I stumbled out of the Horseshoe Casino in a tired daze. It was the first breath of fresh air I had tasted in a little over 30 hours, rich with the stink and pallid, polluted taste of Vegas. Self-indulgent shame slapping you upside the head once again. I instantly imagined hitting a "life" rewind button, taking absurd backward's steps right into the casino and out again to a fresh shirt and an ass crack that didn't stick together. Like nothing had ever happened. At the very minimum, the manufactured, air-conditioned, aromatherapy, pure oxygen, euphoric air inside was better. It was a dirty trick, but I respected their "game" and kind of smirked.
I found a vacant bench in the center of the Fremont Street Experience, lit a cigarette and buried my face in my hands, rubbing the boogers from the corner of my eyes and giving them a much deserved rest. Being self-conscious about appearing pathetic, I awkwardly leaned back and stared up at the white metal canopy above which projected an audio/visual spectacle that I'm sure left viewers in complete awe back in the Nineties when it was unveiled. One of the songs in the spectacle's repertoire was The Who's, "Won't Get Fooled Again." Blasting out of strategically-placed speakers, Union Jacks and silhouettes of flowing long-haired rock-n-roller guitarists moved about the canopy amongst a barrage of colored lasers and artificial fog created with dry ice. How fucking ironic… Pete Townsend never had long hair.
Just as I was dropping my cigarette butt on the ground to extinguish it, I heard some commotion coming from behind me. I glanced over my shoulder, and a small crowd was forming in a walkway sandwiched between The Golden Nugget and the Four Queens. Wanting to see what all the ruckus was about, I stood up and made my way over. Standing far enough away as to not be an actual member of the group, I quickly realized what was going on: A young man dressed in ragged street clothes was hustling Three-Card Monte on the top of a cardboard box pedestal. His hands moved the three folded playing cards in an agile blur all the while jiving the onlookers with a speech that was just as disorienting as his hands were. But what was really amazing wasn't the actual spectacle but studying the faces of those in the crowd. You could see it in their eyes: this innocent glazed-over look of wonder and excitement as if they outran a sabertooth tiger or survived nearly falling into a ice crevasse hundreds of feet deep. A few of them were already pulling dollar bills out of their wallets and purses.
The world famous card manipulator, Ricky Jay, once said, 'The difference between being a magician and a hustler is a magician tells you you're going to be tricked while a hustler doesn't.' But what about Three-Card Monte? Anyone who knows anything knows how that story is going to end. You're not going to guess which card is the preverbal "red queen," and your pocket is going to be a little bit lighter as a consequence. Is it an "illusion" or is it a "hustle?" Because even though the one manipulating the cards knows you can't win so do you the minute you step up to that cardboard box pedestal because of the historical tradition and thousands of cultural references evoking Three-Card Monte. So what was even more amazing than the expressions on their faces was the fact that in spite of these impossible, unquestionable odds, the crowd was still more than eager to pay to play. They were paying for the "illusion," the "hustle" and the "Vegas story" to take back to their water coolers in places like Minot, North Dakota and Scottsbluff, Nebraska. In certain contexts, a good story can be worth millions of dollars. This couldn't be more true than in the art world.
Since the beginning, artists were always seen as magicians of sorts. The skill and power they held to create the illusion of a more-than-perfect reality was irrevocably intertwined with mysticism. Guilds were founded to keep trade secrets closely guarded, and a hierarchical system was put into place to make sure those secrets were also properly taught and passed down to the next generation. Van Eyck, Goya and Carravagio were the end result of this organization, and their two-dimensional illusions were revered and worshiped because of it. But how far down the rabbit hole does the illusion (or hustle) really go?
Awhile back, the English artist, David Hockney, proposed that many of the Flemish painters actually used convex mirrors and camera obscurasto project their subjects onto the canvas. Each day - hidden in a separate room of darkness - the artist would trace the projected image until he felt he had enough of a sketch to start painting. The artist truly was "the man behind the curtain," and he didn't want anyone paying attention to him or what he was doing. When Hockney first proposed this, the art world thought he was crazy. They thought of Hockney as some sort of revisionist historian trying to denigrate the "God-given" talents of such giants in art history. But Hockney wasn't trying to make a political statement. Rather he was just trying to expose and liberate the fact that artists are products of their time and want to use every tool at their disposal to serve their needs. Needless to say, Vermeer's studio was next to a lens maker who was a close friend and confidante of his.
