How Flashy, Trashy Las Vegas Has Played Muse to Artists
What, exactly, is Las Vegas? “A place where millions of suckers flew in every year on their own nickel, and left behind about a billion dollars. But at night, you couldn’t see the desert.” That’s Robert De Niro’s character from the film Casino (1995) talking about the city and the wasteland that surrounds it. Maybe more than any city in the world, Vegas evokes an engrossing bunch of images: Neon signs, roulette wheels, dead celebrities officiating wedding ceremonies, all working as one to dazzle tourists into surrendering their savings. The city is one big symbol for life, for America, for anything and everything else—and, as De Niro subtly suggests, it was designed to be not only lived in, but looked at.
Overwhelming, poetic, a feast for the eyes—why, then, has Las Vegas not left a bigger footprint in the visual arts? It’s hard to think of the
Maybe there’s a reason why relatively few of the notable artists whose work seems relevant to Vegas culture actually hail from Las Vegas: Its gushiest fans and sharpest critics tend to be passers-through. It’s not that the city lacks for homegrown artists—actually, it wouldn't be much of a stretch to say that Vegas’s whole economy depends on talented creatives, from musicians to dancers to gymnasts to comedians to magicians. But, in a city defined by dizzying extremes, outsiders’ gazes are likely to be the sharpest; they have an easier time recognizing the comedy, the pathos, and the unlikely democracy of life on the Strip.
Who, for example, is “The Audience” in Steadman’s disturbing, and genuinely obscene, illustration of the same name? The man and woman at the center of the image (patrons, it’s safe to assume, of a dirty movie) are too busy licking and gnawing at each other to notice what they’ve paid to see. That leaves only us, out here in the real world—and Steadman seems to be daring us to believe we’re any prettier than his pen-and-ink creations. In the cover illustration for Fear and Loathing, the two main characters drive off toward Las Vegas, which Steadman reimagines as a towering Emerald City, and we stare after them, unsure whether we’re heading for utopia or inferno, or which one we truly deserve.
The architecture of Las Vegas was clearly an important source of inspiration for Steadman and it’s arguably the city’s single greatest contribution to the arts. That, at least, was the thesis advanced by Denise Scott Brown, Steven Izenour, and Robert Venturi in their influential architectural treatise Learning from Las Vegas (1972), published a few months after Fear and Loathing hit bookstores.
It’s a mark of how stodgy American architecture was in the early 1970s that the authors spend a good chunk of their introduction merely arguing for their right to treat Vegas architecture, with its giant cowboys and cacophonous neon, as a legitimate subject. Thumbing their noses at the then-inescapable dogmas of
For in architecture, as in painting, as in literature, the monumental and the serious have for some time been losing out to the unpretentious and the self-aware—and on both counts Las Vegas enjoys a half-century head start on most of the rest of America. In his gleefully provocative essay, “A Home in the Neon” (1997), the great art critic (and long time Vegas resident) Dave Hickey makes the case for his city as the most refreshingly honest (!) place on Earth—and the birthplace of “the only indigenous visual culture on the North American continent, a town bereft of dead white walls, ficus plants, and Barcelona chairs—where there is everything to see and not a single pretentious object demanding to be scrutinized.”
Creative people from around the world continue to visit Vegas and revel in, or recoil from, its wild permissiveness, translating that permissiveness into books, films, drawings, paintings, songs. Meanwhile, Vegas just keeps being itself, indifferent to what anybody thinks.
Can it go on like this forever? Las Vegas has only been around for about hundred years; in that time its population has continued to expand, and for the last ten years it’s been more or less recession-proof. And yet its existence always feels precarious, dependent as it is upon a steady supply of gamblers willing to travel to the middle of nowhere and a steady supply of water brought in from God knows where. It’s hard to look at drought. Likewise for
It’s inevitable that most public artworks in Vegas emphasize their incongruity instead of trying to mask it (how could they blend in with the Mojave?). Insofar as Las Vegas has its own distinct aesthetic, it may stem from this very sense of incongruity—vulgar, brazen, with more than a touch of pathos. The Swiss artist
Maybe the most telling encounter between an artist and Las Vegas took place in 1968, when the land artist a set of concrete tubes arranged to block off different parts of the vast Utah horizon. When Holt came to Vegas fifty years ago, she was immediately overwhelmed: “It lasted for days,” she later said, “I couldn’t sleep.” She wasn’t talking about playing the slots, or seeing Elvis or Sinatra or Sammy. She was talking about the desert.