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.