Art and Politics in a Different Time
You can be forgiven if you didn’t know that Idaho has a Hall of Fame. Apparently the group only gets real attention when they decide, as they did in 2007 and again last week, to honor an individual with Idaho connections who has generated controversy.
The last time the group was in the news, they had decided to induct Larry Craig into the Hall while the former senator was still daily enduring the brunt of jokes from late night comedians.
This year its Mt. Rushmore sculptor John Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum who has generated the headlines because of his 1920’s ties to the Ku Klux Klan. Borglum, born in Bear Lake County, Idaho Territory in 1867, was a man of enormous talent, even greater ambition and – I know this will be a shock – some serious shortcomings as a person.
As the superb PBS series The American Experience noted when it broadcast a piece on Mt. Rushmore some time back, “Borglum liked to tinker with his own legend, subtracting a few years from his age, changing the story of his parentage. The best archival research has revealed that he was born in 1867 to one of the wives of a Danish Mormon bigamist. When his father decided to conform to societal norms that were pressing westward with the pioneers, he abandoned Gutzon’s mother, and remained married to his first wife, her sister.”
The rest of Borglum’s life was just as confused and, frankly, in keeping with the west of mythology, just as disordered and contradictory. Why else would a elfin-size man consider it possible (not to mention desirable) to carve 60 foot high heads of American presidents on the side of a slab of granite in the Black Hills of South Dakota? Borglum also believed he had the ability and political skill to create a monument to the heros of the Confederacy at Stone Mountain, Georgia. That’s where the Idaho native met up with the Klan.
Carving portraits on the sides of mountains requires some kind of ego, not to mention showmanship, artistic and engineering skill, political connections and impossibly good public relations. Borglum had all that and then some.
I grew up in the shadow of Mt. Rushmore, a National Monument about 25 miles from Rapid City. The monument, to my eyes, is one of the most fascinating tourist sites in the United States and draws nearly 3 million visitors every year. Yet, the place is an incredible study in contradiction. At Mt. Rushmore, it requires real effort not to confront all the tension and dissention inherent in the American story.
When the project was dedicated by President Calvin Coolidge in the summer of 1927 he cast Borglum’s breathtakingly complex endeavor in patriotic, nationalistic terms.
“Its location will be significant,” Coolidge said. “Here in the heart of the continent, on the side of a mountain which probably no white man had ever beheld in the days of Washington, in territory which was acquired by the action of Jefferson, which remained an unbroken wilderness beyond the days of Lincoln, which was especially beloved by Roosevelt, the people of the future will see history and art combined to portray the spirit of patriotism.”
Silent Cal lavished praise on the “people of South Dakota” and the four American presidents who would soon take their places on the mountain. He did not deign to mention the Lakota Sioux, the original “people of South Dakota” who considered – still consider – the Black Hills theirs by right of a treaty signed with the United States government in 1868.
So, in the extreme, Borglum’s incredible artistic and engineering accomplishment is a shrine to American democracy and all the best that stands for and a mountain-sized reminder of what the “American” experience has meant for Native Americans.
Borglum story was every bit as much a contradiction as the story of his greatest accomplishment. All the news coverage of Borglum’s induction into the Idaho Hall of Fame prominently mentioned, as it should have, his involvement with the Klan while he was attempting to construct what eventually became the Stone Mountain Memorial in Georgia – a monument to Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis.
The Idaho Statesman’s Kevin Richert and the editorial page of the Idaho State Journal chided the Hall of Fame pickers for, at a minimum, a lack of due diligence in selecting Borglum for any honor.
Here’s my take. The Klan represents a ugly, ugly period in American history, but it is our history and a fair and more complete – not to mention more interesting – reading of that history requires us to struggle with context and motivation. The “perfect” vision afforded by hindsight can blind us to nuance. History, after all, is often about finding a balance; in Borglum’s case human frailty versus great accomplishment.
Borglum, a politician as much as a sculptor, surely felt he needed both the political and financial help of the Klan in Georgia in the early 1920’s if he were to succeed with his Stone Mountain tribute. The three Americans honored there, not to put too fine a point on it, had participated in an effort to violently overthrow the government of the United States. And Stone Mountain isn’t just another hunk of granite. The modern Klan was re-born in a ceremony on top of the mountain in 1915.
Borglum took on the Stone Mountain project for several reasons; for money no doubt, surely for prestige, maybe even for his art. He set out to create an heroic monument to the leaders of the War of Rebellion at the same time he was contemplating a monument to one of the presidents who put down that rebellion. In the process, in the case of Stone Mountain, he made a deal with the Klan. Today we might well say Borglum made a deal with the devil and, yes, you might get an entirely different read on these same details in part of the old Confederacy. That, too, is part of our history.
Consider one more contradiction. Borglum abandoned work on Stone Mountain in 1923 in large part because of financial disagreements with the project’s sponsors. He had also gotten enthused about the prospects of an even more grandiose art project in the Black Hills championed by a very progressive Republican United States Senator named Peter Norbeck. Norbeck, a friend and political supporter of Teddy Roosevelt and his brand of liberal GOP politics, worked – most of the time, anyway – closely with Borglum to push the Mt. Rushmore project and raise money to complete the monument. Norbeck in his politics and priorities was about as far removed from the Klan as South Dakota is from Georgia.
In 1924, to further confound the modern reader of Borglum’s life, the sculptor happily endorsed the presidential aspirations of Wisconsin Senator Robert M. La Follette who ran as a third party candidate on the Progressive ticket. Borglum cast quarter-sized bronze reliefs of the very liberal La Follette and his equally liberal running mate Sen. Burton K. Wheeler of Montana. The likenesses of the two progressives – they supported strong unions, child labor laws and a non-interventionist foreign policy – were used as campaign buttons and you can still occasionally find Borglum’s handsome work in second hand shops or on eBay.
It’s also worth noting that during that 1924 election only the Progressive Party platform condemned the Klan. The Democratic and Republican platforms were silent because, rather than condemn the white sheet crowd, the major parties actually hoped to appeal to Klan members.
As historian Stanley Coben has pointed out, in the 1920’s the Klan “enrolled more members in Connecticut than in Mississippi, more in Oregon than in Louisiana, and more in New Jersey than in Alabama.” In the 1920’s, Klan backed candidates won races for governor in Oregon, Kansas and Colorado.
Shakespeare wrote, “the evil men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones.”
Borglum, as is well document, had many flaws, including ego and self aggrandizement and he flirted, and maybe more, with the Klan. We have been recently reminded that as a young, ambitious man, the late, great Sen. Robert Byrd did much the same. Hugo Black, arguably one of the greatest Supreme Court justices in our history, and certainly one of the greatest civil libertarians to ever grace the Court, had to explain his Klan membership in 1937. He spent the rest of his days living it down.
We shouldn’t excuse such errors of judgment, youthful indiscretion or rank opportunism, but a fair reading of history – and in this case Gutzon Borglum’s accomplishments – also requires consideration of the man’s total life. If further proof of Borglum’s artistic achievement it necessary, note that he sculpted two of the 100 statues in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall. This guy, born near Paris, Idaho, had some serious talent.
Borglum and the Klan are part of our history; the good and the not so good. So too the mountain he carved on disputed ground in the Black Hills of Lakota territory featuring other worthy – and very human – white men Washington, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Thomas Jefferson. Turns out our history is just as confused and contradictory as Gutzon Borglum’s.