How Burners are Reinventing the Artists’ Workshop

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


One of the defining features of Burning Man art is its collaborative and inclusive nature, offering would-be artists the chance to learn by doing in a group environment. To those of us raised with the peculiar 20th century notion that art can only be learned in Art School, and that making art and making a living are irreconcilable, this may seem like a novel idea. But history shows that artists have been joining forces to teach, learn, and work cooperatively since classical times, and that it’s only in the recent past that art-market dynamics have pushed collectivist approaches to the fringes.

In Leonardo’s time, art had yet to be distinguished from craft, and the craft of art was acquired in a process common to all trades, by apprenticeship to a master and years of toil in his workshop. Before becoming masters in their own right, Leonardo worked under Verrocchio, Michelangelo under Ghirlandaio, and Raphael under Perugino. In addition to technical skills, learned mostly by careful imitation, they presumably picked up the business skills required to operate a workshop and the social connections needed to secure commissions.

In much the same way that art and tradecraft were still conjoined, so too were the lines blurred between what we now think of as art, engineering, and architecture. Though we like to remember Leonardo for his works of sculpture and painting, it was his skill as a military engineer and architect that put the bread on his workshop’s table. The design and fabrication skills required to create a monumental work of sculpture were not all that different from those needed to create fortifications or weapons systems, and moreover were often likely to be commissioned by the same aristocratic patron. It is not particularly ironic that Leonardo’s massive equestrian statue, the Gran Cavallo, commissioned by the Duke of Milan as a tribute to his father’s military triumphs, was never built because the bronze was needed to cast more cannon.

Just as the Renaissance marks a historical turning point in what we now think of as “art,” it also saw the first salvo of challenges to the centuries-old workshop business model. The rise of mercantile wealth created new demand for art, broadening the buyer pool to include not just the Church and aristocrats but business entities and the nouveau riche. While Leonardo and Michelangelo continued in the service of kings and popes, their rival Raphael seized this new opportunity, adapting his enterprise in a way that presaged much that was to come. Though clearly a great artist in his own right, he also seems to have been a master marketer who pioneered the role of celebrity artist-impresario. At the height of his popularity he is said to have employed as many as fifty apprentices in his workshop, and seems to have spent most of his time socializing with clients.

This model of production — a workshop fronted by a master and funded by a relatively small group of wealthy clients — endured for many years, and its shape can still be seen in the organization of modern architecture firms and design agencies. In the world of art, however, it had all but vanished by the mid-19th century. The demand for art products surged in the wake of the industrial revolution, and a new market structure emerged to serve it, characterized by commercial art galleries, for-profit art schools, and critical tastemakers in the academy and media. Reacting to this new economic landscape, and to what they saw as an increasing industrialization of art, a group of English romantics including the painter John Millais formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which urged a return to earlier models of authentic expression and unmediated production. One of their best-known adherents, William Morris, incorporated many of these ideas into the Arts and Crafts movement.

‘Ophelia’ by John Millais, who thought the art world took a tragic wrong turn at Raphael.

Yet while the decorative arts steered back toward a workshop ethic, the fine art market by contrast became increasingly focused on the individual artist as a commercial celebrity, able to sell products based solely on the power of his personal brand. The first of these international art superstars was probably Salvador Dali, whose gifts as an artist were surpassed only by his genius as a self-promoter. At the height of his fame, Dali is said to have made millions by simply signing his name to stacks of blank lithograph paper for posthumous printing. This kind of larger-than-life imagemaking allows no room for sharing credit, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Dali worked unassisted. According to one poison-pen account, he secretly kept a staff of young artists busy with all his production work, and hardly lifted a brush after 1950.

While Dali may have relegated the workshop to the status of dirty secret, it took Andy Warhol to discredit it completely, through irony. By dubbing his studio the Factory, he made art out of the business of turning art into a business, and by dubbing his entourage “superstars,” made a joke out of exploiting these would-be celebrities as he put them to work on his screen-press assembly line. Jeff Koons took this industrial logic one step further, bidding out his production work to contract manufacturers and adopting a fully outsourced model. The making of art was now a solo endeavor, celebrity-driven and effectively divorced from the teaching of art, which was a multi-billion dollar industry in its own right.

Two of the last shop bosses, Dalí and Warhol.

Yet collectivization never completely disappeared; it persisted at the outlaw fringes. By the close of the century, when burners started making art in the Black Rock desert, many of them were already working in collaborative groups. One of the most obvious examples is Survival Research Labs, the seminal machine-art crew headed by Mark Pauline. Though Pauline himself was never involved with Burning Man, a number of early Burner artists honed their design and fabrication skills in his San Francisco workshop. The Cacophony Society, too, can be viewed as a sort of art collective, focused on Dadaesque performance and interactive anti-art. Likewise the Billboard Liberation Front, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and other collaborative groups from the fin-de-siècle San Francisco scene all contributed organizational DNA to the emerging Burner genome.

Burning Man has been described as a “permission engine,” and it’s certainly true that many come away from the event with a newly found “I could do that” attitude towards art. The self-suppression of one’s creative drive in the name of economic common sense, so typical in a society where the odds of making a living as an artist are lottery-slim, is overcome by the urge for radical self-expression, and people allow themselves, often for the first time since childhood, the license to create. And since this is Burning Man, and not the mainstream art world, they have a wealth of resources to leverage in the journey, in fact an entire alternate art ecosystem that has emerged from the culture in response to this need.

