Burning Man inspires creativity because it gets past “art”

Nice art. Photo by David Gaya

I heard this story from a woman I met over the weekend, who lives in Hollywood.

One of the many drones who flies around the City of Dreams with the label “writer/actor/producer,” she had finally gotten her shot with a project she’d worked up from scratch and managed to pitch to people who can make things happen.  It came from her heart, and they loved it.  Show runners with standing were on board, and the ink was wet on the contracts.

This was in 2006.  When the writer’s strike hit, everything stopped.

Everyone who had a lifeboat took one.  When the strike was over, all the people who could make things happen were already attached to other projects.

Here’s where the story gets interesting.  Of course she picked herself up and tried again.  That goes with the territory:  tourists are the only people in Hollywood who don’t expect to be regularly shot down like a marriage proposal to a stripper.

She got some more meetings and pitched her story again.  But something had happened.  “Just listening to myself,” she told me, “I could hear that it was different.  There was no more passion in my voice:  I was telling my own story, explaining my own creation, like a stranger.”

Nobody picked it up.  Why would they?  Somehow she no longer believes in it either.  Something about the way it had been lost the first time had killed her passion for it the second.

She doesn’t understand why.  She’s not sure what to do about it.  It’s a fascinating conundrum.  It’s got me thinking about the nature of creativity.

Creativity is celebrated at Burning Man.  People go to extraordinary lengths to bring their art to the playa and put tremendous effort into antics and whimsy once there.  In this atmosphere the rest of us do things we would never otherwise do;  inspiration hits, memories are made, lives are changed.

Yet creativity is also oddly taken for granted.  Yes, sometimes art pieces suck … quite a bit, actually … and some projects never make it.  Yet there’s really no concern that inspiration won’t strike somewhere:  no fear that we’ve run out of new ideas.  Nobody’s worried about coming to Burning Man and not having something amazingly unexpected happen.

For all that we encourage artists, nurture artists, support artists, celebrate artists, we’ve done remarkably little thinking about what the creative process at Burning Man is, and how it’s different from creative expression elsewhere.

To my mind it is different.  Significantly different.  In ways we may not like to admit.  Burning Man’s culture and approach is great for creativity, but terrible for art.

In the default world “art” is a ghetto for creativity.  It’s where we put it.  By holding up art as the legitimate avenue of creative expression, it is devalued it in other areas of life – creativity belongs here but not there.

By creating a wall of separation between what “artists” do (which is creative) and the rest of us do (which is not) we drain creativity form our own lives.

These are the basic assumptions, the basic rules, of the world we live in.

And most of the time, I’m okay with this.  Art is aristocratic, not egalitarian:  talent is not evenly distributed and the effort to learn artistic craft counts for much.  Some people truly are better artists, and some people are better at using the artistic talent they’ve got.  The rest of us are kept in line by their brilliance, which is justified by a sense of our own inadequacies.

But amazing things happen when those distinctions, real and meaningful as they may be, are put down for a while.  When we view the artistic capacity and brilliance of others as an invitation to play – however we can – rather than to sit and watch,  creativity becomes valued as part of every aspect of life.  You dressed yourself!  You designed a shower!  You decorated your bike!  You put on a raccoon outfit and prowled around at night!  You pretended to work for Playa Info!  You passed out orange slices!  You said “Hello” in a way no one ever has before!  Inviting creative expression that would otherwise go into these things doesn’t make them “artistic,” but it sure makes them interesting.

Burning Man may celebrate art but its larger impact is to liberate creativity from the ghetto of art.  By supporting creativity in every moment (what researcher Ruth Richards calls “Everyday Creativity”), Burning Man allows the mundane to fulfill the roles we’d otherwise turn to art for.

Art remains cool, but it actually becomes less important:  we don’t need it to inspire us because we’re already inspired.  We don’t need it as a salve to get through our daily lives (which Schopenhauer thought it was) because our moment-to-moment lives are their own salve.  Ordinary moments are filled with ambient creativity:  we have no idea what’s going to come next.

Seen through this lens, I think my new friend’s problem is that her passion has become art without creativity.  It used to have creativity, there used to be a stream of creativity flowing through it, but its sitting on the shelf for too long caused that creativity to stagnate.  Without fresh creativity moving through it, an art project is no more inspiring than painting a house or running errands.  If she wants it to live again, she has to take it someplace new.

