Neon is up in lights, again. The gaseous element whose glamorous glow has been appropriated by one artist after another since the 1960s is now crossing from contemporary art into every cultural field going. It pulses in the National Theatre’s hit Angels in America, shines ethereally white in the artwork for Arcade Fire’s Everything Now and gleams a sleazy violet in ads for Netflix’s wrestling comedy Glow.
Once neon symbolised vulgarity, sleaze, Las Vegas. Now it symbolises art. Artists have made luminous commercial signage so much their own that the new wave of neon in popular culture consciously apes that artiness. Arcade Fire’s album cover resembles Martin Creed’s white neon conceptual statement EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT. Ripoffs of – sorry, homages to – Tracey Emin’s confessional neons are also appearing everwhere: the other day I did a double take at the Old Vic theatre because the bar was full of Eminesque pieces of neon poesy. You have probably seen these increasingly omnipresent signs saying whatever someone pays a signmaker to say in shops, restaurants or your kitchen.
It is strange and paradoxical that neon is now so established as art that it can lend a whiff of aesthetic credibility to any context. Yet, for me, it still means the US. Luminous signs fill the American night, not just from casinos but every mall. And they are utterly beguiling.
Illuminated gas has a strange beauty, at once completely unnatural and oddly poetic in the way it mixes with twilit landscapes or city nights. Arcade Fire’s white neon in the desert captures that.
Neon is one of what Andy Warhol called “the great modern things” – a kind of lovely thing that can only exist in the modern world. Neon (Ne), the element, was discovered in 1898, on the eve of modernity. Artists did not invent its seduction and if they can use it, so can anyone. The more neon, the better the modern world will look. No…