Three Studies of Elaine Wynn

What Clark County students can learn from the purchase of a $142 million painting

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High-fives to Elaine Wynn, president of the state Board of Education, for donating $6 million to public education efforts in Clark County. It’s needed.

The money will go to a collaboration between Teach for America and Communities in Schools, and will provide more “wraparound services” for at-risk students. The agencies connect high school kids to health care, food, clothing, tutoring and career-exploration services.

In addition to donating $6 million to public schools, Wynn also recently paid $142 million for a Francis Bacon oil-painting triptych, “Three Studies of Lucian Freud,” at a Christie’s auction. It was the most ever paid for a work of art. The triptych is now on display at the Portland Art Museum.

Wynn, who of course made her fortune in the Las Vegas resort industry with her ex-husband, Steve, is also a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Art, which does not (yet) have a Bacon. Then again, neither does the Las Vegas Art Museum, which lacks certain other things, such as a building of its own. (Works from the museum’s collection guest star at UNLV’s Marjorie Barrick Museum.)

All of this got some of us thinking irrationally: What if Wynn spent the $142 million on the Las Vegas Art Museum? Or, as a philanthropist dedicated to education, what if she spent it on the Clark County School District? Sure, the potential return on investment might be a little unconventional—think of it as “return on community”—but $142 million would sure be a dreamy shot in the arm for the school district.

On the other hand, the district runs on about $2 billion a year, so the $142 million would fade faster than, say, a Francis Bacon. Public education, it turns out, eats money fast.

Nonetheless, it would be nice to educate the Valley’s students to the point where they can understand the president of the state Board of Education’s Francis Bacon painting. To start:

Becoming familiar with the artist Francis Bacon first takes the ability to differentiate between him (1909-92) and Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), philosopher, writer, English statesman and creator of the scientific method. From the philosopher Bacon we learn the history of the English monarchy, the foundation of the ideas behind the Restoration, the French Enlightenment, the creation of the English colonies and the dawning of the Industrial Age. Boom. That’s a nice chunk of education right there.

The subject of Bacon’s triptych, Lucian Freud (1922-2011), was the grandson of Sigmund Freud, father of psychoanalysis. In Sigmund Freud, they’d learn not just about the history of psycho-sexual theories, but hop from the Oedipus complex to Greek mythology and Sophocles; they’d learn about Nietzsche, Sartre, Jung, Lacan and decades of feminist theory—Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, Kate Millet.

Then consider the artist, the younger Bacon, and his subject, the younger Freud. Bacon’s dark, figurative work was often informed by themes of the crucifixion or the scream: “The feelings of desperation and unhappiness are more useful to an artist than the feeling of contentment,” he said, “because desperation and unhappiness stretch your whole sensibility.” Freud, whom Bacon considered a mentor and friend in a complicated relationship, was considered one of the best British artists of his time, and was also known for his discomforting figurative paintings.

And in order to appreciate the place of “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” in the art world, one needs to learn a little art history, which starts with cave drawings and branches into centuries of religious, political and aesthetic influences. Then there are the big questions: Why is art important to the world? Why is Jeff Koons brilliant? Why did someone buy Damien Hirst’s stuffed dead shark for $12 million?

Moreover, wouldn’t it be great for public education if there were a major, thriving non-Strip museum right here for students to see and study the painting?

So I commend Wynn for the $6 million donation to the wraparound services. I commend her ongoing involvement in education. And I’d love to see the cultural and educational temperature in Las Vegas rise to the level that would keep Wynn’s art interests in Las Vegas. Not sorry to be so provincial this time.