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Occhio contro occhio

The New Negative Image of Italian Americans

Joseph Sciorra (August 23, 2012)
Titzu Nishi and the Public Art Fund
Titzu Nishi's drawing for the “Discovering Columbus” art installation.

The inane opinions of a few and the diminution of Italian America.

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Forget about Paulie Walnuts or Snookie or even Big Ang. The new threat to the public image of Italian Americans is the “outraged spokesperson.”
 

You want “controversy”? The media now has its go-to people who are all too ready to make pronouncements in the name of “the Italian-American community.” Oh, they’re a colorful lot prone to utter the silliest things that will leave you shaking your head in disbelief at the sheer lunacy of their backward and disconcerting takes on Italian-American history and culture.
 
The latest agita-du-jour is “Discovering Columbus,” the New York City art installation by Tatzu Nishi. With support from the Public Art Fund and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, this Japanese artist has conceptualized and is now implementing a thought-provoking art project concerning Italian Americana. The installation consists of a “living room” built around the marble statue of Christopher Columbus that stands atop the 70-foot-high column at Manhattan’s Columbus Circle. Visitors will be able visit the “living room” from September 20 to November 18, 2012 and see Gaetano Russo’s 120-year-old sculpture from a new vantage point.
 
The living room project is part of a series Nishi has done in other cities, from Liverpool to Basel to Singapore, in which public monuments are made more accessible. In New York, the free exhibition will also entail a much-needed restoration of the Columbus statue. 
 
A number of people affiliated with Italian-American organizations, including the Italian consul general in New York City, find the project intriguing:
 
“ ‘Discovering Columbus’ will give people from all over the world the opportunity to come face-to-face with a majestic work of art normally seen from afar while allowing for the restoration of the Columbus Monument.” Frank Fusaro, president of the Columbus Citizens Foundation. (CBS News, 08/22/12)
 
“It opens up an opportunity to have a dialogue about the role of Christopher Columbus.” John Calvelli, secretary of the National Italian American Foundation. (CBS News, 08/22/12)
 
And yet others have seen fit to express their opinions and “outrage” about the project:
 
“Encasing this majestic statue in a cocoon of conceptual art demeans the community and trivializes history.” –Rosario Iaconis, chairman of the Italic Institute of America. (CBS News, 08/22/12)
 
“Christopher Columbus is turned into some clownish figure in the middle of the room that many visitors are sure to find amusing — [it’s a] fun-house view of Christopher Columbus.” –Arthur Piccolo, “a vocal Italian-American advocate in the city.” (New York Post, 8/20/12)
 
“He’s been sitting up there for 120 years with nobody bothering him, enjoying the view. And now this has to be done? I think this is just another swipe at the Italian-American community.” Andrè Dimino, president of the Italian American One Voice Coalition. (CBS New York, 08/20/12)
 
“If the artist had attempted to stage a living room set around the Lincoln Memorial or the Martin Luther King memorial . . . sensitivities would have been aroused. It’s buffoonery masquerading as art.” John Mancini, executive director of the Italic Institute of America. (CBS News, 08/22/12)
 
Leaving aside the fact that three of these individuals are not New York City residents, and that Piccolo represents no one but himself, we find ourselves in a position whereby the media in its endless appetite for “controversy” turn to the visionless, Philistine, and retrograde voices within Italian America for a quote. And the journalists, in turn, are rewarded with astonishing examples of frivolity and closed-mindedness. It is these voices purporting to speak on behalf of the “community” at large that represent the new negative image of Italian Americans.
 
(For an example of how these entities stifle intellectual inquiry, see the Italic Institute of America’s lawsuit against Columbia University’s Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America, formerly known as Casa Italiana.)
 
Nishi’s “Discovering Columbus” reframes the statue to offer an alternative perspective of a problematic historical character worthy of re-examination, as a number of Italian-American artists and scholars have been doing for a long time. Poet Diane di Prima, poet and literary scholar Robert Viscusi, the (now defunct) Italian Americans for a Multicultural United States, and others have called into question both Columbus and the national holiday. 

 
In addition, the art project allows us to think about the history of the monument itself and the public display of Italian-American identity. The base of the monument proclaims that it is a gift from “The Italians Residing in America,” while another inscription notes that the public statue was the initiative of Carlo Barsotti, editor and owner of the city’s Italian-language daily, Il Progresso Italo Americano.  

