Armory Show Art Fair: From Powerful To Powerless

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The Armory Show is one of “New York’s most established fair for modern and contemporary art” and showcases over 1,500 artists from 199 galleries. These galleries are spread across the floors of Pier 92 and 94 and are separated by thin walls, which create a maze of booths. Due to the high volume of domestic and international galleries showcasing various artworks that range from photographs, to vases, to plastic basket installations, the Armory Show is a great place for those who want to purchase, view and study art.

Since I attended the art fair on Friday, March 6th, it was safe to assume that most, if not all, of the attendees were from at least middle class backgrounds. Their presence not only preformed leisure[1], but it also showed that they carried and displayed cultural capital[2]. Despite this, the group of privileged could be further categorized into specific socio-economic classes based on their fashion, especially footwear because it exposes the mode of transportation they arrived in. However, because the Armory Show is both a space of leisure and labor, it is also important to recognize that one’s fashion is not the sole dictator of their identity.

We can see the polarity of power a certain style of footwear can hold based on its context. For example, the day I attended the Armory Show was the day after the horrendous snowstorm. I struggled to get to the art fair because it was located so far west, which meant that I had to face the snow piles, slush puddles and icy sidewalks across five streets and four avenues. I also did the “Water Dance” at every intersection because I had made the mistake of wearing sneakers instead of my rain boots. In this situation, it becomes clear that water–resistant boots gain their power from their functionality. The freedom to step into any puddle with confidence becomes an act of authority—the authority over Mother Nature. Thus, while I hesitated to jump over a puddle when the pedestrian signal changed, the woman next to me, who was wearing rain boots, marched into the entrance of the Armory Show with a sense of carefreeness; she didn’t even glance at the puddle she was stepping into.

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This explains why the Hunter rain boots, (the surprisingly sold out) L. L. Bean Duck Boots, Red Wing boots, Timberland boots and other water-resistant shoes were so popular at the art fair. Not only were these boots a no-brainer to wear due to the byproduct of yesterday’s weather conditions, but it also displayed “brand prominence”[3] to elevate the owner’s status. But the power of these boots quickly dwindled down inside the Armory Show because its practicality was no longer needed. Instead, it becomes a reflection of one’s economic status when we begin compare the people who walked through dirty slush, to those who had a driver. Accordingly, those who had cars could be dropped off directly by the entrance, which allows them to wear shoes like suede heels and leather dress shoes because they could avoid the repercussions of the storm and need to bear the cold for 0.5 seconds.

At the same time wearing heels or oxfords did not automatically classify someone to be a member of the highest economic class because the Armory Show had people of labor as well. Those who were working for the galleries had to follow a certain well-dressed uniform and thus, workers wearing a dress or a suit and tie were frequently seen. As we can see from the picture below, their dress can signal similar codes as the wealthy, but their clothing and footwear were not within the same context of performing leisure and hence, it does not hold the same power.

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The cultural capital of both groups, however, was clearly seen through his or her individual styles of using brand prominence. As a female, I could immediately recognize fashion brands for women, such as Goyard and Burberry, and how these women incorporated products, with visible brand logos, to make a statement with their outfits. For example, the attendee in the bottom left is carrying a Louis Vuitton tote, while wearing a Moncler down vest and riding boots. Her purse and vest bring status to her identity, while her freshly dirtied riding boots signaled that she walked to the art show. On the other hand, the gallery employee on the bottom right picture is wearing Coach boots and hung her Miu Miu bag on the chair. This signals her cultural capital and ability to purchase expensive good, despite the fact she was working. In this way, we begin to see that branded products are used to bring owners “prestige apart from any functional utility.” (Han, Nunes and Drèze, 16) Both of these women had clearly used the public transportation system to arrive at the Armory Show, but due to their ownership of branded elements, it begins to form their identity as someone who holds cultural capital. Through this, we can begin to identify patricians[4] from the parvenus[5] and possibly even the poseurs[6] at the art show.

