Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Toward a More Balanced View of Italian Americans by Anthony Maulucci

Italian-American artists create! You have nothing to lose but your homogenized and degraded ethnicity.

In his short-ish book (long-ish pamphlet) "Towards a More Balanced View of Italian Americans," Anthony Maulucci issues a clarion call for artists sharing his background to, "assert their love and respect for their own cultural heritage."

His essay proposes a map for achieving this and the main road links to the old country's intellectual and aesthetic splendors.

When urging Italian American artists to celebrate their cultural heritage, Maulucci makes clear his reference is not to some of the ethnicity's leading luminaries such as Dean Martin, Jimmy Durante or Annette Funicello.

Suckled on the success of such celebrities in the 1950s, Maulucci did not see heroes.

"I saw them as cultural failures," he writes, "traitors to the rich heritage and great traditions of their family roots. To my mind they were pathetic fools who had sold their cultural souls for gold and glory."

Sure, that was a long time ago and Maulucci is willing to at least tip his hat at more authentic latter day saints like Martin Scorsese or Robert De Niro. But here again, the touch of love is qualified:

"Presumably, they are proud to be Italian, but what does that mean? of what, exactly are they proud? From the roles they play and the projects they create it's impossible to deduce whether they have even the most rudimentary understanding and appreciation of their European heritage."

Maulucci details the peculiar case of the first generation Italian American, his/hers embarrassed association with a poor and undemocratic mother country, their burning desire to assimilate and Americanize, to leave the past behind.

So successful were they in this drive, "the only traditions that were kept alive, as they were in my family, were the ones connected to food preparation."

And while Italian American artists have always striven to encompass the old country passion for what is "bello" in their work, these efforts have found scant acceptance, even among those with the best chance of gaining enrichment.

"Most people can name at least one prominent Italian American figure in the world of business, politics, sports and entertainment, but how many people," he asks, "Italian Americans included, can identify a single great American author of Italian descent?"

It is hard to argue with these sentiments or the author's larger assertion that Italian American culture is on the verge of extinction.

The answer to the crisis, he posits, lies in Italian Americans supporting "their authentic artists, the ones telling their own stories as honestly as they can." In particular, he calls for the open support of writers and filmmakers, "since they have the most widespread influence."

An Italian surname, however, should not be sufficient to gaining such support.

Instead, it must be lent to those artists who assume, "a proactive role in broadening society's view of us beyond the simplistic caricatures of lovable lunkheads, menacing mobsters, madonnas, wine-soaked imbibers, and happy gourmands."

This piece is written with a warm passion that adds to, rather than detracts from, the clarity of its arguments and insightful historical analysis.

For Italian Americans willing to confront these issues, Maulucci makes them short and sweet matters of common sense.

The author closes with an emotional elegy for Sacco and Vanzetti; rooting the challenge he has issued in the martyred anarchists' unstinting drive to make America more just and the barriers to this effort their ethnicity erected.

There is much to be learned from "A More Balanced View..." with the smallest investment of time and attention.

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