At the opposite end of the size scale from Willard Wigan (see my post “Art under the Microscope”), Gutzon Borglum sculpted works so large you have to stand pretty far away to see them properly. Eighty-two years ago today, he started carving the face of an American president into the southeast face of Mount Rushmore. When he died fourteen years later, the work was still not complete. His son Lincoln finished the massive monument, which today attracts almost three million visitors a year to the Black Hills of South Dakota.
I hadn’t known until today that increased tourism was in fact the initial motivation behind the project. Having lived in a town whose economy depended on tourism (Houghton Lake, Michigan), I don’t think highly of such a plan for stimulating the economy. There are plenty of jobs in a tourist economy, but few careers. Few young people aspire to work in motels or restaurants (or gas stations, gift shops, or convenience stores), so they move away in search of better work. And while an economic downturn hurts the whole country, it hits especially hard in an area that depends on people from elsewhere coming to spend their discretionary income.
The sculptor selected for the project had grander things in mind than tourism, however. He rejected the initial ideas of subjects for the sculpture: Western figures such as Chief Red Cloud, Buffalo Bill Cody, Lewis and Clark, and legendary Sioux warriors. Borglum wanted his work to inspire all Americans. Besides the four Presidents, he also planned a huge panel commemorating the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, plus the Louisiana Purchase and other territorial acquisitions. But this part of the project had to be abandoned due to lack of funds, along with carving the Presidents from head to waist rather than just heads.
I don’t know what I’d think of Mount Rushmore if I saw it in person. I love mountains, but in large part that’s because I like to be out in nature. I don’t dislike civilization, but I do like to get away from its noise, as well as from the lack of beauty in many populated areas. Mount Rushmore is certainly out in nature, but it is so obviously a work of man, I’m not sure I’d be more awed by man’s achievement there or wishing it had been left alone to be shaped by wind and rain.
Even without seeing Mount Rushmore, though, I will always associate it with the ideas of resourcefulnes and perseverance. When I was in elementary school, we occasionally were shown movies (on those old reel-to-reel movie projectors). My favorites were the Bell Telephone science series, and a movie adaptation of Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, all of which we saw more than once. One movie we saw only once, but which I have always remembered, was called “They Said It Couldn’t Be Done.”
It told about big projects, seemingly impossible ones, that nearly everyone said “couldn’t be done.” They were just too big, and the challenges in terms of both engineering and constructions seemed too great. But with each project, someone believed it could be done, and worked with incredible tenacity to move the project forward. The only one I remembered other than Mount Rushmore was the Golden Gate Bridge. But I finally found, in a comment on an article about Ronald Reagan (and titled “A President Worthy of Mount Rushmore“), someone else who remembered the movie, and he mentioned that it also included Hoover Dam.
I don’t remember now just what the obstacles were that had to be overcome, though from what I read today it looks like money was the big issue. I have to say that if I were asked to vote on what to commit tax money to such a project, I would be against it. Carving granite sculptures into mountains, even for the purpose of commemorating great figures in American history, is not the job of the federal government.
I also don’t remember whether the movie mentioned the controversy over whether the United States had the right to go carving up Mount Rushmore. The Treaty of Fort Laramie had granted the Black Hills to the Lakota tribe, but the U.S. took the area by force after the Great Sioux War of 1876-77. The history celebrated by the sculptures on Mount Rushmore is that of Americans of European descent expanding their control over a larger and larger territory, while the various Indian tribes were forced off lands that had once been theirs. It doesn’t help any, either, that Gutzon Borglum was an active member of the Ku Klux Klan.
I don’t think there’s a lot to gain from arguing over whether the U.S. should have done some of the things it did in previous centuries. Making treaties and then breaking them is wrong. Preventing people of certain racial/ethnic backgrounds from having the same rights as others is wrong. But this country also had the ideals and the kind of people who would work to end those wrongs. Learning from history means recognizing both the wrongs and the noble achievements in our past.
I would hope that is what people can see in Mount Rushmore. It’s a reminder at the same time of both past injustices and past triumphs for freedom. It is a testament both to money spent to further personal dreams, and to the indomitable spirit of men who persevered through many challenges. And, according to those who have seen it, it’s just plain an awe-inspiring sight.