Books

One Bag, One Month, Two Books: Michael Cunningham on Art World Angst & Learning from Las Vegas in Vegas

"Vegas (after Toulouse-Lautrec's 'Ballet Dancers')" (2009). Las Vegas as seen by nightfall from a room in Mandalay Bay (photo by author)

With a month on a plane, I had boredom on the brain and packed what books I could to feed it. The worst decision I have made to date was to bring Michael Cunningham’s latest novel By Nightfall with me and read it over the first few days of jetting. This was my worst decision because the book’s protagonist, Peter Harris, is an art dealer suffering from a crippling bout of nihilism and, when you’re setting out from New York City to look for what’s happening elsewhere in the art world, the least helpful thing to bring along is a book busy interrogating everything that underpins the creation, enjoyment, and dissemination of contemporary art. But I read on, attentive to detail in a fit of masochistic idiocy, and because I had room in my backpack for two books and the other one I brought was Learning from Las Vegas, which I wanted to save, of course, for Las Vegas.

By Nightfall By Michael Cunningham
256 pages. $25.00. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. September 2010. on Amazon

By Nightfall is a nocturne — a book written in a minor key and a twilight mood. It’s sad piano music. It’s all violins and slow motion. And it is reaching for that pendulous kind of melancholic beauty that novels are good at. It is also Michael Cunningham, as a writer, trying to make sense of art world business antics and restlessness.

Its action unfolds over about a week’s worth of dramatic scenes and streams of consciousness, packing every moment, but especially the long stretches of internal monologue between dramatic scenes, with mildly tortured characters who have bad habits that allow for many typically introspective Cunningham sentences.

Sketching the family dynamics helps give a sense for what a week spent in this world is like: Peter, 44, is married to Rebecca Harris, 41. They have one estranged child named Beatrice (Bea for short), who has dropped out of Tufts to be a hotel bartender. Bea lives with a spinster who may well be as old as Peter or Rebecca in some Boston apartment with shag carpeting, and only turns up in the pages of the novel over the phone or as a source of discomfort. Mizzy, short for “Mistake” — an affectionate nickname for Rebecca’s kid brother — has come to stay at the Harris loft. The only problem is Mizzy is a drug addict just back from staring at rocks in Shinto temples in Japan and he wants “to do something” in the art business; he also happens to make Peter wonder if he’s gay for his wife’s kid brother. Uh oh.

Peter, the character in whose head I spent the first few days of my trip, does a lot of going through the motions with Rebecca, his wife, and fretting about being a failed father. He alternatively finds comfort in these things or feels guilty for them. By day, tending to the “ten thousand things” that constitute work, he is a beauty-mongering mid-level Chelsea gallerist (in the acknowledgements we learn that Jack Shainman talked to Cunningham about the day to day grind of art market wrangling).

By night, Peter lives with Rebecca in a SoHo loft bought back when one could still be bought for less than a soul. For dramatic flair, Peter is an insomniac with a drug-based back-to-sleep ritual that involves waking up at 3am every night and, usually naked, standing dramatically in front of his SoHo loft window downing a Klonopin with a glass of vodka while staring onto Mercer Street cobblestones thinking deep thoughts like this:

New York is probably, in this regard at least, the strangest city in the world, so many of its denizens living as they (we) do among the unreconstructed remnants of nineteenth-century sweatshops and tenements, the streets pot-holed and buckling while right over there, around the corner, is a Chanel boutique. We go shopping amid the rubble, like the world’s richest, best-dressed refugees.

So, you know, it’s pretty and it’s full of insight and sinuous phrases, and it reads like a breeze because Cunningham is one of the best and as a novelist, I’m sure Cunningham knows that all he needs is a room of his own. But the spartan requirements that a writer needs to produce art differ greatly from those of a young artist, and sometimes Cunningham takes an angsty backhand to the art world, as he does questioning Bushwick’s ability to produce the art America deserves. Moments like these feel unearned, attacks that are, well, too tetherless and nihilist to pose its question well. Hopefully, this compendium of forty-four year old art duke thoughts is just a quick jaunt to the Grand Hotel Abyss, and not an extended stay.

Learning from Las Vegas By Robert Venturi, Steven Izenour, Denise Scott Brown
193 pages. $23.95, MIT Press. June 1977. on Amazon

En route to the city that takes Sin as a pet name, I realized that Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown gave their architectural classic a name that might, from a few feet away, make it look like a gambling self-help guide. Or maybe a book about spiritual improvement through neon chapels, second hand smoke, and one-armed bandits. This might be how the people sitting next to me saw it, thinking the route to spiritual guidance through Vegas the most natural thing in the world between their dealt hands of digital blackjack practice on an expansive, widescreen laptop that should really have had its own ticket.

That’s not explicitly what Learning from Las Vegas is, but it’s not too far off the mark, really. Learning from Las Vegas, published in 1972, revised in 1977, and revived in an exhibition at the Yale School of Architecture last year, is the byproduct of a study group of Yale Architecture students led by architectural power couple Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. The group traveled to Las Vegas to take notes and write a kind of combination style guide and design manifesto.

The vernacular architecture of Las Vegas, they argue, with its eye turned toward the commercial much more than best design practice, yields a new kind of monumentality. A built space that does everything it can to entice, enrapture, and stimulate its visitors. To maximize air conditioning efficiency, the ceilings are low, a characteristic that creates an intimacy at the slots or the poker table; an intimacy that suggests you’re safe from the heavens here on the casino floor. And to maximize casino floorspace, these rooms extend, it seems, forever, snaking across the desert in a labyrinth that every stop you want to make, no matter where it is, is always on the other side, across the web of casino. Las Vegas is, in fact, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City realized — not by Wright the Master or his acolytes of Taliesin (East or West), but piecemeal and inadvertently by a bunch of gambling kingpins with something else in mind.

Las Vegas, since I first drove through it and stayed for only a few hours, is a city afflicted by the oldest problem in cartography: how do you take a oblate spheroid like earth and flatten it without distortion onto a two dimensional, desert surface? But the problem that plagues Vegas is more complicated than that by a whole dimension. Las Vegas isn’t actually interested in translating a sphere onto a plane at all. It is interested in remaking the entire world onto a thin, bent line of 12-lane, median-divided road that has come to be known as The Strip.

The New York, New York Hotel and Casino. Does it matter whether it makes you feel like you're in New York, or is it more fun to be in the Las Vegas version of New York City anyways? (photo by author)

The Strip is perhaps the most complete realization of a particular American urban ideal. It is a city-sized gesamkunstwerk; an agglomeration of dreams collected and built; it’s Disneyland with booze, slots and boobs; it’s Broadacre City without the Wright guys. It’s Venice for less, Paris yet somehow more, New York squared, Egypt, a needle to the sky and Rome all at once; Las Vegas is the mirage boom-town of twentieth century American innovations, degradations, and predations.

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Homepage image courtesy flickr.com/roadsidepictures

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