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Contemporary Art and Money (A film review)

Updated: Jun 15, 2022

"The Price of Everything" is a documentary film about contemporary art on financial markets. I enjoyed it. It clarified for me the nature and the history of the connections between the production of contemporary art and the buying and selling of it.

I need to tread carefully here so as not to sound disillusioned or disapproving with this aspect of the art world, so I'll try to be clear. I think it is good to better understand the forces at play, in order to choose what one will consume or be influenced by. It is good for artists to understand the life their work may have once it leaves the nest. Even more so today as we are starting to see the rise of NFTs. I am merely a spectator watching and commenting on the wild ride some artworks take.

When it comes to paintings, my appreciation will always be linked to the craft. A technician’s point of view really. I am moved, as are many people, by what is being transmitted in the language of lines, shapes, spaces, composition, dynamics, rhythm, and color. Certainly there is enough here for a lifetime of appreciation. It is a rich language. But admittedly a language for those in a limited category.

Paintings, once they leave the artist, have historically been adopted and used in spheres beyond the scope of the creators. Art has always had a cultural significance and people often try to interpret it in words and ideas, as in the intellectual world of art curation. Art works have also been assigned monetary value and been collected in the past.

The film described how, at a certain point in the evolution of financial markets, contemporary art specifically became something to invest in. A CEO from Phillips auction house explained that at the end of the last century the supply of saleable works by old masters was depleting and the market was slow. The idea was born to auction off contemporary works, assigning them a high value.

In 1973 a pivotal art auction of contemporary works belonging to notorious collector and publicist Robert Scull and his wife took place in New York. The prices were the highest ever seen for contemporary works. This opened the flood gates to the collecting and trading of contemporary art. Certainly the supply was not in danger of diminishing. One art dealer serving today's market who was interviewed for the film said that in the past, investing in art was not really something the banks advised, whereas now art investment has become a pillar of a diversified portfolio. ‘Buy low, sell high’ fits the basic criteria for investment.

The film made clear to me how contemporary art became like a stock, a commodity, its value determined by factors that can exist outside of its inherent characteristics. This

explained the confusion I have felt since I was a young person growing up in Toronto, going to art college and being fed the names of icons in the art world like Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns, for example, all the while feeling a disconnection between the production of these artists and the art that moved and inspired me in art history class and in the museums.

The art market continues to feed us names and build star status. My epiphany from this film is that I have realised is that the art market is not feeding me. That information is for the consumption of the investors and would-be investors. It was never intended for me. Investors and collectors will always have a different set of criteria from me when they approach a work of art. I can only begin to guess at these criteria: maybe potential for growth in value, the artist's fame, whether the work strongly evokes a cultural moment.

I'm thinking some artists did expand their practices to work within these criteria using them as new mediums, certainly Andy Warhol comes to mind, as does Jeff Koons.

If I return for a moment to the realm of pure painting, I did enjoy the work of many of the contemporary artists in the film, particularly Njideka Akunyili Crosby and Larry Poons. I wished they’d shown more of the work, but I suppose that would have been another documentary.

For me Larry Poons’ New York gallery show at the end of the film with his large paintings filling the space was wonderful. It was color dancing over canvases, and brought to my mind late Monets and Mozart. Here was the voice of an artist at the end of his career talking with brush strokes and color about life, in all its complexity and subtlety, richness and depth.

If I had a Larry Poons painting I would hang it on my wall. Well, I’d probably redecorate for it's arrival, and prepare myself to live with it, or rather ‘convivere’ (here the Italian word is better). We could share the space with respect . I would have something that is an eloquent communication from another, assurance that we both recognise that there is more going on here in this world than meets the eye. Larry is well known for shunning the market and pursuing his artistic vision. I for one am thankful that he did.

But, a painting that has a high value in a cultural context and on financial markets would be wasted on the wall of a small apartment in Tuscany. It must go out into the world and live all the aspects of its existence, don't you think?

Further interest links:

- The Netflix miniseries The Warhol Diaries

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