Director Nathanial Khan Talks About The Price Of Everythin

by Cynthia Biret

Few ever dream of owning a masterpiece; even fewer know the intrinsic value of an art piece in today’s hyper inflated art market. Brilliantly directed by Nathaniel Khan, The Price of Everything is a fascinating journey into the personalities at the forefront of this phenomenon, from high-end investors to auctioneers, historians, art critics, collectors and artists.

Nominated for an Academy Award for My Architect and Two Hands, Khan challenges our preconception of the art world by exploring not only its aesthetic values, but also the business and dynamics in the relationship between profitability and the creation of art. Weaving a historical storyline into the characters — from Rembrandt and Vermeer to Basquiat, Richter, Akunyili Crosby, Warhol, Rauschenberg and Jeff Koons to name a few — the film skillfully highlights the impact of Wall Street speculations influencing investors to either bid on prolific artists such as George Condo or to calculate the potential value of the unexpected comebacks of Larry Poons for instance, whose story is skillfully threaded through the film.

Collector Inga Rubenstein in The Price of Everything. Images, except where noted, courtesy of HBO.

While offering an invaluable glimpse into the lives of heavyweights, Amy Cappellazzo from Sotheby’s, and philanthropist and Holocaust survivor Stefan Edlis, we are progressively pulled away from the sensational headlines of multi-billion deals and into the angst and emotions of the protagonists. “Him,” a statue of a child-like Hitler kneeling in prayer is a striking reflection on a chapter of history Edlis rarely refers to; Cappellazzo is joyful while looking at a small cherished painting, and Russian collector Inga Rubenstein is moved to tears every time she looks at her first acquisition, a large butterfly painting by Damien Hirst.

Unexpected revelations open new doors, questioning if auction houses are a better option than museums basements; if the best way to preserve art pieces is to commensurate their value with extravagant price tags.

While leading us deeper into the realm of creation, we realize that the elite’s wealth, knowledge or status mean little in comparison to the unique way each and everyone of us perceives art.

And for that one ethereal moment where Alexander Nemerov experiences the presence of the master while admiring a Rembrandt, that moment indeed is priceless.

Alexander Nemerov in The Price of Everything

. . .

CYNTHIA BIRET: Why did you make this documentary and how familiar were you with the art world before you started filming?

NATHANIEL KHAN: I come from a family of artists: I have two sisters who are artists; my parents are artists; an uncle and an aunt are artists, and cousins who are also artists. Since a very young age I witnessed the complex relationship between art and money.

And then to see in the last few years the way certain works of art generate huge sales and get recorded in the news, it just seemed like something was happening in the art world that was really fascinating and terrifying at the same time. And this combination tends to make a good story for a movie. I was really lucky that the producers of the film were also looking at this phenomenon, specifically Jennifer Stockman, who had seen it from her angle as the chairman of Guggenheim for 15 years. When the producers and I got together, we realized that we had the making of a very special project with perspectives coming from different angles but converging at the same moment in history when art is being seen partially as a commodity. From Antiquity to the Renaissance and through the centuries there’s always been that relationship between art and money, and some artists enjoyed tremendous success through the ages, for instance Turner who became extraordinary wealthy from his paintings; however, to see the way that art is being speculated on today, when it is being treated almost like a stock, that is something that appears to be a new phenomenon, and certainly has kind of taken over the way people are perceiving the art market.

BIRET: Especially with inflated figures like 125 million, 65 billion, etc…

KHAN: Exactly, and this is part of the reason this film is called The Price of Everything. The second half of that quote is, “And The Value of Nothing,” and is originally from Oscar Wilde. The cynic is the person who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, and given that the quote is from the 19th century, one might be tempted to say that the quote is from today. There is a whole sector of society that it applies to; we live in a cynical society allowing this confusion between price and value to persist and even to grow. When Stefan the collector came up with that comment, I knew that there was something really important about it.

BIRET: The structure of the film impressed me because you’re not just building the film chronologically; you are going straight into the heart of the art studios, the auctions, and straight into the characters. How did you decide on whom to pick for your interviews?

George Condo in his studio

KHAN: It’s marvelous to hear what you are saying. Ultimately the structure of this film was extremely complex to work out, and it was not evident from the start, because we did not have a story going in. I actually like making documentaries in the style of cinema Verité, following people’s lives even if you’re not exactly sure how they are related; you just know that they are intersecting in these interesting ways, and you start to do a few encounters and scenes with them; but it’s only when you start editing, that the footage itself tells you what else is needed to create the context to grow and become a story with time. This is how this film was constructed and I was lucky that the producers had access to some of the most remarkable people in the art world. Jennifer knew many of them, and I was able to enter this world at a very good level, in the sense that it was much more than having basic interviews. I was absolutely in the studio with George Condo, in the studio with Jeff Koons, in the studio with Marilyn Minter. These are things I felt deeply privileged to have experienced. It’s like going into a temple, because an artist studio is their temple. And it was also a powerful experience to be backstage at some of these auction houses.

The Price of Everything producers Debi Wisch and Jennifer Stockman, pictured here in Marilyn Minter’s studio.

BIRET: The personalities you chose to interview appeared very much at ease with you. They were not on the defensive, and seemed to open up easily while giving you priceless information.

KHAN: This is true you know, and one of the reasons for that film is a collaborative art, and I worked in a community of artists, such as cinematographer Bob Richman who worked as an assistant cameraperson for Albert Maysles. In the old days when you had film cameras, you really had a chance to be mentored by a great cinematographer. Nowadays camera people are expected to do everything themselves and I think we’re losing quite a bit of that wonderful apprenticeship process. So Bob is my trusted cinematographer and I also work with Eddie O’Connor, the sound man. The advantage of our team is that while going into a situation like Sotheby’s, we were very light on our feet. We were not setting up a heavy tripod and spending a lot of time lighting, which often results in the interviewee feeling trapped, you know like bug on a pin. While in Amy’s world where she is putting together an art catalog, we’re just there as observers naturally engaging in a conversation while feeling very much privileged to be in that world. We just tread lightly, and ultimately I also stick very close to the lens, which creates more of an intimacy, and the conversation is then akin to playing a scene, or playing jazz with somebody. . .

To read the rest of Biret’s interview with Nathaniel Kahn, go to Riot Material magazine: https://www.riotmaterial.com/nathaniel-khan-price-of-everything/

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RIOT MATERIAL is LA’s premier literary-cultural magazine with an eye on art, word, and forward-aiming thought. Check out our gallery on IG: @ riotmaterial.