterfly wall paper. Just some nifty butterflies placed on a white background.
Speaking of triangulation, I find that the UFC can jostle one out of the complacency of believing in propped up legends. It gives many such lessons, but a recent example is Conor McGregor, who is all flair and trash talk, and who boxed Floyd Mayweather for $100,000,000, losing to a Russian wrestler with no pizzazz, and who virtually nobody had every heard of a year before. In the UFC the hungry fighter, fighting for his or her life is something to be feared. In the art world, the super-inflated egos of the elite “artists” are permitted to balloon into megalomaniacal proportions, or rather, encouraged to do so, because the art market has a vested interest in their products increasing, or at least maintaining, their value.
Recent research has shown that artists who get in to top-tier galleries early on are guaranteed to be lifelong successes (they have less than a 0.2% chance of failing) because the galleries themselves trade among each other, and do whatever they can to insure that their merchandise is the most valuable. What civilization upholds as the best art is not decided by the eyes of the human viewing audience, but by the marketing strategies of rich gallery owners. The downside of this is most artists are priced out of the competition, or even being able to make art at all. 85% of artists who have shows in 2nd tier galleries are not able to maintain a career beyond a decade. Everyone else is obliterated.
Enter my least favorite art critic, the critically myopic, Jerry Salz. In the same way people now look back on the formalist criticism of Clement Greenberg — who helped launch the career of Jackson Pollock — with horror at its tragically skewed values, people will eventually laugh at the critics and artists who prattled on about how Duchamp was a master on par with Michelangelo and da Vinci. Salz is one of these champions of the urinal as the devastatingly brilliant gesture that defeated painting and opened the door to art being anything and an artist being anyone (including Donald Trump and his art of the deal). [Note: anyone can be an artist, but not anyone can be an art critic!] This is the litmus test of the critic who is full of shit. Does he or she extol Duchamp, and particularly his readymades (a few of his other works are legitimately B-grade creations) as among the greatest artistic achievements of our species. If yes, well, even Duchamp would probably think the critic had taken the bait oh so literally, and was a laughing stock.
In the documentary, Bitter Lake, by Adam Curtis (famous for his Hypernormalisation), there’s a scene in which an American woman tries to explain modern art to a group of women in post-Taliban Afghanistan. Well, just watch this short clip:
I feel sorry for the woman trying to pawn off this urinal as super important to a bunch of women, when trying to instill her culture as a better option, or as having better options than theirs. It’s an agonizing failure. Join our cult, we worship a bathroom fixture men piss in… it’s soooo… important! It doesn’t translate into another culture. One woman slowly shakes her head “no” in disgust.
This is particularly sad when visual art can transcend cultural and language barriers. Just consider The Great Wave off Kanagawa.
You don’t need to speak Japanese, or know squat about Japan in the late 19th century to appreciate this work on some meaningful level. One could have tried to ease the Afghan women into Western art with, say, something by Hopper:
Not that “Chop Suey” didn’t sell at Christies recently for about $92,000,000. All the older art, especially anything overly familiar, and hence “iconic” [Iconic: adj. Something crammed down your throat for decades] goes for astronomical prices. The Afghan women might have been able to relate to this subject, but, beyond that, the visual appeal is everywhere evident in the composition and rendering of the painting.
Salz makes an argument that Pollock only spent 48 months on his drip paintings before wrapping his car around a tree and ending the series. He says that once Pollock had changed the course of art history with a blazing new vision, how could we expect him to do it again?
“If you invented fire, which Pollock did, are you strong enough to stop making fire, and go back to hell, and try to make something new again?” ~ Jerry Salz on Jackson Pollock.
That is the way a crackpot critic who values words and ideas above art would see it. Never mind that in the end Pollock was already exploring new directions, but, he didn’t invent action painting single-handed. In reality, even his all-over drip paintings had been done before by a Russian artist (and a grandmother). He just did it a little more aggressively and it became associated with his brand. That he kept on doing highly restrictive drip paintings might have indicated not that one only gets to blow away everyone once in a lifetime at most, but rather that he was in a rut, trapped by market pressure to churn our more merchandise in his signature style. Salz believes, hook, line, sinker, and worm, that art moves ahead in a linear evolution via ground-breaking conceptual innovations. That’s a crock-O-shit. What really happens is people branch out into exploring different avenues, some of which are more influential than others. So, for example, rap didn’t replace rock, it’s just another kind of musical exploration.
