The best way – maybe the only authentic way – to appreciate the art of Burning Man is to be surrounded by it at 3 in the morning after a dust storm and wonder “what in God’s name is that thing over there?”
But if we were to be docents of Burning Man art for people who are not at Burning Man and have never been, what would we say? How do we explain the art of Burning Man to people looking at pictures of it? We can recommend books, sure, but let’s say we just have a conversation. What should we talk about?
Maybe the first thing to recognize is that Burning Man isn’t a “place you put art” – but a “context in which art is created.” Think about it: museums may occasionally commission pieces, but their primary purpose – almost universally – is to collect and display art that is made elsewhere, for other purposes, for posterity. The pieces aren’t displayed for the “here and now” but for future generations too, even for “all time” (or as close as we can get). There can be multiple collections with multiple origins – an exhibit of impressionist paintings can go right next to an exhibit of African tribal funerary masks … but none of that was created with this specific museum in mind, let alone its patrons. “Burning Man art,” on the other hand, is inspired and built specifically for the place and the community in which it first appears, and is meant to be experienced in that temporary moment. Even art pieces which were originally designed for other places and contexts need to then be adjusted for Burning Man’s physical and social environment if they want to appear there.
Another way context matters: back at the very first Burning Man, there was no difference between the artists and the audience – Larry and Jerry and their friends built and raised the man themselves. In the years that followed, participants raised the Man to his standing position together, and everyone who experienced the art was in fact living out in the desert with the artists themselves, and often creating their own works to share.
Many kinds of art are supposed to be “interactive” – Burning Man art comes out of a context in which people not only created all the art together, but built the place it’s displayed and staffed the ticket counter.
If we were to try to define the context out of which Burning Man art emerges, and which shapes its development, we might consider the following additional characteristics:
- Art at Burning Man is everywhere: on the open playa, on the streets, in the camps – not only is there art in every building, but the buildings themselves are art. You literally cannot throw a rock at Burning Man without hitting art, and the rock itself was a gift from a guy who paints miniature tableaus on small stones. As a result:
- The boundaries between what “is” and “is not” art get very blurry: Is it a theme camp or an art project? A car or an art piece? Is that guy a strangely funny asshole, or are you being artistically pranked? Even if there are definitive answers to these questions, it’s sometimes impossible to tell. The art can be anything, and anything can be art.
- Art is not an incidental part of Burning Man, it is an integral part: It is impossible to imagine a Burning Man event without art, which means it doesn’t decorate the event, it is the event.
- Art at Burning Man has no plaques explaining what it is, or even who authored it: While this information can be found externally, in the moment of engagement with the art, there is nothing explaining what you’re seeing or what its provenance is. The experience is wholly unmediated.
- Art is made by everyone, from highly trained professionals to complete amateurs who have never done this before: There is no requirement or barrier to participation. In fact, everyone is encouraged to find new ways to engage their own creative impulses and use Black Rock City as their canvas.
- Art at Burning Man is often created collaboratively: Very few projects have just a single creator, and most have a fairly large communities dedicated to their creation and support.
- Art at Burning Man is robust: However pretty it may be, it can’t be fragile. It has to withstand not only long trips, but harsh environmental conditions, unpredictable weather, and people engaging with it in unpredictable ways.
- The art has no price tag: While it may cost money to get to the event, once you’re inside there is no financial or transactional relationship to be had with the art. You don’t have to pay for it, and you can’t buy it.
And – of course – much of the art at Burning Man is temporary. Most major examples of it are burned on site. A lot of Burning Man art is made up of temporary places and communities of people who interact with strangers – and that only exists in the moment. Some Burning Man art is meant to be broken up into pieces and given away, never to come together again.
In fact, the only Burning Man art that can be displayed in a museum may be the least common, and least typical.
That said, any piece which does survive can of course be displayed somewhere else. “Burning Man” is no longer synonymous with Black Rock City – and “Burning Man art” now happens everywhere. After it happens, some of it appears in museums, often it’s set up in community spaces, some of it is even purchased and displayed at casinos, or outside tech parks, or even retail stores.
It can certainly be enjoyed in these places too. But if one were in a museum, staring at a piece that was once climbed on and slept under and used as a landmark without any explanation at all, asking oneself “what makes it Burning Man art?” It may be too late to experience it the way it was intended. Burning Man art can be appreciated in a museum, but to experience Burning Man art, it might be best if you went someplace unusual, built something beautiful without permission, and shared it with people, without explanation. Then see what comes next.
Whatever happens next, that’s probably Burning Man art. Safely lighting it on fire is encouraged but optional. Be sure to clean up after yourself.