Art follows the money to Sin City, and Texas' most famous critic says it makes sense
It's hard to imagine The Persian Robe, by Henri Matisse (on view at The Wynn Collection of Fine Art), on the same glitzy bill of fare as prize fights and showgirls, but Las Vegas has added such masterpieces to the colorful chaos of its legendary Strip nonetheless. So why does gawking at Gauguins between roulette wheel spins feel as if it makes complete sense? To find out, it seemed like a good idea to check in with Las Vegas' very own art pundit in residence, Dave Hickey.
"Las Vegas is a gambling town - it's about risk and spectacle, and that's what art's about," drawls Hickey, 62, over a Mediterranean omelette at the Peppermill, a '70s-style restaurant and bar. "It's not particularly surprising to have, say, the Steve Wynn Collection or the Guggenheims here - art traditionally follows the money, and you'll find some of the best paintings in the world in those collections. But unlike most of America, Vegas aspires to be a condition of art in itself - it aspires to be an interesting, visible place, which means that art in Vegas is not interesting because it's different, it's interesting because it's here."
If you happen to hear the jangle of a slot machine pay-off while taking in a Picasso, that's just fine with Hickey. "Art makes Vegas more like it is," he reasons, "because it's the most intense expression of the aspiration of this city. And Vegas makes art more like it was, in the sense that when looking at art here, you can get an idea of the rough vitality out of which these Van Goghs, Cézannes, and Monets came. These paintings weren't meant to be fancy museum art, they were made to be art for the new rich, so when you see them in the context of Vegas, you really get a sense of their original purpose."
Hickey is widely considered one of the world's most influential and original art critics, and he challenges the tweedy conception one might have of a MacArthur "genius" grant recipient (he was awarded one in 2001). A highly irreverent Texan, he looks not unlike the animatronic "living sculpture" of Bacchus in Caesar's Palace (albeit habitually clad in a NASCAR jacket and baseball cap), and is rarely seen without a strong cup of coffee and a freshly lit cigarette. He has called Las Vegas home for the last 10 years, teaching art at the University of Las Vegas where he has coached a number of students to cutting edge art star status: Sush Machida Gaikotsu, Reverend Ethan Acres, and the artist known as Yek, among others.
"An artist's idea," considers Bavington, "is often a proposition for what the world wants more of or lacks, and for me that's big colorful experiences, and Vegas does that for me as a city more than a lot of other places. Vegas is American culture pure and simple - it's crass and tasteless aspects I don't think of as bad, they just are."
"Vegas is the '70s with valet parking," adds Hickey. "It's old-time exciting, frontier America, and it doesn't have a country club culture at the top, and no established cultural institutions, so in a sense, that's quite liberating for artists - there's nobody telling you what you should or shouldn't do here."
This unfettered spirit is perhaps best reflected in Las Vegas' shows, such as Cirque du Soleil's water-themed O (an imaginative hybrid of Heironymous Bosch, Salvador Dali, Federico Fellini, and Esther Williams), which cleverly pushes the boundaries of theater using millions of dollars of no-holds-barred special effects.
"Vegas shows are much more about performance art than anything else," points out Hickey. "They're not really about stories, they're about atmosphere and excitement. Certainly, the more you know about Wagner, the more you can enjoy Siegfried & Roy, and if you like Jacques Tati then Mystère makes perfect sense, but Vegas is genuinely for everybody, and its shows are free enough in their references that different kinds of people can respond to them. They're not exclusive, and my feeling about art itself is that it's not exclusive. You don't have to have a Ph.D. to look at a Cézanne - art may be an occasion for education, but an education is not a prerequisite for looking at art."
But is art in Las Vegas there to stay, or will it vanish into the thin desert air like one of Siegfried and Roy's white tigers? "I think Vegas might vanish," chuckles Hickey. "They want to put a nuclear waste dump near here and the federal government wants to tax gambling earnings, so if those things happen Vegas is pretty much through." •
Dave Hickey is author of Air Guitar (Art Issues Press), a collection of engaging essays on subjects ranging from Norman Rockwell to Siegfried and Roy.