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Dale Chihuly, glass
installation at the Bellagio
Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada.

Bellagio Hotel, exterior view.
Go to a museum or an art gallery and notice how quiet it is. Walk through the doors and more often than not you plow into a dense wall of reverential hush. The kind you usually associate with cathedrals in the off hours, or bank lobbies even when there's a long line for the teller. It's an impressive but impersonal and blank kind of silence, broken only occasionally by odd sounds drifting over from the office, or active artworks and videos shaping their own acoustic environment.

Now frankly I've always liked an auditory pause in a house of art. It's a relief from the ongoing din of leaf blowers, cars, planes, cellular phones and boom boxes grinding against my eardrums everywhere else. I've welcomed the stillness with all it's implied baggage of upscale refinement signaling good taste. It was, I felt, the perfect backdrop for contemplating and appreciating art. But recently I spent a few days in Las Vegas and I'm beginning to think our L.A. showplaces for art are missing a bet in maintaining an unquestioned acoustic alliance with those bastions of conservancy--church and bank. Where in the institutional hush is the excitement art is supposed to engender? What in the dead ambient aural space hints at art's power to awe or woo?

These thoughts struck me as I stood in the Bellagio Casino lobby being blown away by two huge and colorful Rauschenberg paintings that flank the front desk and an amazing, glass disc encrusted ceiling by Dale Chihuly. I was stunned. The art was grand, the hotel's opulence was thick and everything seemed magnified by the fact that it was morning in a town that lives by night and there was almost no one else in the cavernous, glittering palace. Then I heard it--a sweet chiming sound coming from the casino behind me. I can't really call it music because it sounded like a cross between women's voices and the whir of electrical machines and though it flowed in a rhythm it was more an idling hum or cycling crescendo than money being gambled. It sounded for all the world like, well, like joyous anticipation, or the auditory equivalent of it anyway. Just the key to desire to wet a gambler's appetite.

Vegas knows the ins and outs of enticement, so it's not surprising to me to find subliminal auditory seductions embedded in the acoustic environment of a casino. What was amazing to me, however, was the unintended wash-over effect on the art in the lobby. It took a while but I soon realized the work I was looking at while I heard the casino's version of "good things happen" actually felt more satisfying. Not like I was looking at better art. I do think Chihuly's glass looks better outside, and good as they are, these are not among Rauschenberg's very best works. But I certainly felt satisfied with these pieces just as they were (actually, even my memories of them have a curious aura of intense satisfaction).

Subliminal manipulation aside, thoughts of a sounding art environment got me wondering if museums and galleries here in the entertainment capital of the world aren't neglecting something obvious by leaving their spaces silent. The mute, white cube showcasing art divorced from outside contexts is, after all, part of Modernism's aging axiom of a neutral site. But if Postmodernism and Structuralism have taught us anything it is that art is totally enmeshed in context, and galleries and museums especially are not neutral. Art's sites create contexts and shape social responses. Why else would museums around the world be spending millions on "golly-gee" architectural wonders that trumpet the importance of their collections? Why do thousands of viewers truck halfway around the world to see contemporary art bouncing new meaning off centuries-old buildings at the Venice Biennale?

Maybe it's time we thought about art's acoustic architecture. The work's backup music so to speak. Especially given L.A.'s ties with the entertainment industry. Visual audiences today are sophisticated and thirsty for information. They have been tutored by film, advertising and video to expect and process background information imbedded in music and sounds in order to clarify the ambiguity of what is seen or to contradict it outright. Artists themselves are increasingly using sound in their works for these very reasons. Why not the exhibit spaces too? Nothing overt mind you, nothing to compete with works that already voice themselves. I'm not talking about creating a voice-over, just a little ambient sound. An ambient sound with an attitude.

I like the idea of contemporary art getting a doo-wop backup boost that could kindle the receptive juices (Actually I think part of the attraction of the audio tapes viewers rent at many museum exhibitions is their voice-in-the-ear coziness that feels so personal but, more importantly, suggestively whispers that art is, after all, intimately knowable). Humans are so emotionally sensitive to sound I wonder if a gallery's stoic silence shouldn't give way to delicate audio signals. Of course I'm terrified by the possibility that my suggestion of a subtle, ambiant-attitude might get warped into a hail of fine art elevator music. You know, "music to view art by." I reel at the thought of having to view art while wading through a barrage of piped-in orchestras, perpetually babbling brooks or low playing mood tapes. So even bringing this subject up fills me with trepidation.

At the same time it strikes me that the visual arts could use further examination of accepted "givens" regarding site. To accept silence as a neutral aural architecture for museums and galleries, or prefer it just because there is so much room for abuse, seems negligent. If our institutions are not neutral, and white is also a color that carries social baggage, then maybe silence is not meaningless either. At least it should be examined, especially in a town devoted to animating visual culture.