So okay, quick recap:
In part one we examined the question of whether there even is a kind of “offensive” art that might need to be responded to by Burning Man organizers (there is) and what that might be (art or actions that make someone’s participation in an authentic community impossible, or at least utterly unreasonable), and came up with a term for it: “acidic art.” Denying that this is possible isn’t helpful: people really can be that corrosive to the communities around them, which – come one – we all know is true if we give it a moment’s thought. At the same time, trying to be “art police” is an easy step to destroying what we love – we don’t want to take that mantle on.
In part two we looked at the most common reaction to such problems: an attempt to put one Principle above another, either saying “Radical Self-Expression is more important than Radical Inclusion, so we can’t hold artists accountable” or “Radical Inclusion is more important than Radical Self-Expression, so we can’t let artists get too offensive.” Neither, we realized, is a good idea: both end up doing much more harm to Burning Man culture than good. We want both as much Radical Self-Expression AND as much Radical Inclusion as we can possibly get: attempts to decide “which is more important” sacrifice both.
This is the third in a four-part series on how best to handle art that disrupts communities. The opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of the Burning Man Project. Once published, the whole series can be found here.
Instead, the best approach is to use Radical Inclusion, Radical Self-Expression, and the other 10 Principles as tools with which to solve the situation.
So what does that look like?
Put bluntly: it looks situational, specific, and contingent, rather than abstract, generalizable, and universal.
When you talk about this as abstractions, you end up creating rubrics and hierarchies that take agency away from the people actually dealing with the situation: saying “well, these are the lines where, if somebody crosses it, you ban them” is telling people not to participate in thinking this through themselves, to not be civically responsible or engage in Communal Effort or acts of self-expression to try solving the problem that’s right in front of them. Saying “here’s a three point system, and if all three points are triggered, then you eject somebody” tells people “you don’t have to do anything, there’s a system to take care of it.” At which point you’re telling them to be spectators. (It also encourages artists to game the system, rather than to actually think about the impact their work is having.)
We run into trouble, in other words, when we try to solve the issue of acidic art by trying to create standards and practices that will work for all people in every situation, instead of dealing with the specific people in the specific situation we have in front of us, and figuring out what works best right here and now.
So you start by focusing on the people. What are they actually doing? What are they actually telling you?
Would you put up with this shit?
Let’s start with the people saying they’re offended. People being what they are, there will be times when this is just ridiculous or silly, or at least not actionable. Somebody’s offended – so what? But those aren’t the times we’re considering. Again, someone simply being offended or angry about an art piece is par for the course – in fact, it might very well be a sign of success. If art is offensive as opposed to acidic, we’re not worried about it, and might even celebrate it.
But there is a clear difference between “I am offended or angry” and “you can’t reasonably expect me to stay here under these conditions.” Between “This is outrageous” and “this makes my own good faith participation impossible.” And that’s a difference that needs to be examined closely any time it comes up.
Some of those times will be obvious – someone who follows complete strangers around saying “I’m going to kill you and your family in your sleep” and brandishing a knife doesn’t get much of a pass when he says “But it’s my art project! Of COURSE I’m not really going to hurt them! I’m playing with social expectations!” I mean, hey, maybe that’s true, and there’s even a conversation to be had there, but it’s obvious why someone would respond “you can’t reasonably expect me to stay here when there’s a stranger with a knife threatening to kill me and my family in their sleep. Even if he says its art.”
Obvious to anybody.
It’s the cases which are not obvious to anybody – which potentially fall into our blind spots – which need closer examination. Where we need to be especially careful, and especially good listeners.
And that is the first thing that we are called to do when someone comes to us saying some version of “you can’t reasonably expect me to stay here under these conditions.” To listen. To have the conversation, and to make sure they are heard. Even if you don’t understand what they’re talking about. Especially if you don’t.
Fairly often (at least in what I’ve encountered and in encounters that have been related to me) the issue is precisely that we lack a shared context. This has come up in particular regarding racially sensitive issues. Burners, as an overwhelmingly Caucasian populace, have a tendency to see racially charged symbols as symbols to explore, rather than as warning signs that “you and yours are not welcome here.” And, of course, racially charged symbols can indeed be symbols to explore – but it is absolutely not unreasonable for people who belong to historically targeted populations to think that perhaps they are targets where these symbols appear.
