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."