NEW Yorkers prefer to pal around with, rather than embody, that useful, beloved, and unthreatening variety of friend known as the foil. Since this is a competitive city, they struggle to earn the fealty of competitive foils; not garden-variety foils with no enviable qualities whatever, but ones with depth and a bit of edge. And again, since this is a competitive city, the sad fact is that every foil-acquirer ends up playing the foil to the very people they thought were playing their foils. Mercifully, local self-confidence levels run so high that no one ever suspects the truth for an instant, and so a brilliant, multi-tiered social scene is made possible, which links the various professions and the arts with no bad feelings on either side. On Wall Street, the young banker will dare bring a handsome friend, who happens to be an ace conversationalist, to a company gala - only because he knows the man also happens to be an impoverished graduate student. For turnabout, the graduate student will invite the banker to a hip East Village party, where his deficit of repartee will be more than made up for by the novelty value his visibly staggering wealth provides for the Bohemian throng. The glossy corporate lawyer will invite her fashion-designer pal to drinks with a couple of young Turk CEOs, knowing that the creative woman's cachet may delight, but her stammer and crossed eyes will leave the lawyer the pick of the litter in the end. Meanwhile, the designer will chummily intoduce her lawyer friend to her wider acquaintance - who will promptly E-mail her details of their spring line. In other words, people tend to surround themselves with people who don't outskill them when they outeam them; or who don't outearn them when they outskill them.

Immemorially, the keystone of the whole foil racket has been the artist, that person who no matter how lithe, young, attractive or electrically pulsing with inspiration, remains reassuringly low-earning because he has a) no art to show or b) no success selling art if he has managed to show it. For years local artists had preserved the status quo by making art that was unpurchasable; one innovator would strip naked and pretend to be a dog for weeks on end in a SoHo gallery, going so far as to pee on the legs of amateurs of culture; another would walk around with a cigarette- girl tray filled with lipsticks in hundreds of shades, which she would choose and apply minute-by-minute to suit whatever activity she was pursuing. Lately, however, artists have refashioned the pedestal they had built for themselves. They have been making art that vaguely represents forms Manhattanites recognise from life, and some have gone so far as to render these forms in an appealing way. And now, people are actually buying their art. As a result, the bankers, traders and television executives who once patronised their palette-wielding friends are now engaged in a mad scramble to buy their art (whose unpopularity they had long clucked sympathetically over), lest their colleagues in the world of high finance brand them philistines. Movie stars indulge in SoHo shopping sprees, while the unknown multitudes can't stop for a cappuccino in a cafe or a snack at a restaurant without being forced to seat themselves across from a wall full of last week's daubings of the latest artist-in-residence.

For arts-occupied friends of the artists, another subtler dilemma arises. If the artist in question saw your play, listened to your recital, watched your film, or read your book, does that mean you are honour-bound to buy one of their plastic foam hommages to marsupials? The predicament is, if anything, more awkward for the artists themselves. Ripped from their garrets and propelled into penthouses, they have no idea how to proceed now that the public is making itself artistic, when every painting sold jeopardises a soiree invitation from a newly-jealous friend.