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Trump’s New National Garden Of American Heroes? Make It A Graveyard For Toppled Monuments

Standing in front of Mount Rushmore last weekend, President Donald Trump unveiled a plan to thwart a “left wing cultural revolution” that he said was “determined to tear down every statue, symbol and memory of our national heritage”. Threatening to deploy Federal law enforcement to protect monuments depicting Confederate generals and other dead white men, he also revealed that he was “signing an executive order to establish the National Garden of American Heroes: a vast outdoor park, that will feature the statues of the greatest Americans to ever live.” Issued on the eve of Independence Day, the executive order called out some of the anointed by name. In addition to three of the four figures atop Mount Rushmore – Theodore Roosevelt having been passed over perhaps for being too stridently pro-environment – the order nominated conservative crowd-pleasers such as Billy Graham and Antonin Scalia. (As a gesture of inclusivity, space was also allotted for Martin Luther King, Jr. and Harriet Tubman.)

If all goes according to plan, the National Garden will open to the public by July 4th 2026, in time for the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.  The executive order stipulates that the location must be beautiful and near a major population center. As a matter of courtesy, “the site should not cause significant disruption to the local community”.

A garden of monuments, as laughable as it may sound, is actually a worthy idea. But instead of showing new sculptures, the garden ought to be filled with all of the statues that have been toppled in recent weeks. The garden should contain these disgraced figures and the countless other monuments to historical icons once considered heroic on the basis of faulty values. And it should provide adequate context for their evils to be understood, lest misdeeds be forgotten and other villains take advantage of our ignorance of history in the future.

There is a precedent for such a garden in the former states of the Soviet Union, which have had to grapple with murderous leaders commemorated in durable materials such as bronze and marble. These so-called ‘fallen monument parks’, found in cities such as Moscow and Budapest, provide ample space for reflection, which is necessary for understanding, remembering, and healing.  Although they haven’t fully achieved these aims – or even prevented the recapitulation of autocracy in the apotheosis of Vladimir Putin – at least they stand as a bulwark against post-Soviet autocrats’ systematic erasure of history.

Of course not every toppled American is equivalent to Josef Stalin. In spite of his well-documented racism, Theodore Roosevelt was not as diabolical as Robert E. Lee. In fact, there are notably positive attributes to his character and legacy. His love of nature led him to double the number of national parks and to set aside more than a hundred million acres of national forest. A monument garden can provide space for the complexity of his character, recognizing his environmental achievements while still holding him accountable for his racism.

This new role for old monuments will require more than a flatbed truck and freshly-poured foundations. Success will depend on radical recontextualization.

Some of the work of reinterpretation has already been done by the people who pulled these statues down; the graffiti scrawled across the surface of toppled monuments provides contemporary perspective and even a kind of commentary. Other important work is being done in academia, where historians excavate and analyze. Monuments typically come with plaques, which need not be hagiographic as they customarily have been in the past. If the monument to Theodore Roosevelt now slated for removal from the Natural History Museum were to be moved into this new garden, a scholarly plaque could address his record with honesty and nuance. This plaque could be updated as more is learned about his actions, and we learn more about our own enduring prejudices.

Yet as valuable as it is to preserve the physical marks of monuments’ removal, and as helpful as it will be to subject plaques to the rigor applied to history books, it’s equally important to add meaning artistically. Statues are artworks, and the aesthetic and conceptual qualities are their chief source of power over us. To fully achieve the transformation needed – especially in the case of heroically-posed memorials to Confederate leaders – the sculptural qualities will most effectively be reimagined by contemporary artists who can be invited to make temporary modifications, both physically and in augmented reality. These interventions can be commissioned on an ongoing basis, each modification lasting a year or a decade.

This is the role that artists should be given in the new National Garden. This is the way to spend the Federal funding that would otherwise be directed toward chiseling Scalia’s visage in marble. To see what artistic interventions might look like, and how meaningful they could be, just consider the sculpture of Hew Locke , who has taken on the monumental legacy of British colonialism by critically reconceiving its emblems of power and glory.

As statues are moved into this vast National Garden of Toppled Heroes, abundant space in urban centers will become available for new monuments to be erected. This is another opportunity for contemporary artists, but must be approached with caution. One crucial insight to be gained from the current fit of toppling , easily overlooked in the moment, is that many of these statues were erected with good intentions by people who were blind to the bigotry of their time. Today we may be more enlightened, but we shouldn’t assume that we’re perfect. Our ideals may still be flawed, and we may be oblivious to their inadequacies. It would therefore be folly to build new monuments on the old paradigm. Rather the old idea of monuments must itself be toppled today.

On this subject, Trump’s executive order is most gravely mistaken (even more so than in his endorsement of ‘heroic’ statuary depicting Scalia and Graham). According to the order, “All statues in the National Garden should be lifelike or realistic representations of the persons they depict, not abstract or modernist representations.” In fact, abstraction seems the most viable way in which to make monuments mutable, such that their meaning can evolve with society. Even the idea of monumentalizing people ought to be questioned. The multi-millennium history of monuments symbolizing principles such as justice might meaningfully be revived and revitalized in a visual or conceptual language that eschews old-fashioned sexist and racist imagery. A premonition of what this might include can be seen at Socrates Sculpture Park, where Paul Ramírez Jonas has installed a monument in the form of a grill. Called Eternal Flame, his monument is intended to foster cultural cohesion through communal preparation and consumption of meals.

None of which addresses the problem of Mount Rushmore, the backdrop of Trump’s announcement and site of four monumental heads that can hardly be airlifted into a new garden. The problem of Mount Rushmore actually goes beyond the lionizing of two former slaveholders, a man responsible for the slaughter of Native Americans and another man who professed to prefer them dead, all sculpted in high relief by a Ku Klux Klansman. The deeper trouble is that Mount Rushmore is stolen territory, illegally taken from the Lakota Sioux after being explicitly granted to them in perpetuity by a US government treaty. Moreover, the portraits were made by dynamiting holy land, violating the sacred grounds of Paha Sapa (as the mountain is known in the Lakota language). Before Gutzon Borglum blasted the heads of  Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt into Mount Rushmore,  the Lakota saw the Six Grandfathers – the West, North, East, South, Sky, and Earth – in the stones of Paha Sapa.

That this territory must be returned to the Sioux is obvious. What is less certain is the most effective way to address Borglum’s desecration. Only the Sioux people have the right to answer this question, to decide whether removing the four heads would cause more harm than good to their sacred land. Waiting for the Six Grandfathers to return is another option, but they may not come back quickly. When Borglum sculpted Mount Rushmore, he deliberately stopped short of carving his portraits to a perfect finish, leaving a couple extra inches of granite to be smoothed by natural erosion. “The work will not be done for another 300,000 years,” he boasted to interviewers. Even if he was exaggerating, the natural return of the Six Grandfathers will happen only in geological time.

Nevertheless, there is a lesson to be learned from the Six Grandfathers even in the present. Initially seen in a vision of the Sioux holy man Black Elk, they became a potent force for his people without the need for dynamite or Trumpian literalism. As we re-envision monuments for the 21st century, the Six Grandfathers can be a guide, both aesthetically and conceptually.

The greatest garden is the natural world, which is naturally monumental. All that’s needed to activate it is the human imagination.

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