Flaming Lotus Girls, 2013. Photo by Kimberly Sikora.

The weird imperative of creating Burning Man art has helped drive the formation of numerous collectives that, like the medieval workshops, combine collaborative effort on large-scale art projects with active teaching and learning of craft. Groups like the Flaming Lotus Girls and Flux Foundation are as much about making artists as making art. And there are the cooperative industrial studios and build spaces like Nimby, American Steel, The Generator, and the various incarnations of [freespace], where the focus is on making rather than teaching, but where by the natural osmosis of adjacency Burning Man artists tend to exchange ideas and skills, and wind up working on each others’ projects. It is no accident that the Burner and Maker communities are so deeply intertwined – we are all learning to apply new tools and technologies to creative challenges. As I wrote in an earlier post about this year’s theme, “It is a hallmark of our community that in order to turn the fruits of one’s imagination into action in the world, new skills often need to be acquired.” Many of these skills simply are not taught in art schools, or are just starting to be introduced. This is reflected in the growing popularity of alternative, not-for-profit, Burner-flavored learning institutions like The Crucible and Gray Area.

In each of these neocollectivist approaches, there are echoes of the Renaissance workshop system. Leonardo might not recognize it as such, but it’s easy to imagine that if he were alive today, he and his crew would be living and working together in Black Rock City. And they might even be able to crowdsource enough bronze to get that horse made.

Top image: Raphael’s “School of Athens”

About the author: Stuart Mangrum

Stuart Mangrum

Stuart is the director of Burning Man Project's Philosophical Center and host of the Burning Man LIVE podcast. Since his first Burn in 1993 he has participated as a theme camp organizer, artist, and year-round staff member contributing to the Project's communications, education, and storytelling efforts.

5 Comments on “How Burners are Reinventing the Artists’ Workshop

  • Stroker says:

    Then Stuart is a rich man… if we ever pay up!

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  • Some Guy says:

    “the fin-de-siècle San Francisco scene”

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  • John Simmons says:

    Great article Stuart. Thanks for getting this out.

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  • Timeless says:

    These days my own apprenticeship program morphs to include playa crew each summer and commissions enable my students to create playa projects!

    However, the ultimate “permission promises” seems to be my funding model brain-child, “Fundiversify” (Click my name here to learn more) though some foresee elitist art emerging from the funding vehicle Larry Harvey has poetically tagged “a hybrid in which private possession and community experience might generously overlap.”

    To elitist concerns I site my own experience using the principles of Fundiversify:

    After a lifetime of filling commissions (other people’s expressions) at 54 years, I created my own, self-funded pure expression from my own heart, a huge Sphinx carved from a solid, fat log. I then commenced sculpting caves and tunnels in that log carving, using real fire at Burning Man — in a ceremony also entirely my own expression. All of this constitutes an all new art form called “Fire Inside” — my own expression. Now I’m sharing this, my own self-funded expression along with more of the same, in a high-profile, highly trafficked public setting with iconic Lake Tahoe as backdrop.

    With such allure I now hope to attract investment backed by the Sphinx, or “Anunnaki Watch” in the amount of $150,000, to drive my next self-funded radical self-expression and purchase transport equipment for my growing collection of such monuments (whew!) and all are expressions of my very own. These artifacts will go on to inspire communities WHILE they diversify and fortify investment portfolios — all using market forces and all without a single regulation. So at long last I, the artist may drive my art with my own money, not someone else with their money…

    As a professional artist of well over 4 decades this funding model is the most liberating thing that’s ever come to me and I hope someday this pilot project can liberate many artists.

    Soon I hope to focus on making and teaching art rather than on making money, because somewhere out there are Burners who invest for their living — and like me they’d love to make their living burning all year via sound investments in the community they love. Investments that may just drive the coming Renaissance…

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  • Joseph Stanton says:

    Having done art as long as I can remember, and experienced learning art in both a school and apprenticeship setting, I can honestly say that being in an apprenticeship has been far more beneficial to me. I tried to continue college after high school, but learned quickly that it wasn’t for me.. (I graduated high school from a college high school program.) Before I met my current apprentice Timeless, I was apprenticing under my dad doing horticulture. Being hands on in the field has always been more beneficial to me, regardless of the craft or what I’m doing.. I can absorb things so much easier and tend to retain the information better as well. For awhile I was apprenticing under both Timeless and my dad. Learning both trades, because I thought I needed some sort of career to support what I truly loved doing, art. After working with Timeless awhile I realized that there was no real satisfaction in the money I was making doing horticulture, and I was drowning trying to keep up with all the art I was trying to do and help run a business. So recently I made the decision to apprentice under TImeless full time, learning and helping preparing monumental art for the Playa. The other nice part is as I learn and make things I have the oppertunity to make small commissions that support myself and my personal art projects that I work on as well. Being fully immersed and not having to divide my energy is allowing me to grow as an artist in ways I’ve only dreamed of, and this is just the start.

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