Art Historian Explores the Transformation of Art into Cultural Currency

KPU instructor Dorothy Barenscott’s studied Las Vegas to explain how consumerism affects art

Jeff Koons, Popeye (2014) sold to Steve Wynn for 28 million US Dollars and exhibited at Wynn Encore. The discussion around this inspired Dorothy’s research. (flickr/Thomas Hawk)

As part of the ongoing Art Lecture Series at KPU, art historian Dorothy Barenscott gave her talk, “What Happens In Vegas…”, at the Surrey campus on Jan. 16. The lecture focused on the changing cultural landscape of Las Vegas, which Barenscott says serves as a microcosm of the western art world.

Barenscott has extensively researched entrepreneur Steve Wynn and his role in revolutionizing Las Vegas into the indulgent, pseudo-bourgeoisie, larger-than-life weekend experience it has become.

“I don’t want to give [Wynn] more attention than he deserves at this point,” says Barenscott, most likely alluding to the many allegations made against Wynn over the course of the #MeToo movement. “No matter how you look at it, no one has gone to Vegas in the last three decades without experiencing [Wynn’s] impact on the experience.”

In the 80s, Vegas became somewhat of a tacky and forgettable tourist trap. Wynn had something bigger in mind for the city. Towards the end of the decade, he opened The Mirage, a luxury hotel and casino which changed the Vegas experience into one of luxury, high class, and irresistible extravagance, however fleeting it may be.

Barenscott’s fascination with Wynn’s impact on the art world began when she vacationed at the Encore, located at the heart of the modern day Las Vegas strip. In the lobby of the hotel, Barenscott noticed the ostentatious artwork Wynn had displayed there—a colourful installation auctioned at $34 million.

Displaying expensive pieces at such accessible locations began to profoundly affect the way that people interacted with art. In Barenscott’s words, the “shamelessly Instagrammable” qualities of the Jeff Koons installation (opulent, shiny, and large in scale) starts to “dissolve the lines between high and low culture.” Many of the installations Wynn had chosen to display shared these qualities. For instance, he often chose pieces that included reflective surfaces, “which makes it impossible not to see yourself in the artwork, further consuming the viewer into the luxurious Vegas experience Wynn had envisioned.”

“A demand has been created for art that is decadent, indulgent, with the illusion that this isn’t costing you or the culture anything,” says Barenscott. “Art collectors and historians have historically determined what ends up in the artistic cannon of an era. Power is being taken away from them by entrepreneurs like Wynn, and art has been heading toward a more bankable future.”

Barenscott went on to discuss how Vegas is rarely taken seriously as a cultural destination, and yet is ironically accurately representative of a culture that sells you on the “American Dream,” or the idea that you can have it all.

“But not for very long,” she adds. “Only for the weekend. And don’t pay attention as we take all of your money. We’ll take all the clocks off the walls so you don’t know how long you’ve been gambling. We’ll pump the room full of oxygen so you can stay awake much longer.”

Barenscott adds that, personally, she “loves” Vegas, but notes how easy it is for people to lose themselves there. For artists, the city can have a serious consequences on the work they create.

“Vegas is a prime example of how, spatially speaking, everything is being reassembled,” she says. “Artists are going to be at the forefront of that, making what is invisible visible,” she says. “The ways that cultural changes are deceiving and manipulative—make it part of your art. You’ve never had as much of a hand in branding yourself as you do today, so be excited about that. What message are you going to send?”