Can Burning Man Balance the “Art” and “History” in “Art History?” Should It Have To?

Part of the Art, Money, and the Renaissance blog series


This is a picture of the burning of Savonarola, making him a "Burning Man!" Get it? Get it? ... I should be ashamed of myself.
This is a picture of the death of Savonarola, which made him a “Burning Man!” Get it? Get it? It’s a history joke! … I should be ashamed of myself.

Though almost all the feedback I’ve heard about Burning Man’s 2016 theme (“Da Vinci’s Workshop”) has been very positive, I also thoroughly enjoyed art history Ph.D. student Stephen Mack’s critique in the Daily Dot: “Here’s Everything Burning Man 2016 Got Wrong About the Renaissance.”

Mack brings a careful, and quite accurate, level of complexity to the topic – although I can personally verify that when he asks questions like “does Burning Man know about Savonarola?” the answer is an unambiguous yes. (In fact, in my experience it’s easier to get Larry Harvey to talk about Savonarola than it is to get him to stop talking about Savonarola. Burning Man’s Chief Philosophical Officer is somewhat obsessed by the fact that Savonarola visited Lorenzo de Medici at his deathbed – a symbolically fraught historical moment if ever there was one)

It should also be noted that, as the text itself states (at the bottom), what Burning Man has written so far is intended to be the first in a series of posts about Renaissance Florence, not the last word.  The idea is quite definitely to delve into the complex reality of the historical situation.

As well it should be.  My very strong take is that the complexities inherent in this topic – and for that matter in any topic that isn’t bland and anodyne – are a strength, not a problem: to the extent that Florence was a democracy more in name than in practice, to the extent the rich were subverting art as well as developing it, to the extent that Florence was as much a fucked up cauldron of intrigue as a shining beacon for the future … does that detract or add to its urgent relevance for our own time?

If we can’t take the topics that our community has passion for and fear about – the place of art and artists in a world dominated by money, the role of governing bodies, the capacity of people to govern themselves – and use art and self-expression and community to discuss and play and advance and heal … well then, what are we doing here?

Let’s walk towards the taboo, and make art about it. Abso-fucking-lutely.

But if I have no arguments with what Mack has brought up, I do have a question. Implicit in his article is the critique that Burning Man – an art event – was inadequately representing history. It’s a fair critique: I’ve made a similar one in the past. But what responsibility to historical fidelity do people engaged in creating an artistic endeavor have?

How much duty does an art event have to educate when it uses history as a jumping off point for the imaginative process? Instinctively, we want to have both: count me as among the people who simultaneously condemn the new Steve Jobs biopic for playing fast and loose with the facts while believing Doctor Who only got good when it abandoned its educational mission.

But these two missions, history and imagination, are going to clash all the time. If one intends to be an ethical artist, how accurate does one have to be when one touches on issues of history and culture?

I reached out to Mack to get his take, and he responded that he doesn’t see Burning Man as having an obligation to include a list of names and dates with its introductory statement to the theme – but he also doesn’t “believe there is any use in the impressionistic history writing I criticize here simply because I see so much value in the more analytic style of academic writing.”

Spoken like a true academic, and understandable. But it is true? I think that depends on what you want to accomplish.

Creative imagination and scholarship have fundamentally different goals: scholarship, in theory if not in practice, intends to be the final word on a subject. The ideal history of the Roman Empire ought to be so accurate and so complete that no one need write a history of the Roman Empire again. A scientific theory should, if it does its job, be a complete description of the phenomenon explained: if it needs to be updated, that’s either because new information has become available (so it is incomplete) or it turns out to have been wrong. If it is both complete and accurate, it never needs to be revised again, only referenced. In scholarship, most of the time, any further work on a subject is an implicit critique of the previous work: it wasn’t adequate in some way, or there was something it didn’t cover.   Scholarship absolutely builds on other scholarship in practice, but ideally there is an end point: the best scholarship on a subject makes other work on the same subject redundant.