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Ultimately, there is a dichotomy of powers within fashion at the Armory Show. On one side, fashion can clearly unite those from the same class while segregating others. Simmel writes in “The American Journal of Sociology”, “Fashion is a product of class diction…thus fashion on the one hand signifies union with those in the same class, the uniformity of a circle characterized by it, and, uno actu, the exclusion of all other groups.” (544) Those who displayed their wealth through clothing choices can signal to others within their class through various ways like wearing a non-visible branded luxury good. In the art show, we can see clearly see fashion being used as communications since gallery workers must discern who has the wealth to have purchasing power. By identifying those people, the wealthy will attain more attention as these galleries aim to sell artworks. On the other hand, there is also the risk of mistaking people to a group they do not belong in as Wilson mentions in his article, “Adorned in Dreams.” We can see this through gallery workers because they have a similar dress code as the wealthy. Thus, employees who do not have badges to indicate their working statuses could be easily mistaken as a member of a higher class. Nonetheless, the crowd at the Armory Show is mostly likely from a privileged soci0-economic background and as a result, people use their fashion, whether it be luxury bags or sneakers, to build their identity and create a distinction for themselves.

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FOOTNOTES


[1] Velblen writes in “Theory of Leisure Class” that “abstention from labour is the conventional evidence of wealth and is therefore the conventional mark of social standing…” (27). Those who are attending the art fair are performing leisure since they could afford to be at the art fair on a Friday afternoon as opposed to going to work.

[2] The concept of “cultural capital” is introduced in Bourdieu’s essay “Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste”. Bourdieu describes cultural capital as knowledge and taste preferences one carries that is produced by one’s their socio-economic background. Cultural capital tends to fall within middle to upper class families due to the ability to attain higher education. Also, Bourdieu states that cultural capital is acquired over time and employable when you display your taste preferences. For example, Bourdieu writes “A work of art has meaning and interest only for something who possesses the cultural competence, that is, the code into which it is encoded.” (2) This appreciation of art is only constituted by those who had an upbringing of visiting museums and studying art, which would most likely those who weren’t of low-income homes.

[3] Han, Nunes and Drèze write in “Signaling Status with Luxury Goods: The Role of Brand Prominence” that brand’s mark on products correspond with the “desire to associate or dissociate with members of their own and other groups.” (16) These goods are to mark the owner as a member of a certain social class—usually of a higher class—construct visible proof of their belonging. Many pieces that do not have an explicit logo would only be “identifiable [by] those ‘in the know.’”

[4] Patricians are those who “possess significant wealth and pay a premium for inconspicuously branded products that serve as a horizontal signal to other patricians.” (Han, Nunes and Drèze, 17) This class tends to wear man un-branded logos items in order for other Patricians who only are in the know, to identify with these pieces.

[5] Parvenus is the class under the Patricians, who are wealthy but do not have the “connoisseurship necessary to interpret subtle signals.” (Han, Nunes and Drèze, 17)

[6] Poseurs are below the parvenus and are willing to consume to gain status. However, this class does not possess the financial status to actually buy these branded products immediately and thus, “they are prone to buying counterfeit luxury goods.” (Han, Nunes and Drèze, 17)

 


 

WORK CITED:

Bourdieu, Pierre. Introduction. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1984. N. pag. Print.

Han, Young J., Joseph C. Nunes, and Xavier Dreze. “Signaling Status with Luxury Goods: The Role of Brand Prominence.” Journal of Marketing (n.d.): n. pag. Web.

Simmel, Georg. “The American Journal of Sociology.” The American Journal of Sociology 62.6 (1957): 541-58. Web.

Veblen, Thorstein, Warren J. Samuels, Marc R. Tool, and Dopfer Kurt. “Chapter III: Conspicuous Lesiure.” The Theory of Leisure Class: An Economic Study in the Evolution of Institutions. Düsseldorf: Verlag Wirtschaft Und Finanzen, 2000. 23-70. Print.

Wilson, Elizabeth. Introduction. Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity. Berkeley: U of California, 1987. N. pag. Print.

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