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Peeks and Piques!


ART TIMES December 2008

A VERY DEAR friend recently referred to me in an email as an "upstate reactionary redneck" and, since I know the depth of her sincerity, knew that she was speaking from the heart. In the interests of full disclosure, however, I must state openly that this was only after I called her a "New York Liberal" (the "bleeding heart" was implied, I'm confident she knew). Given that we've known each other since the ‘60s, you'll have to assume that both of us must be pretty near the mark — and, although you do not know her, most of my readers, I'm sure, would stoutly support her observation. Although my neck is not actually red (as it used to be when I worked as a laborer on construction sites around the country), I am, to say the least, a tad stodgy; another friend of mine, an Englishman, would say that I sometimes come across as a bit "sniffy". Truth is, I do hold myself somewhat aloof from the "madding crowd" and I am certainly no open-minded liberal on a great many fronts — especially when it comes to art. Yet, it all comes down to a sliding scale, doesn't it? I mean, how reactionary, how sniffy? Around the same time my friend was characterizing my redneck backwardness, a European writer addressed me — also via email, incidentally one of my least favorite means of communication (those who read last month's ‘Peeks & Piques!' know exactly what I am talking about) — as "Dear Steiner". I responded — and since we'd communicated a few times previously — I pointedly signed off as "Ray" (now how stodgy was that?). He again wrote to "Dear Steiner" and, being the raging liberal that some see me as being, I questioned the usage. He claimed simple civility and declared that he would never be so presumptuous as to call me "Ray". Now I know a bit about European custom. At a birthday party for another friend (now look at that! Three friends in a single essay! Sniffy? Humph!) at his home in Cologne, I had called him "Heinz" sometime during the festivities and was brought up short by a rigidly erect gentleman who stared at me and demanded, "You call him Heinz?" Well, I'd known "Heinz" for about ten years — had even written a couple of books about him — and addressing him thusly seemed normal. Jawohl — to an American maybe! But I was told in no uncertain terms by my questioner that he, "Knew Herr Professor Doktor ------- for more than twenty years…and I do not call him Heinz!" Well! That put me and my backwoods American boorishness in my place! True, I continue to note that European wives generally address their husbands by their surnames even in the most intimate of occasions…so, I suppose I should not have been surprised by being written to as "Dear Steiner" — or taken to task by the Herr Professor Doktor's long-time colleague. Yet…it does seem somewhat stilted after several back-and-forth correspondences. So where on that sliding scale of "redneck reactionaries" do I stand? On the one hand, I am taken aback when some stranger sends me a letter or an invitation to an exhibition — or whatever — addressed to "Dear Ray". I do feel that a "Dear Mr. Steiner" is in order in initial correspondence — although I am easy with "Dear Ray" after that initial contact. Though not as "strict" perhaps as European civility, it is merely courtesy — which is another way of saying "American civility" I guess. And aren't we all inclined to slide up and down that scale at times? I may be "liberal" in this case and stubbornly "conservative" in that. After the two years of political campaigning we've just suffered through, we all ought to be somewhat aware of just how difficult it is to pigeonhole self-proclaimed liberals, moderates, conservatives, socialists, leftists, rightists, or whatever. "Left" from what point? "Right" from which position? Beats me. Anal-retentive is as anal-retentive does, I suppose…and, "a rose by any other name", etc. When I consider my friend's "upstate reactionary redneck" though, I have to admit that I find the shoe a rather comfortable fit, after all.