To understand what Mount Rushmore means as a monument, we can consider it in the context of other American monuments. Who are national sculptures for? How do we find meaning in them? What should be memorialized? And who should pay to create and maintain them?
"While the federal surplus is rapidly dwindling, why should federal dollars pay for a face lift of a statue of a Roman god in Alabama? ... Not one more federal dollar should be spent on this kind of foolishness. I ask my colleagues to extinguish this Roman god of fire and strike a victory for taxpayer -- and Metis, the goddess of prudence -- by throttling down our insatiable appetite for pork-barrel spending, starting today." -- Senator John McCain on the Vulcan statue in need of repair in Birmingham, Alabama, reported in the New York Times, July 19, 2001
Monuments are created for the public, often with public funds, and often now with public advice. The Vulcan statue opposed by Senator McCain was created for the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, and then situated in Birmingham above a thriving steel industry. There was no controversy until the statue began deteriorating and the city requested federal funds to help restore it for safety, as well as aesthetic, reasons.
Because large public monuments are often funded by the federal government, the viewing public often feels it has a right to object to maintenance or even original designs. After some debate, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C., designed by Lawrence Halprin, was altered to include a sculpture of the president in a wheelchair. Similarly, the low wall of Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans' Memorial was joined by three bronze soldiers designed by Frederick Hart.
Gutzon Borglum tried to avoid advice from a patron when designing Mount Rushmore. He told Calvin Coolidge that it would cost $500,000 to carve Rushmore and then asked that the government contribute half of that sum as matching funds. (South Dakota Senator Peter Norbeck was furious that the artist didn't just ask for all of it while they had the chance.) Eventually the project would cost about a $1,000,000 during the worst years of the Great Depression. Less than a tenth of the budget came from private sources; the rest arrived in the form of government largesse. Because the issue of funding was always a bit confused, Borglum would become furious when a representative of the commission overseeing the project (usually John Boland) limited his spending -- or even questioned it.
Still, even Borglum couldn't force the government to spend what it didn't want to spend, and so various elements of the Rushmore project were dropped, specifically the Entablature and the Hall of Records.
The public criticism that causes artists to change their designs are not ignorant -- just the opposite. The changes requested are usually made so that the public better understands the message that a monument is meant to convey (or to align the message to one that the public can support).
Imagining a foreigner's response to the Washington Monument, Gutzon Borglum once said, "If there weren't a policeman to tell you that [it] was placed there to record the work and life of a man who built this great nation after eight years of one of the most trying wars that a little people ever had," no one would be able to understand its meaning.
Monuments are meant to convey an idea. Does a plain white obelisk adequately represent a revolutionary soldier and politician like George Washington? Maybe not. One can argue that Frederick Hart's statues of three American soldiers more accurately portray Vietnam veterans than Maya Lin's sunken, polished black stone wall. But walking around and experiencing Lin's wall -- six feet under, inscribed with the names of Americans dead or missing, alternately a tribute to sacrifice and a reproach to those who would sacrifice -- provides a different way to memorialize the veterans.
Borglum was a literalist who felt even his naturalistic renderings of presidents at Rushmore required some explanation. He had proposed three "captions" for his work: a large Entablature, giving a short history of the United States; a longer inscription, elaborating on the Entablature in three languages (English, Latin and Sanskrit); and a Hall of Records, where copies of important historical documents like the Constitution and Declaration of Independence would be kept. But even with those elements, what is the idea that Rushmore makes concrete? For all of the realism of these gigantic portraits, we do need an explanation.
Why these four presidents? The truth of the matter is that in Borglum's day, Washington and Lincoln were considered the two greatest presidents, Jefferson was a close third, and Teddy Roosevelt was a man that Borglum personally admired and supported in his bids for the presidency. The official story given is that these men respectively created this country, kept it united, and expanded it through the Louisiana Purchase and the establishment of the Panama Canal. Rushmore is a monument to Manifest Destiny, an idea that took hold starting in the 1840s that European Americans should and would inevitably expand the boundaries of the nation.
Four giant white male faces carved in a mountain do, in fact, symbolize Manifest Destiny quite well. However, that concept has gone out of favor in a post-colonial world where Native American, not to mention Mexican and Canadian, rights are given more respect. Rushmore has been given a nickname, "The Shrine of Democracy" -- but the mountain may simply be a tribute to Gutzon Borglum's stubborn determination, and a reflection of that quality in our national personality.
Ultimately, the meaning of a monument comes from its audience, over time. The Vulcan statue no longer functions to celebrate the steel mills of Birmingham, but is still cherished by city residents as a symbol of place. (The U.S. Senate passed a bill providing funds to restore the statue by a vote of 87-12.) Hart's statues at the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial are justifiably admired, but Lin's "simple" wall draws out raw emotions from those who stand before it. It is possible Senator McCain and other veterans who have experienced the monument would be willing to spend their own money, if not other taxpayers', on maintaining it.
What Mount Rushmore means to its viewers -- kitsch, cultural imperialism, rugged individualism, collective goodwill, national pride -- tends to reflect how the same viewers view America as a whole. In this way, Rushmore is indeed a fitting representative of this democratic nation.
My American Experience
From the Empire State Buiding to the carvings on Mount Rushmore, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Space Needle, the U.S. has dozens of impressive, important, and iconic structures. Which ones have you been to? Which has had the biggest impact?