Cliff notes

The stone-cold arrogance of Gutzon Borglum

| February 13, 2003

Here’s a queasy feeling for you: With aging former president Ronald Reagan statistically ready to check out of this mortal coil just about any time now, an organization of devotees called the Reagan Legacy Project is already on the move to get as many things named or re-named in his honor as possible. And they’re scoring some major successes: Washington’s National Airport is now Reagan National, and the Gipper’s name also graces (or stains, if you like) both the second-biggest government building in the country and a $4 billion aircraft carrier.

Here’s something else you might not have known: every year, the National Park Service contends with a fresh assault by “Ron on the Rock” forces lobbying hard to have Reagan’s likeness added to the four faces already on Mount Rushmore. Pro-Reagan forces probably won’t get their way, thanks in part to engineers who claim there isn’t enough stable granite to Washington’s right or Lincoln’s left to add anybody. The expert assessment of the engineers also spells bad news for various other groups that have come forth over the years with proposals to add everyone from Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt to John Wayne and Elvis Presley. Perhaps future generations of park officials will have to contend with lobbyists for Bill Clinton, both Bushes, Michael Jordan and Britney Spears. Thank God for unstable granite, eh?

The general consensus, though, is that four is enough. Four faces have certainly been enough to make an anonymous (at least until an Eastern business tycoon jokingly named the mountain after himself and the name stuck!) lump of granite in the heart of Lakota country an American icon on the order of the Statue of Liberty or the ’57 Chevy. All thanks to the unflagging efforts and mountain-sized arrogance of a second-generation Danish-American with the flatulent handle of Gutzon Borglum.

A mostly self-taught artist with enormous native talent and an ego to match, Gutzon Borglum got his start in what Great White Fathers author John Taliaferro calls the “bull market for sculpture” in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Sculpture was in vogue, and a relative handful of sculptors like Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Daniel Chester French and Frederick Macmonnies had their pick of commissions both for public works and for the private estates of tycoons who had gotten rich off the westward-ho expansion boom following the Civil War. A young Gutzon Borglum, born in Idaho to polygamist Mormons in 1867, sized up the lucrative opportunities available to a talented sculptor with a gift for bombast and self-aggrandizement and made his move.

By around 1900, the name Borglum had become the household word in American sculpture, a testament both to his undeniable artistic talent and his knack for self-promotion. In some ways, Borglum cast himself as the most important American sculptor of the 20th century by trashing the work of most of his contemporaries and presenting himself as the American Phideas, sole heir to the sculptor who carved the Acropolis in ancient Greece.

On the other hand, Borglum just thought bigger than most of his fellow sculptors, and while they were diddling around with relatively minor commissions (which the always-provocative Borglum would inevitably ridicule in public), he was eyeballing mountaintops to blast away in the likeness of his choosing. Borglum, as Taliaferro notes, was perhaps America’s pre-eminent artist of colossalism, a throwback to the time when bigger was better because bigger also meant more pious and devoted, more deserving and worthy of veneration. In this sense, he was the perfect artist for what was shaping up to be the American Century.

He also played both sides of the Mason-Dixon line with equal skill, practically monopolizing public works of Abraham Lincoln in the North while successfully rallying private Southern funds to turn the creamy granite dome of Georgia’s Stone Mountain into a sculpted monument to Southern war heroes. As an artist, Borglum was without peer in his ability to cozy up to any important political or monied figure or cause that could help advance his career—including the Ku Klux Klan. He was also skilled at distancing himself from lost causes—again, including the Ku Klux Klan—and skipping merrily on to groom his connections with the next winning horse.

What a fabulous, infuriating bastard, Gutzon Borglum. He dies three quarters of the way through the book, but through the vivid picture Taliaferro paints, he lingers over every subsequent page, like a peevish and arrogant ghost hanging around eavesdropping to make sure nobody’s saying anything bad about him.

Naturally, Borglum’s outsized personality is mirrored marvelously in his masterpiece Rushmore—hubris writ large, a “Shrine of Democracy” on stolen land and one of its most enduring icons, a triumph of Anglo-Saxonism blasted into rock in the most sacred Native regions of North America.

Love or loathe the idea of Mount Rushmore, reading Great White Fathers you can’t help but be impressed by the rhinocerous-strength drive and arrogance of the man behind it. Borglum embodies many of the most infuriating qualities of famous artists—the smarmy self-promotion, the carefully cultivated rags-to-riches personal mythology combined with a sense of upper-class entitlement, the self-righteous nativism with the self-serving shopping list of ethnic predilections for this and that—but he quickly wins the reader’s indulgence, too. A lot of artists will tell you that their work defies categorizing, but this is often just an excuse to deflect criticism and avoid direct or indirect competition with other artists working in a similar metier. Gutzon Borglum was usually the first to say that he was in a class by himself, and for better or worse, more than most artists, he was right.

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