Americana: South Dakota
This display is a monument to the interaction that Gutzon Borglum envisioned between the people of the United States and the work for which he is best known, Mount Rushmore. The sculpture he conceived to be our nation’s ‘jewel’ no longer functions within the precise vein of participation that was originally intended. Today, many Americans are ignorant to the monument’s historical foundations and purpose. Participation and the democratic appreciation of the site now lie almost exclusively in this: picture taking, the glorification of spectacle, and tourism. Approximately 2 million visitors annually use Mount Rushmore as a photo opportunity, placing their faces amidst those of some of this nation’s most influential figures. Reverence for these figures exists not in inspired political discussion, but casual photographs. This contemporary form of interaction is the sad conclusion to Borglum’s hope to mediate a shared national experience through his sculpture.
In a 1932 letter, Borglum had discussed "the carving of a mountain lying in the middle of America into a great jewel bearing the record of the concept, birth and development of your and my people's civilization and government.” Carving the likenesses of four former American presidents into the Black Hills of South Dakota was the sculptor’s attempt to find a form of national participation that was neither prescribed by law nor enacted through juridical institutions or other established procedures. This participation would take the form of a national appreciation for George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln as immortalized in sculpture, an art form Borglum viewed as unpretentious and all-inclusive. This choice of medium is indicative of his desire to arrive at a form of art that was directly connected to the people.
However, Mount Rushmore was conceived in 1927, before the cultural reaches of contemporary tourism could be imagined in full. The dynamics of grandeur, power and the documentation of spectacle now play a much more prominent role in the consciousness of American Citizens. Today, Mount Rushmore has begun to unintentionally serve as an uncomfortable memorial to conservative republican ideals that no longer function as the dominant representation of its people. America’s diversity in ethnic origin and political principles together with the abundance of entertainment references leave Borglum’s stone sculpture appearing outdated, misguided and, to some, culturally insensitive. For these reasons, the monument has been unofficially re-appropriated to function in a way more suitable to the democracy of the nation as it exists now. From its comical use in fictional film, to the underwhelming experience many describe upon visiting the site in person, this national treasure has become a monument to something other than Borglum’s concept. It is a monument to tourism, pop-cultural allusion, and low-brow American humor. Consideration of its meaning, history, and relevance has been nearly lost. Mount Rushmore, meant to personify the hopes and dreams of the conservative promise-land from which America would make its name, has become a disillusioned realization of how America is today: a conquered west and a land of theme parks. Our collective memory now exists in snapshots.
Please, take your picture.