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.
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.