At his most abysmal, Salz gives his advice to artists:
“I always say to artists, don’t be artists, unless you really, really, really, really, really have to, because 99.999% of artists don’t have money. It’s that simple. Artists have to make an enemy of envy. They must do this or it will eat them alive.”
This logically should extend to all creative pursuits. So, musicians, writers (especially poets, God help you), aspiring directors… Uncle Jerry has some advice for you: “Give the fuck up. Get a second job and a save for a lobotomy. Then, at least you will be able to finally make the mental leap to appreciate the stuff that is successful.”
I’m trying to connect the two ideas here. I guess Salz, a rich critic, is saying that if you’re an artist you can’t be envious of the 0.001% who make money because you won’t, so, either throw in the towel now and work a work-a-day job for perpetuity, or persist, but make sure you don’t become jealous. That envy, and not poverty, will be the end of you, and it will be your fault.
The problem, we are to understand, is not that the art world is controlled by the ultra-rich, and galleries with monopoly power over it, in which case most artists are starved out: the problem is artists themselves, who can’t cope with envy. This is blaming the victim crap from an insider at the heart of the problem, who thinks his job is to sell blue-chip art with persuasive sounding criticism. He is the bolsterer of the status quo, giving it illusory intellectual legitimacy, stomping on struggling artists because he knows better than anyone that there’s no room for them at the table he feasts at.
Salz also has a thing about how white male critics should step aside and let people with more deserving, and noble DNA take their place, but doesn’t himself retire. Might as well ride it out while he generously sacrifices other peoples’ entire careers to the worthy cause.
People make art for the intrinsic reward of it, because they love it, and to exercise and realize their vision, not just to make money. And the big art stars make such unimaginable sums that you’d have to be kinda’ successful in the first place to even imagine competing with them, in which case envy is not even in reach, or a problem. If I were to envy an artist, it would be for his or her ability and vision, not for accolades and financial gain. The point of this movie is that there is very little relation between price tag and art (more on this to come).
Disgust is the bigger issue, and one can be disgusted with something without envying it in the slightest. Salz is a fawning and pretentious regurgitator of accepted dogma, basking in the light of celebrity, while shitting on struggling artists and accusing them of the sin of envy. He also hates Francis Bacon, and wrote a viciously ugly article condemning him. [I destroy his argument in detail here].
An art dealer, Amy Cappellazzo, stated in the film:
“There are three kinds of people in this world. Those who see, those who only see when they’re shown, and those who will never see.”
I don’t agree with that or disagree. I find I am somewhat inclined to write less these days because it strikes me that when I can articulate something in words it’s because it’s low hanging fruit I can clobber with ham fists, and I’m a good deal more subtle than, say, Amy Cappellazzo. What is important here is who she is directly talking about, and that’s the people who buy art for millions and are in effect deciding what art matters. [Note to art buyers: if you need to be told what to buy, don’t waste your money. Buy what you like, and if you don’t like art, buy something else. I recommend aquarium fish.] I gather she puts herself in the first category, but I’m inclined to think she’s in the second, otherwise she’d be discovering and championing unknown artists out of genuine appreciation of visual communication, rather than being a huckster for the biggest, artist name-brands, like Jeff Koons. Some of the works she can presumably SEE, including those she peddles by Jeff Koons, can only be seen by true believers (scarcely discernible from “true followers”).
If you can SEE how Jeff Koons improved upon Van Gogh’s last, or one of his last paintings, made before committing suicide (and at least partly because of his complete and humiliating lack of appreciation in the art world, which even embraced the likes of Gauguin), than you have merely been brainwashed to believe, well, anything. The “art” above is a brazen insult to Van Gogh. It’s a fucking blue clown nose, and Koons is unwittingly thumbing his nose at an artist who will outlive him. People will still be looking at small Van Gogh paintings when the vast waste of real estate that is Koons’ priceless/worthless commodities are being toppled into landfill. People will be embarrassed to own a Koons. The “art” above is a visual, tactile, and philosophical abomination. I’m not sure Koons’ exalted philosophical analysis went beyond getting the bright idea that if he put his logo on other art, it made it his, even if it didn’t.
