The Bellagio, Steve Wynn's new $1.8-billion Las Vegas casino, opens today -- Oct. 15, 1998 -- and already the pull of $285-million worth of art on display there is next to irresistible. Is Wynn's fabled art collection just a lure to coax gamblers into the wacko desert playland and rob them blind?
But maybe this idea is off base. I decided to call the Las Vegas-based art critic Dave Hickey, who wrote two essays for the Bellagio Gallery of Art catalogue, and whose wife, art historian Libby Lumpkin, was hired by Wynn as curator of the Bellagio Gallery collection.
AF: Is the Bellagio Gallery of Art going to change Las Vegas?
DH: I think it will make the city better, and more like itself, unlike, say, the Mellon Collection which made Pittsburgh better and less like itself. Although people in New York were upset about that, too. Mellon was absconding with these great paintings! Taking them off into the wild west, where they would doubtless be unappreciated and damaged by steel smoke.
AF: But, I keep having this idea that Wynn is using the art as a way to try and get me out there to gamble.…
DH: Well, art and gambling are both risky activities, but they're both matters of choice. Maybe Mr. Wynn will get some art lovers into gambling. Maybe he'll get some gamblers into art. After all, you can choose to do neither or either, they don't hold you down and stick it up your nose.
AF: Maybe that's just my seduction theory.…
DH: Those who can be seduced will, but you either think people are moral instruments or you don't. Speaking for myself, I like gambling. It's a good way of reminding yourself that things don't always work out the way you want -- but sometimes they do.
AF: Is it all ultimately about bringing people into gamble?
DH: Well, the Bellagio is a business, but the collection is a major one and it reflects Steve Wynn's enthusiasm for art. I'm delighted to have it here -- delighted I will be able to visit it in the evening - and delighted with the prospect of looking at art in a permissive, Mediterranean environment rather than an unctuous Congregationalist kunsthalle. Vegas is an iconophile town, maybe the only one in the U.S. It's about risk and spectacle, so art doesn't need to be segregated from the rest of the environment here, as it does in puritan enclaves like New York and Boston. Left to its own devices, I've always found that good drives out bad, so the art will probably help. It certainly doesn't require the kind of white jails that art does in the cities of the north.
AF: But what about the idea that Wynn has taken the icons out of the art church and put them into the money church.…
DH: Well, if you can't tell the difference between money and art, if you can't recognize art when you see it and require an institutionalized priesthood to recommend it to your attention, that's your problem. Degas and Matisse were pretty good painters before they sold anything. They were pretty good painters when their works were nothing but commercial commodities, and they're still pretty good painters in a casino. The museum doesn't do anything to that value. In fact, the real task of institutions like the Museum of Modern Art is not to save art, but to control its effect and localize its power. So the powers-that-be can control our view of it and our attitude toward it, rather than having all that chaos and contingency loose in the culture.
AF: So you'd say that the art in Bellagio is part of a loosening up?
DH: I would hope so, Monet and Miro have more to do with Vegas than they do with New York. And anyway, by the standards of contemporary institutional culture, this is not even art.
AF: What do you mean?
DH: What I mean is that, in the present moment, the abject idea is art. Hans Haacke is art, Fluxus is art. These foolish objects here in Vegas are nothing more than fetishized commodifications of late-Capitalist desire. So you should be saying: good riddance! Let the degraded classes of the west languish in the seduction of their decadent hegemony. Right? In any case, we're happy to have them.
AF: You mentioned Wynn's generosity. But all the artwork in Bellagio is for sale!
DH: Well, it's there to be seen. Works of art only accrue in value when they are seen. If they acquire enough value, someone usually buys them. Paintings and sculpture are portable property, you can't deny that. Still, I don't think my experience of Ellsworth Kelly's paintings in 1962 was any less genuine for taking place in Sidney Janis' gallery. Those of us who care will look at art where we find it. The Jasper Johns' in the Bellagio Collection was in a private room in Japan before Mr. Wynn bought it. The Pollock was in a vault in Zurich. Now, they're out there to be seen -- unlike the hordes of Picabias in the vault at the Modern, or the Bradley Walker Tomlins that also reside there -- and will continue to reside there while the Modern (which is more market-driven than Macy's) puts up one Picasso show after another. For our own good, of course. In fact, the main difference between Mr. Wynn's Picassos and the Modern's Picassos is that Steve loves his. He wants us to look at them. No one at the Modern believes in Picasso anymore. They just want to make a buck.
Neither Mr. Wynn's interest in Picasso, or the Modern's lack of it, counts for anything, however.
Parsing intentions is a national sport of these days, but in the realm of exhibiting art, only the consequences matter. Unfortunately, we really care less about good art these days than we do about those good intentions.
AF: Why do we care so much about that?
DH: Because we're a nasty little puritan republic. For the last ten years, the whole power-structure of this country, left and right, with the (possible) exception of the President, has embarked upon an hysterical jihad of puritan scolding -- and that includes the press.
...And you say that everything's for sale here, but everything is for sale everywhere.
AF: But not in a museum!
DH: You don't think so? You really don't think so? I've been in the art world for 30 years. Everything is always for sale. Fortunately, money is only the way we measure the value of art. It's not how that value is defined. It's defined by our willingness to waste money on something we value more.
AMY FUSSELMAN is a New York poet and writer.