Nathaniel Kahn on the Value of Art


The director of The Price of Everything sees art as a reflection of our times, and as such, something far more valuable than a price tag.


HBO: What was the driving force behind creating The Price of Everything?

Nathaniel Kahn: Art is always a reflection of us, and who we are and our times. So art and how art is being used right now is showing us this intensely commodified world that we live in. And I do think we have to take a really hard look at that. Because the world we have gotten into right now is a world in which we are confusing the price of something with its intrinsic value.

I’m not here to pass judgement on the people who are in the film. But I am absolutely here to bear witness to what’s going on. Having seen the intense commodification of art over the last decade, and feeling alienated by it, it seemed like the sort of thing that should be looked at more closely.

HBO: Amidst the range of artists, dealers, collectors and the like, did you find any consensus when it comes to the “value” of art?

Nathaniel Kahn: First of all, art isn’t about what you like. It’s about what you love. The film is filled with very, very strong people, with very, very strong opinions. And they don’t all agree. All the people in this film, whether or not you agree with them, genuinely love art. In fact, they’re obsessed. Obsession is fascinating. It’s something I’m drawn to and something that makes good films, because passionate people who really believe in things and don’t just like but love things are interesting.

Each one of us is moved in some way by art. It’s the highest thing we do, and all of us get to say what we think is good. Don’t wait for the experts to tell you what’s important or what you think is valuable or what you think you should be looking at. Everyone is subjectively looking at what moves them, or what they think is important or, in some cases, what they think is going to sell.

HBO: As Amy Cappellazzo of Sotheby's says in the film, “There are three kinds of people: those who see, those who see when they are shown, and those who will never see.”

Nathaniel Kahn: I believe everyone can see, and everyone does see in one way or another. But it’s true the more you look, the more you see. I think the current art market is alienating to a lot of people; people feel it has nothing to do with their lives. It’s the very high end of the economic spectrum speculating about art, moving it around, giving it to museums or squirreling it away in their apartment. But the reality is that art itself is about communication. I hope the film makes people realize art is actually for everybody, though it may be the play thing right now of the super rich.

HBO: Some of the artists in the film are engaging directly with, or even fitting into art commodification.

Nathaniel Kahn: Jeff Koons, Marilyn Minter, George Condo — those three in one way or another are dealing with our era in different ways. You listen to the curator Paul Schimmel who talks about Koons’ bunny. And what do you see in that surface? Yourself. That is our moment. We are living in this fishbowl narcissism, self-reflection, looking at ourselves.

HBO: Can you explain the idea that, with a collector, ownership is involvement?

Nathaniel Kahn: Robert Skull, who was a taxi magnate and involved with starting the Green Gallery, says, “Ownership is involvement.” And then he goes on, “Having a share of IBM is involvement, too, but art is a different kind of involvement.” He’s already connecting art and money in that comment. He’s gone now, but I wish I could ask him, when he was walking in a gallery and convincing an artist he wanted to buy from them, was he thinking about the money down the line or was he thinking about the art?

HBO: How much did you want your voice to be a part of this documentary?

Nathaniel Kahn: I didn’t want to have this film look at the subject from 30,000 ft. I wanted it to be a film you’re fully immersed in. You’ll notice there are a number of rabbits in the film. Different kinds of rabbits. And there is, perhaps, a reference there to Alice in Wonderland. I myself feel a little like Alice crawling down the rabbit hole and suddenly I’m in Wonderland. I’m looking around and trying to understand this incredibly complex, contradictory, confusing, destabilizing world — the art market. This documentary is a record of my experience navigating through that with various guides along the way. By including some of my questions, we are constantly reminded there’s someone who wants to know about what’s going on, and who knows less about what’s going on than the people he’s encountering.

HBO: What dialogue do you hope to inspire with audiences?

Nathaniel Kahn: Art is constantly in this dialogue with us that we need to honor and respect. And that is something that no money can buy. That’s experience. That’s taking the time to slow down and look.

There’s the timeless question of “What is the meaning of life,” if you will. But then there’s the more pressing question of “Who are we right now?” And do we like that? Do we think we’re headed in a good direction? Should we not examine a little more closely what money is doing to us as a people and as a civilization and as a global culture? Because make no mistake, we are a global culture now.

The Price of Everything is available to stream now.