Las Vegas has long been known as the place where once-cool performers go to die slow, campy deaths (think Sinatra) and where never-hip singers build inexplicably large, devoted followings (think Wayne Newton). Since last summer the city of showgirls and Siegfried & Roy has also been home to an altogether different sort of act: the critically acclaimed and wildly popular performance art of Blue Man Group.
At first blush, cutting-edge sensibilities and crass commercialism may seem a strange combination, but it's a wholly sensible, and enjoyable, pairing. Indeed, one of the great appeals of Blue Man Group is the way in which it blurs categories once thought mutually exclusive, including such hoary art-world dyads as artistic success vs. popular appeal and the avant-garde vs. the mainstream.
Twelve times a week at the Egyptian-themed Luxor hotel, some 1,200 tourists take time off from the roulette wheel and pay as much as $75 to watch three bald, cobalt-blue figures throw food, eat Twinkies, and play giant musical instruments made from PVC piping. In oddly memorable vignettes, the blue men, who never speak while on stage, construct a marshmallow sculpture (and slap a $4,000 price tag on it), compete in raucous, oversized drumming competitions, and conduct cheeky, multiple deconstructions of Jefferson Airplane's anthem of adolescent drug use, "White Rabbit." Another part of the show uses electrifying music and a splashy light display to explore what sound might look like if we could see it. Each performance begins and ends with audience participation (including the unfurling of thousands of feet of crepe paper).
Blue Man Group was created by Matt Goldman, Phil Stanton, and Chris Wink, and debuted about a decade ago in New York. Since then it has been awash in critical acclaim. The New York Times called the group's performances a "deliriously antic blend of music, painting and clowning," and an "ingenious downtown hit." These days, the group is best known for its stylized Intel Pentium III television commercials, in which members fling themselves at walls, slather themselves in green paint, and disappear through floors. Not surprising for an act that appears in TV ads, Blue Man Group is not shy about marketing itself, hawking everything from coffee mugs to keychains at their shows and on their Web site (www.blueman.com). To keep up with demand, there are now about 30 blue men, spread around the country, playing sold-out, permanent performances in New York, Chicago, Boston, and most recently Vegas.
Though the show they've created is exhilarating, Blue Man Group's relatively rare combination of critical and popular success is a spectacle in its own right. Not many artists are able to pitch computer chips on TV, thrill crowds in Vegas, and still keep the esteem of the New York art world. Yet the group has done so with seeming ease. A December article in the Village Voice posed the question inevitably asked of all serious artists who manage to make a living off their work: "So, did they sell out?" The Voice's verdict: "Not at all."
In fact, the Blue Man Group's drums are drowning out a sacred tenet routinely invoked by romantic artists: that commercial reward only comes at the expense of artistic integrity. For the group, there's simply no opposition between the two. Like Warhol and even Picasso before it, the troupe has smartly navigated the endless channels of cool that capitalism creates, and has given an audience something worth paying for. Their ads for Intel, a company with a stake in hipness, are less product endorsement and more prime-time performance art. Similarly, the group's new residence in Sin City plays to the postmodern embrace of kitsch, camp, facade, and, most of all, fun.
On the Vegas Strip, it's the glowing mainstream reception that is perhaps most surprising. Performance art is notorious for its inaccessibility and elitism—when tourists in Manhattan see a show, it's Annie Get Your Gun, not the latest offering from Karen Finley. The audience's enthusiasm for the engagingly alien Blue Man Group suggests that we are living in a time and a place where being weird is not only cool, but a selling point.