Sunday, January 11, 2004

The people as patron

The Fountains in front of the Bellagio in Las Vegas gave me goose bumps again last night: hundreds of flood-lit fountains in a huge man-made pool dancing to Aaron Copland's Hoe-Down. They changed from lyrical to playful to exuberant. When the water shoots up to form a wall of white-lit water a city block long, it’s a visceral experience. It’s huge, and not just as a large chunk of your visual field; the physical scale is breathtaking.

And it’s free.

The choreography was exquisite, and I left with the spirit of the music ringing in my ears. So much for High Art being better than “low art”… Like so much at Las Vegas, it’s an expression of awesome wealth that would put a monarch of any prior age to shame. But it’s not Louis XIV’s Versailles – there is no single, rich patron.

It is all built on the money that 50,000 middle class Americans bring into the city every day. Anybody can walk through the shopping arcades that are more opulent than any palace I’ve seen – you don’t have to buy, and you don’t have to gamble (though you aren’t allowed to be indigent).

The wealth at the disposal of most citizens in the “developed” world is one of the ways in which we do live in special times. Perhaps we feel our era lacks cathedrals because we don’t notice that we’re surrounded by them. I’m sitting right now in a rather mundane circular airport terminal that nonetheless has a spatial presence and well-appointed comfort that Princes of earlier times would envy.

America does a very good job of hiding privilege. When you’re walking around the glittering casinos or eating in fancy restaurants, you are Everyman; all the thousands of other people are just like you. There must be high rollers, but they’re hidden from sight. There are no barbs that to remind you that you are inferior to someone else. It’s a one-way mirror; the truly affluent can see us, and we can’t see them. In earlier times, parades and processions showed the pomp of the ruling class. The guiding myth of society was that grades of rank were not only natural, but good. In our demotic era, the myth is reversed: equality is natural and good, and hints of a class structure are too dangerous to reveal.

No comments: