Build, Destroy, Repeat: The Art of Burning Man

At first glance, Burning Man appears to be a giant rave or party in the desert. This is what I used to think it was. Learning more about the people of Burning Man and their culture and interacting with some of them has led me to see the importance of the art behind this community. Their use of art would strike many as odd. For one, no one seems to be creating art to make money. There isn’t a “Burning Man Galleria” in a fancy part of New York. Most of the art made at and for the Burn is itself burned. A lot of work is put into art that is then destroyed.

Burning artists get to the point of art. They don’t do it for money or for everlasting fame. Art is for the aesthetic experience; it is made to be appreciated. Art like many things at Burning Man is a community experience. The work of art is enjoyed as a social group, bringing many individuals together in this experience.

Creating art used to be only for a few. The Renaissance greats had patrons who would support their massive projects. The patrons paid for the art to represent their magnificence and power. Burners look to the community for funding, and instead of opulence, the payoff is watching the piece burn. Art has been further democratized since the development of mechanical reproduction. There are factories that print out thousands of copies of the Mona Lisa, on postcards, shirts, etc. A hundred years ago, if you wanted to see this painting there would be a particular place and time the Mona Lisa would be at. If you weren’t at the art museum, you wouldn’t get to see it. Art, with the aid of mechanical reproduction, was democratized.

At Burning Man, the art is on display for everyone there. There is no cover charge or dress code and there far less of the bourgeois ideology that you might find at a ritzy art opening. This speaks to one of the criticisms of the democratization of art. Yes, anyone can appreciate the Mona Lisa and we all have access to the greatest works of art that used to be available only to the elite, but we can’t neglect the role of capitalism in this process. All those Mona Lisa replications are being created with the labor of workers and sold to consumers to make profits for a different set of elites. Burning Man finds a solution through its principle of decommodification. The art is enjoyed by everyone in the community, not sold as an object. This keeps the art democratic, but the piece of art is taken out of the cycle of exchange.

The aesthetics of Burning Man touch many other principles as well. The art is radically inclusive. Anyone can look at it, touch it, and sometimes write on it or interact with it. There is no dress code to enjoy the artwork. Sometime art at Burning Man can involve gifting, such as the yard sale camp we heard about. Radical self-reliance doesn’t seem to easily apply to art, but Burning Man art requires the artist to figure out how to be a self-reliant artist. There is no paint-by-numbers handbook for creating an art piece and then getting it to the desert. This ties into radical self-expression, at least it ties to the art we heard about in class. Each piece seemed to have a personal significance for the artist.

I mentioned above the communal effort to get large art projects funded, but even more so, art at Burning Man necessarily involves a community. Burning the art is a simple way to leave no trace, in an ecologically sense, but also in a larger sense the only trace left by the art is memories in the minds of creators and viewers. Participation is a component of many of the pieces at Burning Man. The viewer is urged to engage with the work in some way, rather than remain a passive spectator. And lastly, the art experience is immediate. It happens in the here and now, which has a power to bring people together. For example, in the Burners Without Borders documentary, we saw how inviting the community to create and destroy their art had a therapeutic effect on the entire community and helped keep them together. The fire tore the art apart before they tore each other apart.

James Funston is a fourth-year student at Portland State University, double-majoring in Philosophy and Psychology. In the Spring 2016 term, he created and taught a Chiron Studies course called “Beasts, Bots, and Beings,” which critically examined the narratives of animals, robots, and monsters in media and explored what the role of the nonhuman other reveals about human nature.

 

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