Hockney's theory would eventually prevail against the dogma of the art establishment. Actual physical recreations of objects, such as the chandelier in Van Eyck's "The Arnolfini Marriage," were matched with precise accuracy to the original paintings with computer imaging. The chance of this all occurring entirely due to the artist's eye and hand is highly improbable. Next to impossible. Not to mention the infamous mirror centered behind the Arnofinis in the painting as if Van Eyck himself was giving a secretive wink to others "in the know" of the process he employed. "The Arnolfini Marriage" is now considered priceless and a national treasure. Hockney had exposed the hustle in a way but also added to the story. So where does the "illusion" end and the "hustle" begin?
When the modern era in art began in the mid-19th century, artists - specifically painters - had to now compete with photography. Their Classical and Renaissance aspirations for recreating perfect reality were shattered by a technology that could now do just that with the snap of a shutter. What used to take them months to create in the privacy of their sterile studios could now be accomplished in seconds. Their only alternative was to separate themselves from that ideal and redefine what putting pigment on a two-dimensional surface meant.
More than any other artistic movement in the 19th century, the Impressionist painters embody this change in ideals. The color palettes used and the brush strokes employed were completely conscious of itself to the artist and to the horror of the establishment viewer of the time. Monet didn't want the viewer to believe that what he was doing was recreating seamless reality but idealizing subjective reality itself. His own reality. And his own reality was wholly his own and not in the service of the church, monarchies or wealthy patrons. Art was now it's own idiom, and the "hustle" was no longer a man hidden in a dark room but exploited and cherished as such. The brushstrokes and color palettes swiped at the canvas were Toto's scampering little paws and curious gnawing teeth.
Harry Houdini, aka Erik Weisz aka Ehrich Weiss aka Harry Weiss, the famed escape artist and illusionist, grew up in a world not unlike any other: a world of hustlers and schlockmeisters. Seances, fortune tellers, psychics, spiritualists and medicine shows had sprung up in nearly every town and parlor across America. Unsuspecting people dumped their hard-earned money on the manufactured chance that their grief and misfortunes could be appeased by communicating with a dead Grandmother once more or gulping down some concoction with a little whiskey mixed into it. This horrified Erik.
As a result, Houdini spent the rest of his life exposing these charlatans for what they were. He attended seances in disguise with reporters and police officers. He joined scientific organizations with the same modus operandi as his own. He wrote books exposing the processes they employed to trick people with. He even proposed having his wife attempt to communicate with him after his death. The irony to all of this is a few con artists actually had the balls to say Houdini was just a "more powerful" spiritualist than the others, and that's how he was able to expose them. You just can't please - or displease - everyone I guess? As a side note, Moses employed the same tactic in Pharaoh's court with great, eternal success.
This thinking came to full fruition with the Abstract Expressionist painters. They completely disregarded figuration beyond the Impressionists to the point of just expressing what paint on a canvas meant. It wasn't an illusion. The materials alone stood on their own merits as being something to be examined. And it needn't be anything more than that. They believed their paintings should exist within a given space and not irrespective of it. The Abstract Expressionist painters had not only exposed the "illusion" but completely obliterated it. Perhaps this is the reason why so many viewers glance at the Pollocks and Rothkos adorning the walls of galleries and museums and exclaim, "Bah! I could do that!" and walk away without another moment's thought? The Abstract Expressionists visually explained the trick to the viewer. But, as a sick side effect, many viewers feel like the art, the gallery, the museum, the NEA, the government and the art world at large has "hustled" them in some way into trying to get them to believe that this is "great" art. Everyone loves a good story but not one that shows them the "illusion" or reminds them of the inevitability of themselves.
As I walked away from the crowd to finally change clothes and shower, I realized everything has an inherent "illusion," an inherent "hustle," and an inherent "story" attached to it with varying degrees. And the infinite success of these tricks rely on how far down the rabbit hole you're willing to plummet to experience them. For some, a simple exchange of money is more than enough. While others are more than willing to obsessively, absurdly devote their entire lives in pursuit of a legitimate - or illegitimate - abracadabra, hocus pocus, pull a rabbit out of a hat moment.
Even though it was the afternoon, the lights of Horseshoe Casino began to twinkle instead of blink. They turned to fuchsia instead of red and cobalt instead of blue. It could've been the way the daylight was mingling with the artificial light, but the sidewalks appeared to be a little cleaner too. A larger crowd was beginning to gather for the next hourly show under the canopied Fremont Street Experience. Their anticipating eyes were filled with wonder and excitement even though it could've all been made with cardboard.