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The Paradox of Vegas

June 12, 2015

I left the glowing oasis that is the city of Las Vegas almost two nights ago, to venture off to some of the best national parks in the west half of the country. But since then, there's been a question that I couldn't get out of my head. (Well, there were several. But this is one of them.)

Las Vegas is a city famous for one, huge thing -- gambling. The Las Vegas Strip is lined with glowing towers of casinos that don't distinguish night from day, and the city itself is less of a residential area and more of a tourist attraction. There aren't too many cities like that in the world, and Vegas makes a good effort to drive that point home. From Bellagio's fountains to MGM Grand's Copperfield shows, the experience of Vegas is a sensory overload. And I say that aware of the colorful signs and loud music that fill the streets, but also for the less-than-clean grounds, hotel floors evident of the seemingly omnipresent smokers, and the general mood that the city exudes, which is far from the welcoming and quiet solitude of small towns that I've grown accustomed to. That doesn't necessarily make Vegas a "bad" city, whatever that means, but it does pull Vegas from being something we might call a good example of human creativity and culture.

To me, Las Vegas is a paradox -- a weird mixture of the peak of creativity and artistic culture coexisting somehow with the epitome of gambling and drinking.

While I spent the first two days with that impression of Vegas, I was taken by a welcome surprise when I got the chance to see one of the famous shows from Cirque du Soleil, a contemporary circus group responsible for hundreds of shows worldwide, with quite a few in Vegas. Spending the night at MGM Grand, we went for "Kà", which supposedly means "fire". I'll admit, I wasn't too excited for the show -- it was near the tail end of the things I looked forward to during the eleven-day vacation. But after seeing the show, it's hard not to be impressed. Not only is the choreography / gymnastics amazing, the soundtrack was just as fantastic (I listened to it for two hours after the show, until I fell asleep), the story and costumes / makeup were all topnotch. It was the kind of performance that defies the very notion that art forms have to have a "target audience" to make a lasting impression.

But afterwards, I was left with two, seemingly contrasting images of Las Vegas as a city. On the one hand, it was a bustling center of the peak of creativity and culture, showcasing the best of performing arts and technology. But on the other hand, my amazement at the show didn't erase any of my previous impression of the city as the world's premiere place for gambling -- and seemingly, smoking and drinking, as well. That was the paradox of Vegas. How could a city characterized by things that appear to be diametrically opposed to artistic culture and finesse also contain some of the finest examples of the arts?

That was the paradox of Vegas. How could a city characterized by things that appear to be diametrically opposed to artistic culture and finesse also contain some of the finest examples of the arts?

It's definitely a more complex question than I can attempt to answer in a blog post after a few hours of thoughts on the road, but here's my way of understanding the contrasting identity of Vegas.

There's a sci-fi novel by the name of Time Machine** by H. G. Wells, in which a scientist from the last century -- guess what? -- goes time traveling a few thousand millennia into the future, enough time that the human race supposedly has had enough time to evolve into something drastically different. In this futuristic society, there are two "races" of humans. The first, living overground, with decorated, pleasing appearances, tiny, fragile bodies, and a glazed-over kind of joy, is what we could call the "artistic" or "cultured" race. But underground, coexisting in a sadistic kind of harmony, is the "industrial" race of humans, living in the dark, roaming the nights, working with heavy machinery and practicing cannibalism towards the aboveground, "cultured" folks. It's H. G. Wells's commentary on industrialization, but in a strange way, I think it can also be a very apt description of how artistic culture can't really exist independently of the rest of society, especially capitalistic industry's financial horsepower.

The fact that groups like Cirque du Soleil and their shows, much more artistic than industrial or capitalistic, perform on the shoulders of ostentatious casinos like the MGM Grand or Bellagio is a testament to the reliance of the arts in our communities on the rest of the society.

In an ideal world and an economic utopia, the arts can exist and support itself financially on its own, without the help of donations, sponsorships, or money-driven backers from other industries. But that might not ever be possible in reality, and the fact that groups like Cirque du Soleil and their shows, much more artistic than industrial or capitalistic, perform on the shoulders of ostentatious casinos like the MGM Grand or Bellagio is a testament to the reliance of the arts in our communities on the rest of the society. Maybe that's a good thing, that the arts exists as a result of indefinite and unidirectional support from the rest of the society. But regardless, this paradox of Vegas seems to be what we're stuck with, at least for now.


* I'll say "watched", but perhaps "experienced" would be a better word here. As cliché as it may sound, the show isn't really a visual experience so much as it is a combination of seeing, hearing, and being in the presence of the action, somewhere in between a participatory magic show where everyone's a volunteer, and a musical with insanely complex choreography.

** Yes, there is a movie based on the book. Yes, I've watched it, and no, it's not at all an accurate representation of the book's ideas and events -- more of a "here's a cool concept; now run with it" kind of deal.