((Excerpt from: "The Art of Everyday Joe: A Collector's Journal."))
In “So Rude!” I addressed how I think our society has become ruder, cruder and less civil. I referenced the art world simply because it's a microcosm of our larger society.
I love art, artists, and the art world. They rock! They're creative, insightful, inspiring and present messages that can change the world.
It is BECAUSE I love art and the art world so much that I wrote, "So Rude!" Few people on the planet have the kind of power that artists (and art people in general) have. Many don't even realize this.
We can live in denial all we wish. Rudeness is out there everyday. Whether one is thin-skinned or thick-skinned should not be the issue. The point is ... what role do we as individuals play in creating a better society? In theory, every generation should build upon the progress of the previous one. Civility is the hallmark of a great society. Sometimes it doesn't even matter whether you're generating the most pleasant, friendly, warm spirit. In this world, you DON'T ALWAYS get back what you put out. New York Artist Ellen Fisch once wrote to me about how she tried to send good tidings to an ill young lady, only to be rebuffed by the girl’s seemingly ungrateful mother.
I've met and spoken with people from several different countries and I'm always saddened by how they say SOME Americans are just not well mannered. I get no joy from writing this. It troubles me greatly because, one, I'm a PROUD AMERICAN and two, we do sometimes behave as if we're the only people in the world! True, there certainly are people in other nations who are rude, but that doesn't let us off the hook.
Self-examination is not easy. However, it's the only way for us to improve ourselves and our society. As I'm writing this, I'm thinking about that great film, "Pleasantville." The characters depicted in the film had lived in black and white for their entire lives. However, when color came along and gave them a new way to see themselves and the world, they just couldn't handle it. This is partly what art is about ... helping us to see ourselves and hopefully inspiring us to make changes for the better.
Whenever I've been involved in a rude encounter, I always ask myself, "What role did I play in that?" "How did I contribute to that bad experience?" There have indeed been times when I've had to correct myself ... and more importantly, APOLOGIZE. I'm far from perfect, however, I must admit that I really do try to live by the motto, "Treat others the way you want to be treated." This doesn't mean you expect royal treatment. These days, common decency will do.
Like charity, civility begins at home. One of things that inspired the "So Rude!" essay was a conversation that I had with my sister during a Christmas time visit at her home in North Carolina.
We both agreed that manners are on the decline (however, I must say that North Carolina is a place full of warm, nice people) and that there are more ill behaved people out there. Why? Perhaps it's because some people just haven't been taught. So many people today think manners are grand, effete and pretentious. My sister told me that one day her three-year-old daughter was misbehaving. She said she thought to herself, "Why is this child doing that?" Then, she said she reminded herself that while she took the manners we were taught for granted, she actually had to PASS THEM ON to her daughter by teaching her daughter the correct way of doing things. Perhaps we should all take refresher courses.
I think another reason why rudeness is on the rise is because it's SO EASY to be rude. It's so easy to take the low road. It's so easy to fly off the handle and call people names. It's so easy to pick other people apart and demonize them. It's so easy to criticize people we know little about. It's so easy to roll around in the mud. Taking the high road? Now THAT takes character. THAT takes effort.
Anyway, while rudeness is on the rise, civility lives. Here's the flipside. These quick stories are from my own personal experiences. What are yours?
During my college days, I worked in mid-town Manhattan. One day I was late and I was literally running down a Manhattan street. As I ran, I heard this guy chasing me while yelling, "Sir!" "Sir!" I looked back and stopped. "You dropped your wallet!" the guy said, giving me my wallet. "Oh my God! Thanks so much!" I remember saying. That guy actually chased someone down to do a good deed. At the time I was a broke. Today, like many people, I'm only a few paychecks away from homelessness, but I would certainly repay anyone for that wonderful gesture.
By the way, contrary to the stereotype, NYC is full of kind people. Years ago, I remember walking into the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery. I felt a little intimidated because I had heard so much about it. As I walked in, the guy up front, who was busy with other people, smiled and waved and said to me, something like, "Hi, if there's anything I can do to help, please let me know!" Instantly, my intimidation vanished and I had a pleasant visit.
On an art trip in Chicago, I was visiting the Ann Nathan Gallery. While browsing some of the fantastic contemporary art, this small, lovely woman with grayish-white hair approached me (I believe Ann Nathan herself) and we started talking. When I told her that I loved juxtaposing contemporary and African Art, she took me to a backroom where she showed me some of her African art. I cannot remember all of the conversation, but I do indeed remember her warmth, her lovely smile and her willingness to spend time talking with a complete stranger who wasn't there to buy anything. To me, she was the antithesis of what so many people expect when they walk into an art gallery.
During a recent visit in San Francisco, I walked into one of the galleries off Union Square and upon entering, I saw an elegant looking man and woman who were clearly the managers. "Now THIS is obviously one of the best galleries in San Francisco!" I said, just trying to break the ice. The guy looked at me and in his deepest, slowest, droll voice said, "You're vvveeeerrryyyy observant!" We all cracked up laughing and I had a great visit.
Museum guards are spectacular! I've had some great talks with them. I think some people see and treat them as "hired help" or like they're invisible, but do yourself a favor and strike up a conversation with them. You won't be sorry. Many of them are quite knowledgeable about art. They are wonderful people who are so nice and willing to help. I wrote an essay-tribute to them in my first book, "Art In King Size Beds: A Collector's Journal." The essay is called, "Guardians of the Gallery." I had fun writing it.
I could go on and on about some of the great "civil" encounters that I've had with art people and people in general. I'm constantly burning my laptop with my artist pen-pals alone! They all know who they are. They've been great and I think they see me as a plain 'ole guy who loves art and artists. Nothing more, nothing less. It's about mutual admiration and respect. THAT'S HOW WE ROLL! I want more people to know about them. That's why I want to write more books promoting contemporary art and their work. Expecting nothing but kindness from people is the gateway to friendship. My art collecting and writing are icing on the cake.
Having said that, this STILL doesn't let rude people off the hook. Rudeness is NOT ACCEPTABLE from other people, including me. We've all got to work on this. When we tell kids that they have to develop a "thick skin," we're helping them, but we're also enabling rudeness by default. Rudeness should be challenged, confronted and yes, written about. Thin or thick skin.
TV Commentator Andy Rooney once said (paraphrasing now) that art, literature, culture and civility are the only things holding us together as a society. Bravo. This is becoming more true as the world population continues to increase. If you think this discussion is a waste of time, you're missing the point. Art and civility are hopelessly intertwined. If we "don't get" this, then we may as well descend into the chaotic abyss. I'm focusing on the art world because IT, more than any other sector of society has the talent and tools to express what the world doesn't even know it really needs. We can lead the way. Yet in the face of it all, it's nice to know that civility is where you find it ... and where you create it.