Degas in Vegas
From various of the Italianate terraces of the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas, looking over an artificial lake, girdled by balustrades no less Italianate and meant to be emblematic of Como, one may see a half-scale simulacrum of the Eiffel Tower rapidly rising across the Strip. The tower is to be one element in a complex of simulative monuments and buildings, to be called "Paris" when it opens later this year. The Arc de Triomphe is already in place, as well as a fragment of a sixteenth-century chateau; another structure--still screened by its scaffolding--may turn out to be the Madeleine or even the Gare Saint-Lazare. Farther north along the Strip, a similar complex, this time of Venetian landmarks, is under construction, with the Ca' d'Oro nearly completed and the tower of San Marco not far behind. To the south, "New York-New York" has been open to the public since 1997: The Chrysler Building is nearly adjacent to a stunted Empire State Building; Lady Liberty, with two New York Harbor tugboats at her feet, looms over the Brooklyn Bridge; steam plumes up from manhole covers--but one encounters vast ranks of gambling devices upon entering a cavernous Grand Central Station. The sense is irrepressible that before long, Las Vegas will be an architectural theme park, in which every edifice known to popular visual culture--Chartres, the Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji), the Stone Garden of Kyoto (Ryoanji), the Taj Mahal, the White House, the Houses of Parliament, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Colosseum--will have its simulacrum. That leaves the question of whether any of Las Vegas's own buildings would find a place in that landscape of monumentary knockoffs. Caesars Palace, perhaps, since it itself replicates no known structure of Imperial Rome but stands as a fantasy, inspired partly by the Vittorio Emanuele monument and partly by Ben-Hur. Or perhaps one of the rapidly disappearing "decorated shacks" that so stimulated the architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown when they wrote the classic of postmodernism, Learning From Las Vegas.
It would be reasonable to suppose that were some entrepreneur to undertake an art museum in the Las Vegas spirit, it might be called The Museum of Museums, and feature simulacra of all the world's masterpieces--Mona Lisa, Portrait of the Artist's Mother (Whistler's Mother), The Night Watch, The Creation of Adam, Gold Marilyn, Piero's Resurrection, Raphael's The Transfiguration, the Bayeux Tapestry, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Why chase across continents, from museum to museum, when everything one would have gone to see is here in one place, brush stroke by brush stroke, indistinguishable from the prototypes? What difference does it make, visually speaking? One only expects "Reality-Las Vegas" in Las Vegas--like the artificial volcano that rumbles and erupts every fifteen minutes each evening in front of the Mirage, the concrete Trojan Horse at FAO Schwarz or the golden Sphinx, with laser lights for eyes, beaming toward the fabricated pyramid in front of the Luxor Casino and Hotel--and everything is advertised as Magical, Enchanted, Fantastic, Fabulous or Incredible. One does not expect to encounter Reality as such, where things are what they are and not something else they merely look like.
In consequence, visitors are not entirely secure in viewing what it is not hype to describe as the world-class paintings hung in the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art. Steve Wynn, whose conception the gallery is, asks, "Why, of all things to feature in a new resort hotel in Las Vegas (of all places!) would one select an enormously costly and potentially limited-appeal attraction such as a serious fine-art presentation of paintings and sculptures?" Why indeed, when the possibility of simulacra indiscernible from the originals exists in principle, and visitors only expect "Reality-Las Vegas" to begin with. When it first opened some months ago, an interviewer from a Las Vegas newspaper questioned me on whether I thought it entirely suitable that there should be an art gallery in a site given over mainly to gambling. Well, casinos vie with one another to attract patrons: Approaching the Bellagio, one passes a looming sign: "Now Appearing: van Gogh. Monet. Cézanne. Picasso," just the way other "now appearing" signs announce Cirque du Soleil or Andrew "Dice" Clay. So Wynn has gambled that a significant population would be as attracted by van Gogh, Monet, Cézanne and Picasso as by the magicians, stand-up comics, feminine extravaganzas and impersonators that form the city's standard repertoire of distractions and entertainments. For that population, of course, the art included must be as familiar a part of visual culture as the Eiffel Tower or the Chrysler Building. Those who have taken Art History 101 and traveled a bit are able to tell a Monet from a Cézanne, a Modigliani from a Matisse, a Picasso from a Pissarro, a Degas from anyone else--even if the paintings themselves have not attained the canonical status required by my imagined Museum of Museums. My interviewer asked if I thought the paintings were real. That, she said, was what "folks out here really want to know."
I thought it strange that people worry about the reality of the art when reality is required of little else in Las Vegas. "The popular question that seems to have overshadowed the lively speculation about the Bellagio Gallery itself," Wynn writes, "seems to be 'Why?'" I don't think the overwhelming question is "Why paintings?" so much as "Why real paintings?" when "Reality-Las Vegas" suffices for Paris and Venice. What business does real art have in Las Vegas when we can imagine the Museum of Museums on an ontological footing with "New York-New York"? It struck me that the anxiety the question of reality implies could almost only have been provoked by Las Vegas: In a lifetime of visiting museums and galleries, I have never once wondered if what I was about to see was real. So what is at stake in the Bellagio? And what does it tell us about viewing art? At the very least, real paintings constitute a critique of Las Vegas through the fact that they are real. To have installed a collection of real masters is already to have taken a step toward the transformation of Las Vegas from a theme park to something that addresses the "higher sensibilities" of people "who would not easily be fooled by advertising or hype." One outcome of such a transformation would be that the question of whether what one was looking at was real would be as taken for granted as it is everywhere else.
Wynn is impressed by the fact that "attendance at museums in the past few years has exceeded attendance at professional sporting events throughout the U.S.A." So presumably there are enough aesthetic pilgrims in the country (and elsewhere in the world--one hears dozens of different languages in Bellagio's lobby) to put Las Vegas on their map if there were a superlative collection of art to draw them there. But would enough of them come to Las Vegas ("of all places!") to justify assembling a collection that cost $300 million, let alone the expense of presenting and maintaining the art, and turning a profit besides? The question is not without substance. Las Vegas not long ago decided that "family values" pointed the way to profit. Thus the theme-park atmosphere, where factitious monuments can be thought of at once as fun and educational, and the inexpensive buffets--Las Vegas's contribution to dining--that make it possible to bring the kids along. It is fun, a kind of toyland full of crazy surprises, a Disneyland with slots. But the family-values crowd is not made up of big spenders or high rollers, and the profits have apparently not materialized. Besides, as Wynn observes, "All the old ideas of resort attractions have become, well, just old." Hence the bold idea of a gallery of fine art as an attraction, and hence the possibility of changing the whole concept of Las Vegas. Suppose that "under the circumstances of today's very competitive world leisure market" other Las Vegas resorts add galleries of their own? Already, the Rio has become a venue for "The Treasures of Russia"--real enough but objects of a kind compatible with the fantasized atmosphere of "Reality-Las Vegas," and hardly the classy drawing card the Bellagio Gallery aspires to be. The more such galleries the better, one might think. But can we imagine Las Vegas as a true art center, even if every casino were to follow suit and build a collection?