Just to be clear: I am not a big fan of the representational art. I feel that the era of cameras requires a painter to look beynd the obvious. The same applies to sculptures even if the sculpture in question is the size of a small mountain. Even if the mountain is not so small.
That said Mt. Rushmore was not supposed to be an art piece. Or at least not just an art piece. It became an altar of secular religion of americanism. And an allegory of everything good and bad about America. It was conceived as a marketing stunt: to attract visitors to the unquestioningly beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota. It was designed by a Ku Klux Klan member and it occupies a land that happened to fall under American control in less than savory circumstances. It was financed largely by federal tax dollars in a good old tradition of senators syphoning money to their states to reduce the waste on federal level. It was constructed with typically American combination of ingenuity and brute force: precision tools and dynamite. There were obstacles that were overcome: when Jefferson’s visage cracked and had to be blasted off, it was aptly recreated behind Washington’s left ear. And as any popular idea the Mt. Rushmore spurred the healthy competition. Works are under way on Crazy Horse Memorial nearby, which is way bigger and probably will turn out no less ugly than its rival.
Carving your name on a rock in a national park is a federal felony. Dynamiting a mountain to sculpt a 60 foot bust will get you a hero status. But can you still call the mountain defaced when it sports four giant faces? Thankfully the nearby Needles where deemed too fragile: they could not guarantee enough life span for a sculpture. Mt. Rushmore’s granite deteriorates at a slow 1 inch per 10 thousand years pace. So many generations will be able to express their admiration. Or their scorn.
The monument is designed to impress. And yet I find it easy to resist its pull. It’s not that I don’t respect the men it depicts. Although it has to be said that they are carved with all the grace of garden gnomes. Since the sculptures were never completed (and I hope they’ll never be), what you see are detached heads popping out of the mountain side as if they were the result of a cruel experiment by some mad scientist.
I like to think that the presidents in question would be appalled by this display. Their ideas after all work best when applied in real life, not when carved in stone. Like, you know, when we don’t torture terrorists because of their inalienable rights.