Neon’s vogue was brief, however, reaching its height in the 1930s. In some ways, it was a victim of its own success. Perceived at first as a symbol of prosperity and security, neon’s ubiquity soon began to suggest a society devoted to “surface” and “spectacle.” Theodor Adorno thought neon emblematic of the mass production of experience and presented art as the antidote: “The more the all-powerful culture industry seizes for its own purposes the principle of illumination and corrupts it in the treatment of men for the benefit of the perduring darkness,” he writes in ”The Philosophy of New Music,” “all the more does art rise against this false luminosity.” For Adorno and others, neon was a symbol of false enlightenment and the reduction of the modern world to mass-produced commodities — although, ironically, neon itself was an artisanal product, handcrafted in individual workshops. At the peak of its popularity, there were over 5,000 neon workshops throughout the United States.
But for many, neon signs indicated not just products, but possibility. Nowhere was this more apparent than in Las Vegas, where neon routinely transformed the prosaic into the fantastic. Almost every surface emanated something tempting and improbable, suggesting the unlikely existence of the city itself. Neon “set the city ablaze,” in Ribbat’s words, making it into an enticing mirage in the desert of American culture, inviting irony and interpretation. An account of a trip a group of Yale students made to Las Vegas in 1968, “Learning from Las Vegas,” published in 1972, caused a worldwide reassessment of the city’s landscape. They highlighted the artistry involved in making neon signs, comparing Las Vegas to both Versailles and Rome. Neon, for these scholars, represented a rejection of a culturally determined sense of what is good and beautiful, and an invitation to find significance in the formerly negligible and sordid.
Ever wonder what happens to all those neon signs that line the Las Vegas Strip when they’re taken down? They end up at the Neon Museum! The Neon Museum is a non-profit in Las Vegas dedicating to preserving Las Vegas’s iconic art form, and it’s a must-visit spot for great Instagram photos!