“Art and money are Siamese twins,” says one of experts in “The Price Of Everything,” an outstanding documentary screened at the Jerusalem Film Festival, which you can still catch through August 5.
Directed by Nathaniel Kahn, the film gives us an exciting view of the world’s great contemporary artists and the high-stakes financial world that owns them. Does money corrupt art? Or does it facilitate the development of art?
The questions are as old as the Medicis, and as new as last November when Leonard di Vinci’s Salvador Mundi (savior of the world) sold for the jaw-dropping, record-breaking sum of $450 million at auction at Christie’s in New York.
Yes, art is big business, but it still wonderful, mysterious and compelling. The film’s cinematographer, Robert Richman, loves the art and lets us see it thoroughly and unhurriedly. We see art work in progress in the studios and displayed in galleries — where the prices are set using an unfathomable formula of supply and demand, branding, fashion, and, of course, aesthetics. High-flying financial interests kick in when the art is resold at auction — for hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars. Not all who buy are art lovers, collectors or museums. Art has become a commodity, an asset for the wealthy looking for places to diversify the investment of their wealth. Some of these high-priced masterpieces end up in storage spaces, never seeing the light of day, waiting to increase in value and be resold; “flipped,” like real estate.
In one poignant scene, an artist reproaches the man who just sold his art for a hundred times what he originally paid the artist. “I work for you!,” the artist said, resentfully. “And I work for you, too,” the investor replied. “Think of how much you will get for your next painting!”
It’s a symbiotic relationship.
The story of the art-money relationship focuses on three main people: Amy Capellazzo, Chairman of Global Fine Arts at Sotheby’s, Larry Poons, a prominent artist in the 1960s, who sank into oblivion when he chose to develop his art beyond his popular signature style, and Stefan Edlis, one of the world’s most influential art collectors, and the film’s soul.
They represent three intimately intertwined forces in the art world.
Larry Poons is the prototypical “poor artist in the garret.” He is driven to make his art his way. We meet him living on the edge in upstate New York, as he had for years, just doing the work, never knowing whether or not the gates of the art world will ever open to him again.
Amy Capellazzo embodies the ideal of today’s global art market. She gets it. An art lover since early childhood, Capellazzo has her feet planted firmly on the ground. For her there is no conflict, no ambivalence about the money/art relationship. She loves the chase – for the right artist, and the right buyer, at the right price.
Stefan Edlis is the star in this film’s sky. He is a classic American immigrant success story…giant-sized. At age 15, in 1941, Edlis and his widowed mother fled the Nazis and came to the United States. He was a sailor in the navy in WWII, and worked as a toolmaker after the war, when he taught himself about plastics, in which he eventually made his fortune. He is also self-educated in art, which he began collecting in the late 1960s.
He and his wife, Gael Neeson gave the largest donation in history to the Art Institute of Chicago — 42 works of Pop and contemporary art, valued at $500 million. Their collection includes pieces by Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, and Andy Warhol, as well as works by more contemporary artists.
Edlis is a good guide to the interrelationship of art and money. He loves the art and he loves the game. He recognizes human foibles in both arenas, both art and finance. Money and ego make art a high stakes, intense game for all concerned. Edlis’ insights and sense of humor season the film with perspective.