Fake Honesty, Honest Fakery

This morning on NPR, Daniel Schorr discussed the “fakery” of the fireworks and lipsynching of the Beijing Games, bringing to mind Dave Hickey’s examination of the authenticity through Las Vegas’s Liberace Museum, “A Rhinestone as Big as The Ritz“:

“[Friends who visit Las Vegas] prefer the page of the landscape to the text of the neon. They seem to think it’s more ‘authentic.’ I, on the other hand, suspect that ‘authenticity’ is all together elsewhere–that they are responding to nature’s ability to mimic the sincerity of a painting, that the question of the sunset and The Strip is more a matter of one’s taste in duplicity. One either prefers the honest fakery of the neon or the fake honesty of the sunset–the undisguised artifice of culture or the cultural construction of ‘authenticity’–the genuine rhinestone, finally, or the imitation pearl.” (Air Guitar 52)

Photo of the computerized footprint fireworks from the Beijing Opening Ceremonies, image by Kent News, from the Telegraph

The difference of note between Hickey’s sunset/neon dichotomy and the fakeries of the Olympic Opening Ceremonies is there is a clear divide between the former, while the latter is an honest fakery appearing as somewhat of a fake honesty. When the deception was revealed and the American public realized how, for a moment, the lines between fakery, honesty, and authenticity were momentarily eliminated within the visual culture they rely upon, emotional reactions ensued.

In contrast, eliminating the lines between authenticity, fakery, and honesty on The Las Vegas Strip are perfectly acceptable. While Vegas is honest in the sense that the rules of gambling are the same for all and do not change, in the realm of Art History, Las Vegas Boulevard is a strange world of references that cross time, space, and design on many planes. Yet, the recreations, replicas, and reconstructions on view are experienced by the public in a way similar to the way they experience the great masters of Art History found in the Louvre.

Caesars Palace was the true pioneer in adapting Art History for The Strip. Classic images from 1966 feature the replica of the Nike of Samothrace prominently displayed before the then-symmetrical casino building. Now, within Caesars’s multiple structures is a strange melange of eras of sculpture, ranging from over-sized Greek caryatids, to a full-scale replica of Michelangelo’s Renaissance David, to partial recreations of the Baroque Trevi Fountain.

Nike of Samothrace recreation, Caesars Palace, Las Vegas.

Since the emergence of the theme resorts on South Las Vegas Boulevard in the 1990s, The Strip has created its own Art Historcial survey (I have captured all that I could in two days and posted and tagged images of what I saw as a Flickr account for a quick and dirty reference) rooted in popular culture and the American tourist’s relationship with art. In a fashion almost identical to each replica and recreation’s original form, Vegas’s Trevi Fountain, Nike of Samothrace, Great Sphinx of Giza, and Piazza San Marco elicit hordes of tourists stopping briefly to pose in front of these recreated monuments. Some are labeled as though they are the original works of art (including information on the date, artist, and location of the original), while others look as though they are probably related to something important in some way, even if no one can identify any details rooted in reality. Unlike the Opening Ceremonies, however, few viewers are likely to be concerned to learn that the pose or date on the label of sculptures in Caesars Palace are incorrect in relation to the originals.

Andy Warhol. Triple Elvis. 1963. Aluminum paint and printer’s ink silk-screened on canvas. 82 x 71 in. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Gift of Sydney and Frances Lewis. Image from Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Then again, visitors to Las Vegas have always reveled in the inauthentic. Like Pop Art, the replicas and reproductions of The Strip often offer insight into popular cultural understandings that the original works cannot always provide. Warhol multiplied Elvis on canvas; Vegas multiples Elvis in person. The two are very different situations through their respective media, yet notions of excess and desire underlie both the icon Warhol mass produced and the detail to which Elvis impersonators in Las Vegas imitate the mega-celebrity for the masses.

Elvis impersonator, from bubbygram.com

The recreations in Caesars Palace offer other ideas to consider in terms of visual culture of the mainstream. Medium is privelidged, as evidenced by the compilation of marble figures within the Roman-themed casino. Marble suggests ancient art to most. Hence, it doesn’t seem to bother anyone that the statuary includes the Greek Venus de Milos, the Etruscan Nike of Samothrace, miscellaneous Roman relief imitations, the Renaissance’s David, and the Baroque Fountain of Trevi. Similarly, Trevi Restaurant is located beside a strange hybrid fountain that doesn’t seem to reflect any actual fountain, including the Trevi (the Trevi Fountain imitation does exist but is nowhere near Trevi Restaurant). At the same time, the recreations evoke the importance of marble replicas to ancient Rome, hinting at a scrap of truth among the chaos.

The strange grouping of the Caesars sculptures become even more interesting when considered in the context of the history of American museums. Art historian Carol Duncan describes the design of Chicago’s Art Institute in 1893:

“[The original design] borrowed not only from [the Louvre’s] dome but also its mosaic decorations (since removed but much admired in the late nineteenth century). The dome and mosaics were finally dropped, but the reference to the Louvre hung on the stair design and the plaster copy of the Victory of Samothrace that was placed on the landing. Meanwhile, the building’s exterior, a nineteenth century beaux arts version of an Italian Renaissance palace, quotes freely from the classical past, incorporating arcades from the Library of San Marco in Venice and pastiches of the Parthenon’s inner frieze.” (“Public Spaces, Private Interests”, Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums 51-2)

Art Institute of Chicago Grand Staircase, former site of the Winged Victory of Samothrace replica, image from the Art Institute of Chicago website

While some of the elements of the Art Institute Duncan describes no longer exist and the sculpture replicas are long gone from the galleries, the museum’s history reveals an unexpected tie between Las Vegas and reality. There is clearly a uniquely American appreciation for honest fakery that may not quite parallel the fakery responded to in terms of the Olympic Opening Ceremonies, but it can nonetheless be found in many other bizarre instances.