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.
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