Creativity has to move to live.  By removing the frames around art and taking much of its power away, Burning Man keeps that energy moving everywhere.  You don’t get to stagnate at Burning Man.  If you try to go through the motions, those motions, filled with the inspiration and creative power of a community, will flatten you.  Into an inspired shape no one has ever seen before.

Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man.  His opinions are not statements of the Burning Man organization.  Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

12 Comments on “Burning Man inspires creativity because it gets past “art”

  • harinama says:

    Excellent article. I think the quality of a lot of sculpture and art is downplayed because it’s usually covered in dust. But be rest assured, Black Rock City has some of the best, and most creative artists in the world, and many pieces are placed each year in far off lands.

    True art comes to the viewer, and doesn’t sit in a museum waiting to be worshipped imho.

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  • Buff says:

    Caveat Magister,

    Interesting post.

    I know in some ways my story is unique only in that it is mine. But I can really relate to your friend’s dilemma. More than I’d like to, to be honest. I’m even from the same city with a very similar story (I’m sure there are countless)… and Burning Man did help re-awaken, or perhaps help me start to re-center, the sleeping giant (we all have) within.

    After enough time immersed in Hollywood trenches, creative as some of them have been (and the countless one that were not), art, creativity, intent, self — all of it can get terribly obscured. And you find yourself, as The Clash so eloquently put it, “lost in a supermarket.”

    But then you find yourself on the playa, or around burners and like minded souls… and more specifically you find yourself being inspired and influenced again — as you were as a child — by the impulse and idea of creation and expression that is brought forth simply for fun, for health, for joy… and also for sharing or for letting off steam, or for healing… and once again you find yourself “tapped in” to that thing the world so often seems to conspire against.

    When you get away from the endless assault of crap and hidden (or overt) agenda driven imagery and ideology propelled by the misdirected ways and values of Defaultia… and you see these things, as if some giant stage of life curtain is being lifted and there it is — these ideas and desires being put into full scale grown up action. Amazeballs and fuck yeaaah!

    And for once… finally for goddamned once it’s NOT for profit or for career advancement, or for marketing some other item, or for keeping people stupid, or for some other stroke of the ego (at least not as much)… and it does remind you of that spark in your center that has slowly been dimmed by the machines of life and age and uninspired expectations… and it does remind you why you once loved that sense of freedom of expression and creation (and sometimes destruction) so very much. You know, that true-you that got left behind somewhere as you rushed off to work.

    We all participate. We tell our children in direct and indirect ways that this is not a valuable use of time and energy. And it’s gets squashed.

    You remember, like a distant dream coming into focus, why you were once so in sync with and fueled by it when you were young, or before you had your hopes crushed, or before you were told it wasn’t a valuable skill. Or before you had to work to the bone in a job you hate just to be able to survive.

    We all have the expressive spirit within and it comes in all kinds of packages and some were gifted by the gods to be extraordinary exceptionally gifted at it. But we all have it. And in it is our true selves. In it… is gifts we can articulate, give birth to, gifts we can celebrate and share with others.

    And then you see some stupid shitty art and it pisses you off to high holy hell. Kidding! Kind of.

    But most importantly, I believe, and this is why I truly love Burning Man — then we can light that shit on fire and blow that shit up.

    Hearts and flamethrowers,

    “That’s the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within. Not for want of a teller, but for want of an understanding ear” – SK

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  • Klaatu says:

    And all this time I thought that going to Burning Man was supposed to be fun… Fuck, now I have to analyze it, sheesh, what a Bummer. Don’t take me wrong, I just go so I can take a break from thinking… [thankfully it’s a big place]

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  • temecula says:

    i like krug. it tastes better than larry harvey’s ass.

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  • Darren B says:

    Excellent post.
    I stumbled across this post quite by synchronicity.
    I’m reading the book “Shoeless Joe” by W.P.Kinsella
    (the book that was made into the movie “Field of Dreams” starring Kevin Costner)
    and I came across this passage in the book;

    ” “I think it is quite charming”,Salinger says,his eyes twinkling.”In these days when anything goes in literature,movies,and even TV,to think there are some places so isolated,so backward,so ill-informed as to what’s going on in the world that they can still get all hot and bothered about something as innocent as “Catcher”. I mean if there ever was a crusader against sin,it was Holden Caulfield”.
    ….”Maybe banning or burning my books could become an annual event in these little uptight communities,like re-creating the first flight at Kitty Hawk.”