There are people who will say that I, quite obviously, belong in the third group — those who will never see — but this conviction would rest on the confidence that those who uphold Koons as among the all time greats just must be right. It is the perspective of a believer/follower. The much more likely, but still unflattering assessment, would be that I can see for myself, but have limited scope (which would be true of virtually everyone). This is true, and I agree, when it comes to music. I’m a connoisseur with quite eclectic tastes, but I don’t think there are even enough hours of listening time left for me to truly appreciate all the available viable genres and the best of the pieces that make them up.
But in the territory of “visual art” we have some anomalies in all of world of the arts. Nowhere else is the blanket repudiation of the medium held as infinitely superior to the best achievements within the medium. Duchamp’s gambit was to prank the art world by submitting a urinal in an exhibit which promised to show any art, granted the artist paid a modest entry fee. He correctly surmised that anything and everything placed within the gallery walls, or put on a pedestal, would be worshiped as art. Thus he sought to submit the most banal thing, which was in his own words of no visual interest, neither appealing nor unappealing. He put forth the most base thing he could trot out as a religious talisman in order to disprove art, to “kill” it, as he believed religion had been done away with.
Koons only went a tad further, instead of offering the banal, plebeian, utilitarian object as high art, he would offer the nauseatingly clichéd tchotchke. It’s a very slight variation on a bankrupt argument.
In Koons’ work there is no evidence of the imagination, skill or craft, meaning, feeling, emotion, or grappling with the human condition. All of that is repudiated in favor of the consciously vapid. Vacuity is presumed, as with Duchamp, to reflect the universal. The insultingly insipid is the most profound. How long can hyper-inflated props denying the human, the imagination, and skill in art sail as the most elevated example of art, before imploding?
When I wrestle with the phenomenon of Andy Warhol, the thing I must grant is that, well, the Velvet Underground were pretty good. Finally I came up with a counter-argument. Warhol wasn’t in the Velvet Underground. He just facilitated them. We saw a lot of Warhol’s portrait of Liz Taylor in the film. I think it was this one:
If I had to say what is so great about this print, it would be that it fills the space of something that was presented as great, and thus became iconic. It’s like seeing someone as royalty. He or she is just a person who just farted, but in the eyes of the public they are beyond mortal, even if they lack personality and are in no discernible way inherently exceptional. They have the aura of royal blood because we believe they are special. This image is bland, rather mute, a precursor to fan art. But once something becomes emblazoned through repetition on the mind, than it is automatically great because instilled. The same people who thoroughly believe this is a profound work of visual art and aesthetics would probably believe it is superficial pap if that was the popular and accepted opinion. I look at it minus much of the packaging, and there’s just not much going on at all. You have to supply the priceless quality to it, such as there might be between a stamp that is worth thousands of dollars, and one that is worth nothing.
Recently, I’ve been listening to a bunch of old 70’s rock albums that nobody really knows: Blookrock; Lucifer’s Friend; Fraction; T2; Quartermas; Buffalo; Family; Hatfield and the North; Krokodil, Patto, etc… None of these, on first listen, have the big, iconic sound of the standard classic rock hits. But after multiple listens, some of the songs do. It’s the same phenomenon as above with iconic paintings. Most of what makes something iconic is repeated exposure over time. The same process of saturation and memorization that makes old commercials nostalgic, makes Warhol’s Liz and Marylin prints “iconic”. It’s lodged in your throat because it was crammed down your throat.
When art collector Stefan Edlis loans his Liz print to the museum, they provide him with an expert copy so he has something to hang on the wall that goes with the furniture and all. To his credit, he admits he likes the copy as much as the original, even if it is worthless. There are mixed messages to do with that, but the one I like is that you get the same experience from the copy and don’t need to spend millions on the original (the original being a print to begin with).
People might object that I simply don’t understand the shock of the NEW. Yes, yes, quite a lot of the best art was originally derided by the critics and the public, but this doesn’t mean that anything rejected as worthless is a masterpiece. If all spotted dogs bark, that does not mean that all barking dogs are spotted. It is a standard tactic of the contemporary artist to try to take the shortcut to greatness by offending, and then presuming that because they’ve offended they are beyond the scope of the rest of the population.
