1999 Interview with David Hickey

Dave Hickey is a noted art critic, author of "Air Guitar," and is Professor of Art History at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. This interview was conducted by Lee Klein.


(Phone Rings)


Hello, Mr. Hickey. I just got my act together here, the phone is on record now

Ok. Just a second... got to check the phones here.

Hopefully this will work

Well, we'll hope it does.

Ok, I just tested it out on the blind guy.


Ok, so I'll just start, this interview is with Dave Hickey for issue #9 of "A Gathering of the Tribes". So I am going to ask the questions and you can answer what you want to.


Ok, In your writing on Las Vegas you appreciate it's authenticity or lack thereof in a camp syntax not unlike Susan Sontag... Is this how you see it?

Not Really. Vegas is a complex American city where people are a little bit more gregarious and are a little bit smarter than in other places. The city itself is more multicultural and a lot less class ridden than other places. It has the virtues of a gambling culture.

Ok. Umm... The multicultural aspect... which culture do you see as predominant besides the Mormons and the Jews... Mexicans? Probably?

Only in the last five years, the Hispanic community in Vegas is principally centered around Cubans who came here after Castro closed the casinos.

Oh wow!

There is no indigenous Latino community here. The building trades began bringing them here in the last ten years. So we finally have decent Mexican restaurants. The Asian community as best I can figure out is centered around a number of old families whose roots go back to Macao. Which again is a gambling culture.


Some, but the community is Chinese.

My father lives in Puerto Rico and sometimes it seems that every Chinese person there was in a casino.

Exactly, but again, but again this has changed over the years but the center of Vegas is the Jews and the Italians from upstate New York, Cubans from Havana, Chinese from Macao, Mormons from...

(Laughs) From Elmira, New York

No the Utah border is ninety miles... an hour and ten minute drive. That's why Vegas is here. It was originally a safety valve for Brigham Young's kingdom.

So what state was it (Vegas) in when Bugsy Siegel opened his casino?


What state... Was there a population there (Las Vegas) when Bugsy opened the Flamingo?

Yes, there was already mining, the Hoover dam complex, but mostly the gaming and the whoring were again a safety valve for the Mormons and then again also for the miners.

But there are Mormons who own casinos... Right?

No there are Mormons who own banks which finance casinos.

Isn't Steve Wynn a Mormon?

No Steve's a Jew. Steve Weinberg.

It seems as though in my questioning of you (Mr. Hickey) that you are obviously more educated on these matters than I so please excuse me if I am naive in my questioning.

It's okay... That's cool.

It seems to me Vegas is a vortex where things go out, go in, then come back out, an argument between the authentic and the inauthentic, nature and the ersatz, is that true ?

Well I don't know, I'm not sure what authenticity means.

Ok I'll skip that question.


How has Vegas changed since you first arrived and as with the gambling venues and then the mixed usage with family-oriented entertainment?

Well, the family oriented entertainment business here was mostly an idea of a bunch of East Coast M.B.A's who came in when the corporations began to take over the casinos during the Reagan years. it was one of those peculiarly Reagan-esque projects that didn't prove to be nearly as profitable or desirable as they thought it would be. Most of the major moves in the casino industry in the past ten years have been back towards the adult clientele.

How about dropping the theme of family entertainment and gambling. How has it (Las Vegas) changed just in general since you came?

Vegas in general? Well, it's a lot bigger. When I came here it felt like the edge of something and now it's the center of something. For the worse. It's gotten overcrowded. We're building twenty one grammar schools a year. I would say the political center because of all the white flight of people from California has shifted Las Vegas let's say marginally to the right. Vegas traditionally is a labor liberal city. It's like Brooklyn, it's not like a liberal, liberal city, like Cambridge (Massachusetts), but a labor liberal city. It's probably the biggest labor town left in the country. The culinary workers and the Teamsters are an important presence in the culture.

So, am I allowed to ask you questions about the Bellagio ?

Sure, If I feel like I can answer them.

Okay, with the Bellagio, not only does Las Vegas change but art changes in general with the museum or art gallery as sales mechanism. From a populist perspective: How do you see this development with your own views on democracy?

Well in a sense first of all, the interesting thing about having the paintings here in Vegas is that they make Vegas more like itself. In other words they make it more of a Mediterranean culture and Vegas already is a Mediterranean inasmuch as it is a culture of incarnation and spectacle. It makes the art more like it was when human beings owned it. Before paintings of fruit became beacons of civic virtues in Pittsburgh or Boston.

Right... right.

For me, it's really exciting. It really restores the sense of the object in the social world. For Vegas, it really just reinforces the general Mediterranean temper of the place.

The Mediterranean is not a similar climate, though?

