The festival and me

*I am of at least two minds after attending the Kutztown Pennsylvania German Festival on Saturday – more than two minds actually, as I am filled with many contradictory feelings and ideas. The festival is billed as an event of “Pennsylvania Dutch Folklife & Fun” and it does offer an amazingly complete representation of the work of folk artists, crafts persons, and exhibitors. There is top-notch entertainment – from great musicianship to excellent dancing – that I truly enjoyed. I have always thought that the kind of fine quilts on display – produced by Pennsylvania German artisans – have more intrinsic aesthetic value and significance than much of the artwork hanging in galleries and museums. Moreover, I am of the same mind about Pennsylvania Dutch hex signs.However, I have strong views against making much of one’s ethnic heritage. The kind of tribalism that inspires native groups to ghettoize themselves and the kind of psychological groupthink it encourages seem to me to be problematic in many ways. I am also quite aware that this is not a very socially acceptable point of view.World history is a story replete with examples of how tribalism run rampant has created untold horror for many excluded groups. Even today, we experience massive violence and hatred inflicted by ethnic, religious, and national groups on those considered outside their bounds of permissible belief and behavior. Yet at the same time, we are encouraged by sociopolitical factors to celebrate our various heritages. In addition, as there is a natural tendency in man – the social animal – to band together with others of similar ethnicity, this behavior requires very little effort to exploit for nefarious purposes. We live in a society in which there is encouragement to hold fast to the significance of our ethnic heritage yet we also live in a society in which the forces of homogeneity run rampant. In addition, for me, growing up as an Italian-American in this largely Pennsylvania German area (it was even more so when I was growing up than it is now) I have more memories of persecution and harassment by the good citizens of Berks County than I have pleasant memories of them. I was called the disparaging “w” word for Italians daily and had to fight physically more than once for the right not to be called by that name.As for my ethnicity, I wanted to shed it as a butterfly sheds a cocoon. I just wanted to be “American” – or what that term meant to me at the time. It meant non-ethnic and it meant not Italian and I have never really changed that view. I see celebrations of our ethnic heritage as essentially problematic. Yet at the same time, I can appreciate our histories, artifacts, and cultural experience and production. These thoughts filled my mind even as I enjoyed the wonderful hoedown music and dancing on the festival stage. I do not use this blog as a venue to do the kind of art writing I have done for many years. Instead, it is an opportunity for me to bring more personal perceptions to bear on aesthetic experiences and to share them with others. Sometimes our reactions to our experiences are neither simple nor conventional.

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