There’s a protracted (but split up) interview with collector, Stefan Edlis, which doesn’t help build confidence in the connoisseurship of the collector who buys and trades art starting in the hundreds of thousands, and going into the tens of millions. He’s kind of a likable guy, with a head that’s begging for a portrait or two or three, but his tastes are just whatever is being peddled, which he’s kinda’ honest about.
We even get to see Amy Cappellazzo rehearsing her sales pitch for suckers — apparently if you have a picture of the artist with the art in question, that’s golden — and then see her deliver it to Edlis later in the film. He acknowledges that you don’t really need to know about art if the right person is telling you what to buy. He regurgitates her mantra that red sells and brown doesn’t. This is as happily frivolous as saying that verbs in titles of novels are better than nouns, and publishing literature based on that criteria.
He got hooked on being a collector early on when he threw down a huge sum on a Mondrian grid painting, at which point, he says people noticed him and were impressed by his purchasing power.
The hero of the documentary is Larry Poons, who once made Minimalist sorts of abstract paintings consisting of dot and oval patterns. Easiest to give an example.
He fell out of favor for ceasing to do these kinds of paintings, in which case he was refusing to produce the expected commodities for his already established brand. Instead, he strove to make visual art in the manner of Beethoven. He fell off the radar, and toiled in relative obscurity, until recently resurrected when algorithms awarded him the dubious distinction of being the most undervalued artist (hence, the safest bet for investment). In the end, he gets a big show of his Abstract Expressionist paintings, rather in the style of 50’s de Kooning, or the very late Monet (but without Monet’s extraordinarily developed color sense).
I couldn’t really tell within the time frame of short clips in the movie whether Poon’s later paintings are kinda’ great or kinda’ not so great. When we first enter his studio, three walls are covered with one continuous canvas, folded in the corners, and the painting on all of them is the same all over. THAT could be too easy. However, when they finally appear as discreet canvases in the gallery setting, they look much more impressive.
Here’s a good one, with variety to it:
Other paintings, however, suffer from being all-over art, as in the same thing that’s happening in one quadrant, in the same colors, is happening in every other.
The painting above, at least in reproduction on the small screen, risks muddling into chaos.
I’m not sure the resurrection of Poons succeeds as the intended hopeful resolution of the film. Not only was there the question of Poons merely being the subject of algorithmic investment conclusions, but underlying that is the fact that he was once a name brand along with Frank Stella and Clyfford Still. If he were an unknown brand, these same paintings would be DOA as hopelessly behind. In the end, it’s Poons brand name, and not his paintings, that are selling, and the better his paintings the more dire the message that they aren’t selling for that reason.
I think the director, Nathaniel Kahn [who formerly made a film about his father, the architect Louis Kahn, who died broke and falling into obscurity] may be fully aware that the art world is jacked. He couldn’t very well go in and say, “Look, this is bullshit, you are a bullshitter, and what I wanna’ do is show how full of shit you are”. That’s not how you get access to powerful people in the art world crying about seeing their first Hirst butterfly painting.
The movie opened with a quote that must be seen as at best ambivalent:
“Art and money have always gone hand in hand. It’s very important for good art to be expensive. You only protect things that are valuable. If something has no financial value, people don’t care.”
That’s obviously cynical. It states that people will only appreciate or care about art after a precious price tag is affixed to it. This should be an affront to anyone with a genuine appreciation of art, which is of its intrinsic qualities completely irrespective of monetary value. It sets us up to know we’re in for some major league art buffoonery, and it delivers.
The title of the film, “The Price of Everything” is a truncated quote from Oscar Wilde’s Lord Darlington, addressing what a cynic is: “A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”. What followed was a relentless spewing of the prices of art. It’s a slightly underhanded indictment of the art world, but only underhanded because those who look the worst in the film are also assumed to be sufficiently shallow that they won’t figure it out, and rich and powerful enough that nobody else is going to tell them.
It’s a searing indictment of the blue-chip art world, and I just debate with myself what percentage of that was deliberate. It’s definitely over 60%.