Acts of creative imagination, by contrast, exist in large part to inspire other acts of creative imagination. A novel set in the Roman Empire is in no way a critique of another novel set in the Roman Empire, or of a Roman Empire themed comic strip. A new portrait of Winston Churchill in no way suggests that an old portrait of Winston Churchill was incomplete. A movie about World War II doesn’t have to justify its existence against other movies set in World War II. Allen Ginsburg’s “Howl” isn’t a seminal poem in the canon because its existence means other poets don’t have to write about a generation destroying itself – it is a seminal poem in the canon because it inspires more poems like it.

The great historian (and an intellectual hero of mine) Jacques Barzun once wrote (in “The House of Intellect”) that scholarship always carries a whiff of death about it. That’s because scholarship deliberately divorces itself from the lived experience in order to gain the distance needed to make definitive commentary (and because you spend a lot of time in an abstract world instead of the immediate one). That’s an oversimplification, but one with some heft behind it – just as it’s an oversimplification to say that scholarship exists to limit possibilities while art exists to create them, but it’s a decent rubric for the problems we come across when trying to hold art to the standards of history, and vice-versa. It is the job of historians and archeologists to say “this is what really happened, and this is apocryphal.” The people who laugh at sci-fi movies because the science is so bad are precisely saying “that’s not possible!”

(Full disclosure: I have been one of those people. Also: FUCK YOU STAR TREK AND YOUR “WE’LL SLINGSHOT AROUND THE SUN TO GO BACK IN TIME” BULLSHIT!)

All of which isn’t to say that art should take history lightly: I don’t mean that at all. But what are the right standards to hold it to? Especially in an era that produces “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.”

Is it legitimate for Burning Man to create a fictional “Renaissance Florence?” for purposes of inspiring creativity?   Is it obliged to point out all the ways in which it is not historically accurate? How detailed should this get? (If we have to mention Savonarola, do we need to mention the men who burned him at the stake?) Do we need a warning label? (“THE NATIONAL ENDOWMENT FOR THE HUMANITIES HAS DETERMINED THAT THE RENAISSANCE AS PORTRAYED BY AND AT BURNING MAN MAY DIFFER FROM THE ACTUAL RENAISSANCE …”)

Mack thinks creating a fictional “Renaissance Florence” goes a step too far. “I do think Burning Man should have a responsibility to reflect the subtleties of a different era and a different culture,” he told me. “To me, this is entirely in the realm of possibility.”

It is, although I have a somewhat looser standard: I try to draw the line at creating works that can accommodate the complexity of the original, even if they don’t represent it. That is, does the art depend on an oversimplification to have its power – does it depend on the notion, say, that Florence was a happy democracy? – or does the work of art only get more interesting and potent the deeper you delve into the history it starts from?

As long as a work of art can accommodate such complexity – so long as it doesn’t wilt when touched by it – I think it can focus on what it needs to in order to accomplish its mission of inspiration and possibility.  It’s when art deflates at the knowledge that life is messy and people are complex and victims have history too that it betrays the standards that scholarship holds us to.

It’s much too early to say which way this Burning Man is going to go, but we’ll be better off if we have interested scholars like Mack trying to engage in the conversation – or even working with artists. I think we should do everything we can to encourage that. For those interested (myself included) Mack recommends “Objects of Virtue: Art in Renaissance Italy” by Luke Syson and Dora Thornton. I know that members of Burning Man’s staff also have favorite books on the subject they’ll likely be writing about as we get closer to Burning Man.

But unless one wishes to say that art needs to be entirely subordinate to scholarship, then I think one thing is clear: Burning Man 2016, and its theme, has a great opportunity to educate people about the Renaissance, and should take that charge up. But Burning Man 2016, and its theme, will ultimately be judged by how many people it inspires to embrace art and possibility and transformation in their own lives. Not by the number of people who leave knowing the names of the Medici Popes.

Inspiration isn’t the only criteria art can be judged on, but it’s the way we know if it’s working.

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

15 Comments on “Can Burning Man Balance the “Art” and “History” in “Art History?” Should It Have To?

  • erik benda says:

    according to the book—-1434—-the Chinese landed in venice and were directly responsible for the rennaissance

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  • Frank C says:

    You ignore many of the questions Mack brought up in his critique. Burning Man is simplifying the Renaissance and solely celebrating a fictionalized, idealistic version of the past (as we can see in the initial blog post).