    When reading that I thought wouldn’t it be good to make a Burning Man of
    “The Catcher in the Rye” novels
    (or just place them at the Burning Man’s feet at least),
    just to say to those people who like to burn copies of the book
    (because they hate it) that we burn it to because we like it,and take some of the power back off these book burners.-)
    So I came here to suggest this idea and stumble on this great little post about creativity where you mention;

    “We don’t need it as a salve to get through our daily lives
    (which Schopenhauer thought it was) because our moment-to-moment lives are their own salve. Ordinary moments are filled with ambient creativity: we have no idea what’s going to come next.”

    Well here’s another sync – I had just read a passage on page 115 of
    “Shoeless Joe” that mentions ointment (salve);

    “It had been five years since I met him.A chance meeting that resulted in our buying the farm.I have encountered little ghosts of Eddie Scissions these past five years:a hubcap in the grass that must have belonged to a vehicle of his,a can of Zambuck Ointment found on a shelf high above a door in the machine shed – ointment Eddie must have rubbed on aching joints when he came in from the fields.”

    This book deals exactly about the subject that you have written in the above post,so maybe it’s a sign that your friend should give it a read…and the movie is worth a watch,too.And you don’t have to like Baseball to like this movie,either.
    I sure don’t like it that much as a sport…but it works here.
    Great book.Great movie.

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  • Davey Silva says:

    Well said and beautifully written. Cheers, friend!

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  • Finn says:

    I find it helps to think of “art” as a process, an act, instead of an object.

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  • Flabio says:

    I like to go see new bands in clubs. Before they get their first paycheck. Before they start advertising their selves. This is when the best creations occur.

    Many bands put out one good album. After that, it is over.

    Burning Man can make a space for creativity to return. Where something happens that allows you to find yourself again.

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  • skip rathnaw says:

    creativity??? burningman has been on my bucket list for some time. for about a year i have read many blogs and stories relating to burningman. i have often said to myself, if i should get to burningman, what would i create to give as a gift? i have no creativity. i can volunteer skills but no gift.
    in my readings about burningman i came up w/ the term ‘out of the box’. i wondered ‘is this creativity’? i think i saw a story that said ‘apple’ and ‘google’ had many of their people at burningman. some for the creativity, some looking to recruit these who think ‘out of the box’.
    perhaps someone can explain, is creativity inate or learned?
    what a wonderful experience exists a burning man

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  • uCoz Scripts says:

    This blog was… how do I say it? Relevant!! Finally
    I have found something that helped me. Thanks a lot!

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  • Akiba Kiiesmira says:

    Great piece of writing and a great insight. It resonates clearly as a law of life. Burchard talks about living a charged life by injecting our lives with something new. The newness provides the (creative) spark. Art must have new life energy running through it. So, a great piece of art continually summons new energy, that is what makes it great, just like great people, they inspire new behavior from us. Ah, artistry is such a teacher.

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  • Jack Trash says:

    Here’s an interesting way to think of it: The word “artist” contains the object “art”, whereas if you call yourself a “creative”, it contains a verb, “create”. It sounds simplistic, but the difference to me implies action versus objects. Process versus output.

    Most “artists” I know are creative within their chosen mediums, but limited outside of their areas of expertise. A “creative” is more apt to try something, just for the sake of creating, and usually does not care so much about the last 5% of the quality of the finished product (“I made it, it works, it is good enough…”). This is more akin to the BM creatives. I don’t think we get a lot of respect in the serious art world because you cannot sell very well that which was not intended to be sold. Plus, there needs to be scarcity, and the collective energy of production for art and expression at BM is still gushing forth. Someone once told me “Art at BM is the by-product of a critical mass of creative people, not the intention or the goal. If it was a gathering of athletes, an Olympics would ensue. Same thing. Now get off my cooler, I need some ice…”

    Btw, CM, love your articles. The Mask one is one of my favorites…

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