The little town of Dixon, Ill., has two claims to fame. First, it's the self-proclaimed Petunia Capital of Illinois. And second, it's the boyhood home of Ronald Reagan, 40th president of the United States.
Presidents (and petunias) are no doubt good for tourism, which is probably why the town has decided to erect another bronze statue – its third – to Reagan.
This one is planned for Lowell Park, just north of the Dixon Correctional Center, the state's largest medium security facility. Young Reagan worked as a lifeguard at the park's Rock River beach over seven summers, from ages 15 to 22, reportedly saving 77 swimmers.
Dixon Mayor Jim Burke is leading a privately funded effort to raise $200,000 for the statue, which is being commissioned from the Fine Art Studio of Rotblatt-Amrany in Highwood, on Chicago's North Shore.
You've seen the studio's inert, grandiloquent work if you've been to Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles. There, a 16 1/2-foot-tall bronze statue of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and a 7-foot bronze of Jerry West together offer forceful testimony as to why the memorializing art of bronze statuary has gone the way of eight-track tapes and rotary dialing.
Earlier this month the design for the new Reagan statue was unveiled. If nothing else, it's a cheerful lesson in the whirling machinery of modern myth-making.
In the image, Reagan's head has been digitally attached to someone else's body, striding heroically forward, all pumping fists and rippling muscles. The words "Life Guard" are emblazoned across the chest of his form-fitting bodysuit.
Now here is a fellow surely able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Although the most widely published photo from the lad's Rock River days shows a pleasant, rather taciturn, decidedly un-muscled 16-year-old planted stock-still in front of a tree stump, we get the point.
According to the Chicago Tribune, the initial statue design was underwritten with funds raised from the Lee County Republicans, a local bank, tourism office, chamber of commerce and an unidentified local resident. Apparently we're supposed to be impressed that private rather than public money will be spent on this bit of bronze bombast, even though the statue will grace a public park.
That, of course, is just one of many trivializations of our public life for which we have Reagan to blame. The practice of turning traditional public functions over to private business went into high gear in the 1980s.
Reagan formalized the President's Commission on Privatization in 1987. (L.A. County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich was appointed to the 12-member panel.) By then Reagan had already worked to try to privatize public schools, Social Security, Medicare, parts of the military, prisons, natural resources and more. Some he got, some came later and many are still being resisted today.
For art in Lowell Park, privatization means that an ostensibly public memorial will in fact represent allegiance to narrow sectarian principles, casting them in bronze for the ages. We're not talking Daniel Chester French and Abraham Lincoln here, or even Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Gen. Sherman. Essentially the bronze will be a political ad. As petunias are a cousin to deadly nightshade, Dixon should probably know better.