    Of course history can be a jumping off point. But you’re not jumping off from history. You’re jumping off from fiction.

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    • Caveat Magister says:


      I didn’t ignore them – I said they were “careful and quite accurate” and that “I have no arguments with what Mack brought up.”

      Burning Man created an 800-odd word description of a Renaissance City in order to inspire artists and participants. Of course that’s an oversimplification! I’m not in any way arguing that point.

      What I am saying is that it’s Burning Man’s first job to inspire – which is why they created an 800 word description rather than asked everyone to read a History of the Renaissance. I would call Burning Man’s theme “simplified” rather than “inaccurate” myself – clearly some people thought of Florence in exactly the terms Burning Man described (even if there was, as Mack points out, some self-interest there) – but if you’re asking “Does Burning Man’s 800-word description do justice to the history of the Republic of Florence?” No, of course not. It couldn’t possibly, and that wasn’t its first priority.

      That said, if they want to do right by history they can through an ongoing series of posts. Which they’ve committed to doing – and we’ll see how well it works.

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      • J says:

        Again, you’ve ignored the criticism. No one is arguing that interpretation is bad for the sake of art.

        Of course a history can’t be complete in just 800 words, but your original summary doesn’t even attempt to be history; it’s a fake idealization of what actually happened. That’s the problem.

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  • erik benda says:

    the book—1434—is not fiction.
    it is a book in a series of books about the discovery of the planet in the early 1400s including the maps that Columbus and others used to rediscover the world

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  • ApolloPan says:

    “It is all fiction, illusion, art. When art leaves the frames, and the printed word leaves the page -not just the physical frames and pages, but the frames and pages that assign the categories.” That’s the magic I want to capture for Burning Man projects; just as the Floating World flaunted historically inaccurate dialogue of pirates -Aaaaarrrr!- it nonetheless created a unique experience which remains echoed by fish and boat themed art cars to this day. Is the Steam Punk genre in accord with our victorious histories? Did Cyber Punk foretell the future precisely? Nobody has suggested that Burning Man is a modern version of Girolamo Savonarola’s bonfires of the vanities -we are all eclectic collections of our own histories, experiences, ideas, and dreams. The theme, as best I can tell, is NOT 1984- if recreating a perfect historically accurate leaper colony sounds sexy & exciting, then do it! Remember when this used to be FUN!

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  • As someone who can qualify as both a Burner (since 2013) and a Florentine (though born in Rome, but living in Florence since 1980), I would like to add my two cents.

    I think that the idealized and summarized version of Florentine Renaissance as quoted in the original BM post is not so far from the one you’d get from many true florentines here when speaking of the Medici’s age. A simplified version – for sure – but still something that seems to me more researched and truthful than the usual version of “BM as trippy hippies in the desert” that the media usually gives and that Stephen is implying with some of his comments (“They must be referring to Michelangelo’s experiments with LSD.”).

    Also, for being so nitpicky in his comments, Mr Mack is showing both some big shortcomings (he admits that he has “never studied the Vitruvian man drawing in particular” and then add random comments to show he knows Leonardo’s drawings though he finds them “a bit naive in their form of empirical scientific analysis.”) as well as factual errors.
    [e.g. he thinks that – in quoting Brunelleschi engineering machines – ” Burning Man is confusing Leonardo and Brunelleschi” since while “Leonardo made lots of cool machines”, “Brunelleschi was no slouch when it came to engineering, but (…) the only true invention he is credited with is drawing in one-point perspective.” . Simply wrong, as the machines created by Brunelleschi to build the dome were a marvel of engineering that many renaissance architetcts, from Giuliano da Sangallo to Mariano di Jacono to Ghiberti to Leonardo himself, spoke about and described in their works – check

    However, rather than commenting on the fallacies of someone in commenting the fallacies of someone else, I would rather stress the point that – in considering the complexities of Florence’s Renaissance and Burning Man Community we can find even more interesting points in common. It may be – for example – that the powerful and clever Medici – playing as humanists and poets while caring for their business can have their BM counterpart in the many faceless Silicon Valley enterpreneurs, hiding in turnkey camps while providing Black Rock City’s people with some grandiose entertainment.

