The Four social Classes of the Art World
Christopher Hitchens used to tell a joke that had an Oxford don asking an American student what he’s studying. “My thesis is on the survival of the class system in the United States.” “Oh, really? That’s interesting—one didn’t think there was a class system in the United States.” “Nobody does. That’s how it survives.”
The subtlety of class in America has always made it a touchy subject. The topic spurs anxiety, mingling delicate issues of wealth and taste. Because America lacks inherited titles, ranks, and peerages, we instead tend to manufacture class hierarchies within our various subcultures. One subculture where the class hierarchy is on subtle display is in our status-conscious art world…at the ubiquitous art party.
These gatherings tend to come in four flavors: a fundraising gala for a museum or liberal-consensus cause; a fête to honor a notable; an after-party for the cool and stylish; or a corporate event explicitly designed to generate business for all involved. A recent art party I attended in September was, strangely, a mix of all four. The event fêted a noted collector while also christening a newly refurbished exhibition space in a gentrifying section of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and was jointly sponsored by an insurance company and an art magazine. The greater pointlessness of the event made it the perfect venue to explore the class structure of the art world.
Scanning the room, I didn’t need a sociology degree to know who were the generals, the majors, and the lieutenants. Norman Podhoretz, the relentless spectator of New York society, used to say that the generals stay away from those of lesser rank, for fear of being aggressed against, while lieutenants avoid their superiors, for fear of being patronized or made to feel uncomfortably humble. We find our peers. In the art world, class distinctions tend to be more tribal than hierarchical. Not long into the event, I noticed attendees instinctually breaking off into the four art world social classes I’ve observed over the years: functionaries, intellectuals, the haut monde, and tastemakers
.On my way to the bar, I became conscious of my functionary status—overdressed, as I was, in my dry-cleaned suit, neutral tie, and banker-white shirt. I stuck out like a sore corporate thumb. I revealed my class identity (at least to myself) at check-in, where I scanned the RSVP list for prospects, so as not to miss a “biz-dev” opportunity. My fellow functionaries and I will trade business cards, talk about the market (any market), and expense our cab. We’re the art world’s corporate infrastructure (banking, insurance, legal), and our marketing dollars, corporate grants, and sponsorships buy us a seat with the beau monde. As the art world’s high proles (regardless of our income), we’ve never experienced the boredom of the old-line rich or the class anxiety of the haut monde. But we’re terrified of losing our jobs, so for us, an event like this will always be partly business.
Evading an aggressive insurance executive, I merged into a human crescent anchored by a young artist fresh off a surprisingly high hammer price at Phillips’s “New Now” sale, who was bracketed by a hedge fund manager and his art advisor. The hedge funder, a member of the status-conscious haut monde, did his best to engage the newish tastemaker, while his art advisor hovered like one of those translators at a nuclear summit. The artist, withdrawn and not hiding his boredom, threw off the hedge fund manager, making him feel square, or worse—bourgeois. Disinterested condescension is supposed to be his shtick; he’s an unquestioned elite in a far-off realm called event-driven arbitrage.
But faced with someone completely ungoverned by social graces, whose antisocial behavior exceeds his own, Mr. Arbitrage began rattling off recent art acquisitions (George Condo, of course) to signal his own cultural capital. But he was clearly out of his depth. With his art advisor still hovering nervously, it was clear that he’d rather be back at the trading desk threatening a CEO with a proxy fight than being outclassed by some bohemian. His only option was to make an inelegant offer to buy the artist’s work—in his mind, a way to assert dominance. I moved across the room before the denouement.
Pivoting towards the bar, I joined two guys jawing loudly while one of those elegant Upper East Side swans stood by, amused at their casual self-regard and refreshing lack of manners. This figure on the contemporary art scene, lately called the “art bro,” is typically an inheritor of wealth, and provides an important mix of liquidity and comic relief to the haut monde. He (never she) is typically a more Europeanized version of the naughty Eton aristocrat. Like an Oxford Bullingdon Club member, his nicotine addiction, slack attire, and conscious disregard for manners are really just claims to the ruling class. The art world’s haut monde behave as they damn well please. And because the unreconstructed aristocrat looks foolish in America, rejecting the social standards of polite society is their class signifier.
I stood by listening to inconsequentialities about their summering, wintering, and childhood boarding, but slipped away during a tedious tale about a heroic moment at their not-quite-Ivy-League-but-respectable college (that dad was able to get them into), and joined a curator discussing an upcoming exhibition with a writer for an art magazine.
Some of the most assiduous social climbers are the art world’s intellectuals. Curators and critics (and the rare academic) can achieve positions of social eminence well beyond their station. Rising typically from the middle class, these warriors against commercialism and bourgeois values build status through intellectual capital. Today’s critics tend to be less polemical than their literary, Trotskyite, immigrant-Jewish, Upper-West-Side ancestors—the Partisan Review crowd that shaped intellectual life in New York—and have become great flatterers of the tastemaking class, adding heft to their dinner parties and reinforcing their taste. A few can be dreary obscurantists, while others are too consumed by identity politics, but at their best, they shape the zeitgeist (see Clement Greenberg’s “Avant-Garde and Kitsch”) and rise to join the art world’s elite class of tastemakers. Joining the conversation, I made the middle-class mistake of pretending to know or care about the artist under discussion, and in so doing, took the pratfall, perhaps revealing my own shallow urge for class acceptance.
Before heading home, I figured I should make a pass at the one member of the tastemaker class in attendance: the mega-collector being fêted that evening. Self-cultivated, autonomous, loose in demeanor, and eccentric if they wish, tastemakers enjoy a level of freedom and power that comes either from exorbitant wealth or an ability to bestow status on other members of a status-starved art world. They drive demand at the highest reaches of the art world, and can have an extraordinary effect on an artist’s market. It’s rare for them to attend an event like this. They prefer the privacy of their fellow class members, attending elegant dinners at their distant estates. I waited for the right moment to make my acquaintance, but then I remembered that it’s actually my job to talk to him that evening. What could be more déclassé? But I wouldn’t trade it for the world.