 
As a member of the prominenti (Italian elite leaders), Barsotti was, at best, problematic. As he attempted (and succeeded) to take credit for feting Columbus in the city and positioning himself as a representative of the community at large, he was publically denounced by his paesani in New York City as an opportunist. See the New York Times article May 24, 1892 (p. 3):
 

 
Scholar Joan Saverino notes in her research on the 1925 dedication of the Columbus Monument in Reading, Pennsylvania, that Italian immigrants latched on to Columbus, a symbol of American Manifest Destiny, as a way to deflect racial prejudice. However, that choice revealed the “community’s” internal differences and myriad interests: 
 
As we shall see in the example of the dedication of the Columbus Monument celebration, tensions also existed between the prominenti and working-class Italians. This will serve as an example of intra-ethnic tension, an area of investigation still under-explored in ethnic studies. The image of a singular and unified Italian community, displayed during public events, fractures if we look behind the scenes, where a different social reality prevailed. Working-class Italians did not always identify with the middleclass goals of the prominenti, and many never attended the elaborate celebrations. Others, while proud that Italians could carry off such pageantry, harbored resentment toward the prominenti for their achievements. The Catholic clergy, often at odds with a large number of Italians, formed a third source of contention. Despite the cacophony of voices representing diverse interests, values, and expectations, usually one group’s agenda prevailed, providing an illusion of unity to the non-Italian majority. With careful analysis of the orchestration of the event, the existing social and political fissures become evident. The Columbus Day celebrations were key events illustrative of how the prominenti introduced and promoted the new role of American ethnic.
 
Italians in Public Memory: Pageantry, Power, and Imagining the ‘Italian American’ in Reading, Pennsylvania,” in Italian Folk: Vernacular Culture in Italian-American Lives, edited by Joseph Sciorra (New York: Fordham University Press, 2011), 153-169.
 
The farcical protest against the Columbus Circle art project alerts us to the simple fact that scoundrels, opportunists, charlatans, and buffoons have long been an integral part of the Italian-American experience, and they can be found at a monument’s plinth or its pinnacle, or quoted by the media. 
 
Nishi’s “Discovering Columbus” provides us with an exciting opportunity to face our past, present, and future, up close and personal, warts and all. 

DISCOVERING COLUMBUS

I too concur in that far too much has been made of Nishi's "Discovering Columbus," for I look forward to a date and time when I/we can look at that statue so very close up, to have that special encounter. This is not a time for the diatribe that has taken place about the statue, as the statue and Columbus Circle will look far better after the restoration. This is a time for unity of purpose, and that purpose is to reveal the architecture and a very unique experience.

As an Italian American, I look to the UNITY of Italian Americans in working towards increased involvement in the cultural and language activities that are promoted annually in terms of Italian Heritage and Culture Month, each October. Let us celebrate that heritage and richness of culture. Let us be united!

Columbus saga

Thank you for your smart writing that hones in on key points re the latest Columbus saga. I continue to be incredulous that rather than do their homework, journalists often resort to sound bites and a few voices that reiterate the same tired cliches and seemingly speak for all. Italian Americans ARE diverse.

Now wouldn't it be great if

Now wouldn't it be great if the mainstream media could pick up on some of THESE comments? The calm, reasonable, historically contextualized ones? They just don't seem to fit the "script." No community can or should speak with one voice. No one should pretend to be that voice. The very name: Italian American One Voice Coalition, frightens me.

I couldn't agree more. It

I couldn't agree more. It seems to be the bane of all ethnic minority communities that "spokespeople" emerge and the media goes to them over and over and over again. Why is it that our so-called spokespeople are so easily offended? The Columbus Circle art installation is a non-issue. The artist's intention is to give an observer a closer look at a particular work of art, in this case a statue of Columbus that one can only get so close to from the street level. It's just that: let's look closely at this statue and admire, discuss, comment on the its artistic merit, maybe learn about who designed and sculpted it, etc. That it's Columbus seems besides the point, or rather irrelevant. For the Pavlovian IA "spokespeople," however, mere mention of the name Columbus without genuflecting and reciting the Litany of Saints, drives them to intense chest pounding and rapid-fire oration. Even the seemingly positive comment, like that the NIAF representative -- "It opens up an opportunity to have a dialogue about the role of Christopher Columbus" -- comes off equally Pavlovian for, again, the mere mention of Columbus must always get one at the ready for an episode in opposing viewpoints (the artist doesn't at all seem intent on discussing Columbus the person, but rather Columbus the statue). It's really quite pathological and sad. They certainly don't represent me.

It never fails to amaze me

It never fails to amaze me how the media decides that incidents like this one are stories. Big, noisy, public art projects like this one and others by the Christos tend to generate these kinds of "look what they're doing to our_________" controversies, many of which continue as useful critical dialoque. But this story tries to do more--it assigns (out of nowhere) instant authority to these guys as representatives of a broad community. And then accepts that their plaints are those of an assumed "community" consensus that this work is wrong because it is clearly defamatory or hateful. If Diane Savino, Diane di Prima, Calandra folks, and many others across our spectrum came together to voice serious concerns, then somebody should listen. And maybe something useful might come from it. Except that this current complaint is bogus, and the media are incapable of identifying those voices--our voices-- as speaking for, an Italian American community worth listening to. Peccato.

Bravissimo -- this is the

Bravissimo -- this is the kind of sharp and informed critique that is so necessary but rarely made. Despite the claim inherent in one organization's name, Italian Americans do not speak with "one voice," and certainly not all in the unreflective, dogmatic and defensive tones of some of our so-called spokespeople. The historical perspective in this piece also is welcome -- it certainly puts today's 'prominenti' in context.