President Donald Trump's proposal for a "National Garden of American Heroes," is a ludicrous, transparently political stunt. It's also his latest, ill-considered salvo against modern art and architecture.
Back when the 45th president was a real estate developer, he dressed his skyscrapers in glitzy glass and metal. But ever since he moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, he's gone retro, as he did in February, when news leaked of a draft executive order that would mandate classical and traditional styles for federal buildings. Nothing, fortunately, has come of this step toward aesthetic authoritarianism.
Trump's noxious nostalgia has resurfaced in the heroes garden plan, which he unveiled Friday at Mount Rushmore, after issuing a blanket condemnation of protesters who have torn down statues to protest police brutality against Black people.
The garden would be built at a still-to-be-determined site and filled with statues of "historically significant Americans." The statues, Trump's order says, must "be lifelike or realistic representations of the persons they depict, not abstract or modernist representations." (The thinking behind this dictate, if it deserves to be called "thinking," would have forbidden the stark beauty of Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial.)
Who deserves to be deemed historically significant? The president offered a slapdash list of 31 people, mostly white males, among them six former presidents, pioneers, generals, and two figures beloved by his conservative political base - Antonin Scalia (the lone Supreme Court justice on the list) and the Rev. Billy Graham.
While eight women and five African Americans made the list, it has no Native Americans, Hispanic Americans or Asian Americans. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat who led the U.S. through the Great Depression and World War II, didn't make the cut, yet Trump saw fit to name Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, an obscure Republican Maine governor who commanded troops at the battle of Gettysburg.
Go figure. You never know how important Maine's four electoral votes might be.
It's not hard to see through such political pandering: The heroes garden represents the flip side of Trump's blunt verbal attack on the protesters who took to the streets after George Floyd died at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. It's the shiny wrapper of a dreary package (think "American carnage"), an errant shot in Trump's never-ending culture wars.
Protesters, Trump claimed with his usual hype Friday, are "determined to tear down every statue, symbol, and memorial of our national heritage."
No they're not, though some have lapsed into Jacobin excess by defacing or tearing down statues of slave-owing presidents like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
Still, most of the protests have been peaceful. And the protesters have been right to target symbols of racism and white supremacy, like statues of Confederate generals that should have come down long ago. Those generals sought to destroy the union. Despite the gap between the ideals articulated by the Declaration of Independence and their actions as slave holders, Washington and Jefferson put us on the path toward a more perfect union.
Trump still doesn't get the difference between symbols of honor and those of disgrace, as he showed Monday when he ripped NASCAR for banning the Confederate battle flag.
And by sticking to the outdated aesthetic ideal of the lone heroic figure on a pedestal, the president's heroes garden would be backward-looking in form as well as substance.
Instead, he should recognize the "ordinary" people who built America, from African-American slaves to Chinese and Irish railroad workers to unionized factory workers who made America the "arsenal of democracy" during World War II. And if he goes that route, he should find creative new ways to honor such people, like the oversized LED screens of Millennium Park's Crown Fountain. They turn the old "general on horseback" model on its head by portraying the larger-than-life faces of ordinary Chicagoans at heroic scale.
The bottom line about Trump's heroes garden is that it would be a colossal waste of taxpayers' money (no cost estimate was included in the executive order). We already have an extraordinary site that tells the nation's story through architecture, art and landscape architecture - the National Mall. Its expansive neoclassical design has proved both enduring and adaptable, projecting the transcendent ideals of democracy even as it incorporates shifting narratives and styles.
Trump's reactionary statuary park is unlikely to ever live up to that high standard. Let us hope that Congress refuses to fund it or that Trump never gets a chance to build it. Let him go back to plastering his name on shiny modern skyscrapers.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Blair Kamin is a Tribune critic.
Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com
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