    It’s absolutely not different from what happened in Florence, where Medici had their personal elevated pathway to move from their palace to the city hall (the Vasari Corridor), and where able to flood their palace courtyard to stage a naval battle between twenty ships…

    Of all the points raised by Stephen, one I think that must be considered: the one about the reasons for spending on art. It’s important that – in an age where digital culture is making the value of artistic work less and less consistent – BM as a ground for experimenting an art-based community should always be careful to consider the many difficulties of funding artwork, the extreme cost of creating art installations and the need for a community to consider art a necessity. BM organizers should take the responsability to hold on to this idea by always keeping the art grants and funding a priority in BM business plan – something that not always seems true.

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  • The Hustler says:

    You know I adore you in a professorial, intentionally-awkward hug sort of way, but every time I start reading something you wrote, I have to keep stopping to look up names and references.
    I mean, I learn a lot (and sometimes it needs a second reading) but it takes so damn long and the worst part if, I love every minute of it. Even now when my eyes are half shut, I haven’t don’t half of the classwork I should have done, but I have no choice but to read this blog.
    I open a can of Monster with a black coffee chaser, do a few pushups and dig in …

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  • JV says:

    It’s takes quite a buzzkill to fret over the historical accuracy of a Burning Man theme. For chrissakes. Totally agree with Caveat here.

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  • Marcel Dominic Varna says:


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  • Howard Koor says:

    I like using history as a springboard to re-imagine the past. Sure, its nice if there is accuracy about That past. May Burning Man continue to explore the past, the present, and the future…

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  • Eli says:

    Thank you, Caveat, for both bringing the (very valid) historical critique to our attention and shining a light towards how we as a community can work towards a space where history, art, and art history can all be active influences on the weird, ecstatic, pranksterish culture we partake in without losing the kind of intellectual specificity and rigor that makes that an interesting proposition in the first place.

    I do wonder about your idea that all scholarship aims towards some kind of final word on a topic, though. I would tend to guess that for a great number of scholars the process of debate and dialectic refinement of understanding within a field is a source of pleasure and the point of scholarship itself — for whom the idea of creating a work that leaves no further room for that process is 1) not quite the point of what they do, 2) impossible, and 3) undesirable even if 1) and 2) were not the case.

    I also think that the aims of art and scholarship are not quite as separate as you are gesturing towards here. I think, for example, of Anne Carson (one of my intellectual heroes), whose work often combines original scholarship (she’s a classicist), poetry, personal essay, and translation in the same work without seeming to lose either intellectual rigor or the expressive possibility of artistic creation. She is a special case, to be sure, but I think there can be good art in scholarship and good scholarship in art without contradiction.

    As for the theme announcement? I agree that it’s doing work that is rather orthogonal to that of the historian, but I still think there is a very valid point that it could do that work while being a little less sanguine about the validity of the way the Florentine “elite” thought about and represented themselves. I would also love to have more Savonarola in it, even at the 800-word level. Are we as burners not ourselves sometimes (for very different reasons) iconoclasts against the idols of secular commercialism?

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  • Dustin says:

    A fine dissertation sir, worthy of an advanced degree.

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  • Freehand drawing says:

    Interesting discussion but whoa! Take the theme thing a tad too serious? I don’t think twenty people take it seriously as a point of reference any more.

    My point of reference in reading the BM version, the criticism of same and the above…..BM was pleading a case for more of the newly rich to get off their damn Segways, put down their phones, get out of their camps and … the arts. Without art….BM is over. Without support of art there is going to be less art going forward.

    BM makes the decisions about grant funding on behalf of the community: only 20% of a temple is funded, most other projects…maybe 30% grants. Artists have become vending machines of SWAG for funding and BM big idea is to have a theame that solves there choice of underfunding a huge number of projects, instead of better funding for fewer projects. The dilemma is of their own making.

    Unfortunately all of this….twenty people will know, care or consider seriously. Because it’s only a theme. Just a theme for the few.

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