I mean, that’s the point. That’s literally what those symbols were for. To warn people that if you stay here, you will get hurt. To dehumanize specific people so as to justify their treatment as non-people. That’s what they did. It is not at all unreasonable for members of targeted populations to, you know, feel targeted by symbols meant to target them. And it is understandable if assurances that “no no, we’re using these symbols for art, we’re exploring them” fall on deaf ears, especially if nobody has even tried having that conversation, but just assumed everybody gets it.
I don’t see a circumstance arising in which there’s ever a blanket ban on the use of charged and history laden symbols – sometimes those are the ones that most need artistic exploration – but the assumption that “everybody gets it,” that everybody sees whatever’s happening as an exploratory or playful experiment in art, is the first thing you have to let go. Having the conversation about why someone feels that this art piece, or action, is so targeting them that they can’t reasonably be expected to stay here, is both Radical Inclusion and a request for Radical Self-Expression. Shutting them down by saying “yeah, don’t be offended, it’s Burning Man,” is limiting their own self-expression. It’s telling them not to feel what they really feel.
Whatever the reason the situation is charged, often times the very act of having the conversation, and really being open to that perspective, will be a significant step in solving the problem: truly seeing and hearing someone can go a long way towards repairing the damage that acidic art can cause. On the other hand, people are much more likely to exacerbate that damage if they feel no one is bothering to listen to them. Because of course they will.
So that’s where you start. The next step is to have a conversation with the artist.
What Is The Artist Trying to Do?
I can’t stress this enough: you want to really listen to the person making the complaint, no matter what the artist says, and you want to really listen to the artist, no matter what the person making the complaint says. You may have to end up doing something that one (or both) of them won’t like, but you want to treat them both like valued members of our community, because that’s what we want both of them to be. Maybe they’ll make that impossible, but you can’t proceed from that assumption.
Which brings us to one of the absolutely critical questions in all this: what does the artist actually want? What are they genuinely trying to do?
An awful lot of artists – most, I’d say – are in fact keenly interested in the way people are responding to their work, don’t want anyone to feel so threatened that they have to leave, and are quite willing to talk about the impact it’s having and what can be done.
And in cases where the artist is genuinely trying to make a specific statement or raise certain issues, it’s usually quite possible to work with both people to figure out how the artist can pursue that goal in a way that feels honest without threatening to fundamentally dissolve those bonds of community.
“What is the artist trying to do?” is a question that can provide so many answers to the question “what do we do if this person’s work is making people feel that they can’t be here?”
But it only comes out of dialogue and discussion – not just with you but, ideally, with the people who are raising the issue. The less of an intermediary you have to be to a reasonable discussion, the better.
It gets a bit more complicated when the artist doesn’t know what they’re trying to do – just that they have a vision, and it’s something they need to work through. But still, generally speaking they are trying to share that vision, so they are interested in how people respond to it, and able to be engaged. They too might have blind spots, but generally they’re trying to do something in good faith. Dissolving community isn’t part of their vision. A conversation can happen.
It’s in those infrequent but still all too real occasions when an “artist’s” actual purpose is to simply be as nasty as possible – when their goal really is to hurt people, with no concern for what happens next – that you know this just isn’t going to work. And honestly, it’s usually pretty easy to tell when this is the case. Because such artists cannot usually describe what they’re trying to do in a meaningful way, they are utterly uninterested in finding new ways for people to engage with their work rather than be turned away by it, and instead of participating in a real discussion about the impact the work is having, they try to argue the technical legalities of whether they can do something and consider that the end of the conversation. People who are that much more interested in whether they can do something than in the impact they are having by doing it, are rarely arguing in good faith.
Such art is not a gift, it’s not Communal Effort, it’s not civically responsible, it’s not participatory in a way that is meaningful to the other participants, it ignores the Immediacy of how people are actually responding to it to focus on how you want it to be interpreted … on down the line.
But if everyone is in fact acting in good faith, if they can connect and talk through their concerns and their blind spots and what they really want, then much of the time not only can the issue be worked out, but our community be made stronger by this process.
It’s when that doesn’t work, it’s when you go through this process and genuinely work to increase everyone’s sense of inclusion and self-expression, and no one can come to a mutually agreeable solution, that you have to make the tough calls.
Which is what we’ll discuss in the next post.