Art and Whimsy are renewable resources

Significance of the Water, by Alexander Spivak. (Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License)
Significance of the Water, by Alexander Spivak. (Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License)

Where’d all the fun people go?

A recent San Francisco newspaper article was ostensibly about a book – the newly published history of the Cacophony Society.  But its headline asked a very pertinent question:  “Whither the tricksters?”

San Francisco used to be full of mischief makers who played extraordinary pranks on normal society – or at least as normal as it gets in SF, a city where phone apps for vegan bicyclists are considered a literary form.  But many of their greatest feats have been institutionalized (Santacon … runners in salmon costumes “swimming” upstream during a major race between the ocean and the bay), and new public activities seen to have just … disappeared.

What happened?

There are many answers, but one of the big ones is that Burning Man sucked all the air out of the city.

That’s not intended as a hostile comment – and indeed there’s quite a bit of truth to it.  Burning Man became a San Francisco Cacophony Society event early in its history, turned into the definitive Cacophony event in the mid-90s, and soon a small army of whimsical geniuses who otherwise would be setting up rappel lines between corporate rooftops were working on art cars, theme camps, and port-a-pottie logistics for the annual trip to the desert.

Even for the high-energy aesthetic dissident of means, there are only so many costume parties and conceptual mind-fucks you can come up with in a year.  Those of us who have to work for a living have even less time to spend in gorilla suits.  At some level yes, Burning Man took all the time and inspiration that otherwise would have been spent doing Cacophony events in San Francisco.

What are we to make of this?

The idea that Burning Man hurts the causes it claims to champion has been heard before, especially around environmental issues.  Hell, let’s all say it together:  “If Burning Man were really concerned about the environment it wouldn’t waste all those fossil fuels having people come to the desert.”

Right?  Right?

And yes, there’s some truth to that too – though it resembles a nit one picks more than an argument one makes.  Remember that Burning Man’s never advertised:  never took at TV time in the East Coast markets to get people to come out to the desert for a 7 day, six night, stay in beautiful Black Rock where they’ll get their picture taken with one of our foam Larry Harveys.  People make this incredibly inconvenient trip because they’re inspired to do so.

That inspiration is the appropriate response to the idea that Burning Man kills the things it loves.  If Burning Man inspires a significant enough “leave no trace” ethic, both in its attendees and (over time) in their communities, the net impact is a positive one.  If more people spend more time in less polluting vehicles as a result of Burning Man, the net impact is a positive one.  If more events across the world gradually adopt a “leave no trace” philosophy as their own, the net impact is a positive one.

It would be wonderful, absolutely wonderful, if we didn’t need the inspiration of Burning Man itself to get the impact that Burning Man has upon the world.  But … it doesn’t work that way.  Instead, Burning Man exists in a world that seems to be desperately crying out for meaningful inspiration – for something to believe in that doesn’t end with the words “order now!”

If Burning Man can inspire simply by being true to itself, that will, indeed, create a lot of events that follow in Burning Man’s footsteps but that allow people to participate without traveling cross-country.  And it’s exactly what’s happening.  The problem isn’t that Burning Man is inspiring people – the problem emerges if Burning Man claims that going to the thing in the desert is the only legitimate way for someone so inspired to act.

I think a similar trend can be seen in local tricksters.  No one was forced at gunpoint into the desert.  No one had any particular incentive to do what they did “out there” instead of “over here” – in fact it was a lot of extra work.  They were just inspired.  Their lives were changed.

That certainly sucked the air out of San Francisco for a while, but Burning Man doesn’t exist in a vacuum.  As the event grew, more and more people from around the country who otherwise never would have tried it got exposed to Cacophony-style madness … and liked it.  They brought it home, first in small doses, but increasingly in larger ones.  This process takes years, but it’s easy to see they’re ramping up everywhere.

The same thing’s happening in San Francisco itself.  I can personally vouch that more and more people are asking “why don’t we do this here?”   It’s increasingly happening – led by people who might-or-might-not go to the desert this year, but who now have a decade’s experience building mutant vehicles and organizing theme camps to bring to the quest to make the surreal happen in their neighborhoods.

We have a problem if Burning Man sees that as a challenge:  if it regards Art and Whimsy as registered trademarks.  But if it doesn’t – if it is glad to let the inspired do what they do, then the result is a better world.

If Burning Man is genuinely inspirational … if it really changes lives … then it’s not so much “sucking the air out of the city” as it is “breathing” – air goes in, and then air goes out.  A group of people become more committed to the “Leave No Trace” idea, and their part of the world becomes more sustainable.  A group of people learn-by-doing at Burning Man and then, when they’re ready, do it themselves where they live.

Art and Whimsy, it turns out, are renewable resources.  It just takes time.

But … listen … even so …

I think that defending Burning Man in instrumental terms is the wrong way to go.  Yes it’s wonderful that Burning Man is environmentally conscious and contributes to the growing number of anti-establishment surrealists.  But I think to ask of Burning Man “what does it DO for us?” is to miss the point.

Oscar Wilde famously claimed that we know how important Art is because it’s utterly useless and yet we value it anyway.  Stanley Fish has suggested that the value of a liberal arts education is recognizable by virtue of the fact that it cannot be reduced economic terms:  you don’t ask “what’s it good for” – it is itself GOOD.

Do you see where this is going?  Even in a perfect world, where every resource was renewable and gasoline left only a fresh pine scent behind, I would still want to go to Burning Man.  Even in a world where every other block was filled with mischief makers and impresarios of the highest caliber, it would be worth going to the desert.  Burning Man helps fix the world, but it would be worth doing even if the world didn’t need fixing.

That’s its value.  That’s exactly why we’re so inspired by it.

It’s always fair to ask “How does Burning Man impact the world?”  Indeed, its staff and volunteers ask themselves that question constantly.  Sometimes obsessively.  Christ, get over yourselves.

There should be good answers.  We should always work to improve them.  But the reason Burning Man is so inspiring is precisely that it isn’t one more environmentalist cause or crazy social club.  Like the early Cacophony society, it taps into something deeper – an urge to be alive in a way that is not reducible to cost and benefit.  We Burn for its own sake.

If that affirms life in other ways … why would we be surprised?

Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man.  His opinions are in no way statements of the Burning Man organization.  Contact him at Caveat (at)

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

One comment on “Art and Whimsy are renewable resources

  • Actually, I think there are a zillion more events then there once was… Super Hero Street Fair, How Weird Street Fair, Folsom Street Fair, Saint Stupid’s Day, French Maid Flash Mob (Bastille Day), Brides of March, etc, etc, etc

    More events then ever.

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