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