No, I mean... Spanish culture, Italian culture, Greek culture, Jewish culture, I mean the cultures that surround the Mediterranean sea are the dominant forces in town here. Uh. With the possible exception of the Mormons who make the trains run on time of course (laughs).


This means it's not a text culture. It's an oral culture... meaning my friend who runs the collections at the university... his big problem is that he has lots of objects and lots of tapes. He has almost no text because things aren't written down, here. Things take place in conversation.

Wow, ok, the Bellagio is making personal interviews with some people, right? You know, hybrid exit polls that are somewhat determining what they are buying and selling. How do you see that?

What do you mean buy and sell?

You know like Steve Wynn sold his Jaspar Johns and his Rauschenbergs.

Oh no, Oh no (laughs).

And the Brancusi.

Steve Wynn is an art collector. Let's be very clear about this.


He's an art collector. I know what an art collector is. Steve Wynn is an art collector. He made a strategic decision. He sold one Jaspar Johns. He still has "Highway" which is a beautiful painting. He made a decision that the sort of schism, the sort of phase shift that America undergoes after the Abstract Expressionists does not make for a very good gallery hanging. In other words it's hard to hang Lichtenstein's "Torpedos Los!" in a room with a De Kooning. And so he decided to deaccession a lot of pop things and began acquiring painterly pictures from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries that would make the collection more coherent. Because it is easier to get from Reubens to De Kooning than it is from De Kooning to Warhol.

What about the Brancusis and the Giacometti, and the Franz Kline?

Well, to be honest, Steve doesn't much like sculpture. You know what I mean.

Sure, I don't know him.

It's just not his thing. He's basically a painting collector. And the Giacometti was stunning. The Brancusi, was sort of, I don't know, B plus. It was ok. The Giacometti was a great fucking sculpture and I miss it a great deal. But I've spent my life around the art world and there is one thing you have to tell yourself every day, "It's his collection". You know regardless of who you are working for: it's their collection.

The artist I thought in my own mind to be appropriate for Vegas was Giambattista Piranesi; For if I was watching Venice or Paris going up I would almost think...

Well, Vegas has done for architecture what easel painting did for art, it has rendered it mobile. (laughs).

What about the upcoming artists in the Vegas area? I was over there at U.N.L.V and I wrote my name and address in the guestbook and that guy who did the fiberglass gila monsters sent me some pictures in the mail. How are the upcoming artists.... I mean the artists who live in the Las Vegas area rather than the visitors responding to the new influx of art.

Well, let me put it like this. Now that there is better art to look at here, There is better art made here. The real thing is the real thing. It's an enormous boon.

What about the Rio hotel/casino showing the collection from the Peterhoff in a shopping mall in the middle of a casino?

I think it's ok. It's not something I'm particularly interested in. There was an interesting Van Loos over therein and one average Faberge egg. I am not particularly interested in 18th century European decorative art, although I know it very well. As far as exhibiting it, I thought it was fine. I believe works of art can survive their context. You either believe in context, you believe in superstructure you believe that everything within something is totally driven by context or you believe things and people can overcome their context. I tend to think things can over come their context.

I just wrote an essay on an artist where I dealt with those very issues. So I greatly appreciate that.

Huh? Right, I don't think that if I put a great painting in my living room, it worse because I live in Vegas or my living room is not up to snuff.


It's (the art) an enormous boon to this culture, I mean in a sense if you look at history of European and American art, art follows the money. We didn't have German art in the eighties for nothing, but because the Deutsche Mark was dominant.

But, sometimes though like when I was sitting under the Dale Chiluhly glass ceiling in the lobby of the Bellagio Las Vegas feels more like outer space than America.

Well since I live here I'm a sunshine boy, most of American doesn't feel American to me. Vegas feels like America to me. LA and Houston and New Orleans and Mobile and Miami feel like America to me. Pittsburgh feels like Bosnia.

Right, right.

Vegas has it's own tones. It's not outer space at all. Everybody gets up here and goes to work.

Well at the The Bellagio I felt like I was in outer space. I felt like I was on the holodeck of the starship enterprise.

Well, if you felt that way maybe you shouldn't go back. I spend a lot of time in Italy. I fly from here to Rome I haven't gone very far. I fly from here to Minneapolis. I have crossed vast genetic rifts and cultural barricades.


This interview was conducted by Lee Klein in the spring of 1999. Since that date, the Bellagio hotel has been sold by Mirage resorts under it's chairman Steve Wynn to the MGM corporation. MGM has chosen to divest itself of the part of the Bellagio collection owned by Mirage while Mr. Wynn has kept his works. Further Mr. Wynn has chosen to purchase some of the hotel's works as provided for in contractual agreements between the concerned parties.

Thanks to Hillary Maslon and Susan Yung for their help in facilitating this interview.