You Can’t Understand Culture If You Ignore Artists

Caveat is Burning Man’s Philosopher Laureate and has been writing about Burning Man culture and community for years. His writing does not represent the official views or opinions of Burning Man Project. Because we value Radical Self-expression, Communal Effort, and Participation, the Burning Man Journal has always been a space for sharing the many diverse voices, unique experiences, and colorful stories within our incredible global community. If you are interested in sharing your perspective, please submit your story for consideration here.

Let’s just say it: people lose important perspectives on social issues if they don’t pay attention to art movements.

There. I’ve said it. Here’s why I felt the need to:

An issue of concern — dare I call it a “social problem” — has been making the rounds of some conservative writers I like. They’ve (re-)discovered that contemporary life is driving people into passivity. They saw it first in an American Enterprise Institute report showing that the reason divorce rates are down is that fewer people are getting married, and that part of the reason fewer people are getting married is that fewer people are entering sexual relationships at all.

Writing at The Dispatch, Yuval Levin (who I admire and disagree with frequently) wrote that “the report embodies a significant change in how we think about the basic character of social breakdown in America, and what we take to be the obstacles to human flourishing in our time … the challenges to America’s social order now seem less like exorbitant human desires driving people’s lives out of control and more like an absence of energy and drive leaving people languishing and enervated.”

Our (alleged) problem used to be that too many people were trying to do too many things: now the problem is that too many of us are tuning out.  

Picking up from Levin, Jonah Goldberg (also at The Dispatch, also someone who I think is a tremendously good thinker who is often wrong) wrote:   

As the report documents, divorce rates are down because marriage rates are down. Fewer people get married and the ones that do are more committed to it, so fewer people get divorced. Out-of-wedlock births and abortion are down in part because fewer people are having sex. Drug use is a real problem, but the overall rate of drug use has been trending down and the kinds of drugs people use have shifted from stimulants like cocaine and meth to opiates like heroin and its prescription substitutes.

Say what you will about cocaine, it’s a social drug for people on the go. Heroin is like a pharmacological beanbag chair that lets you check out from the hassles of life.

I’m reminded of Susan McWilliams’ observation that 2006 marked a terrible turn in American civic life. That was the year when Americans started drinking bottled water more than beer. “Why is this important?” she asked. “It’s important because beer is a socially oriented beverage, and bottled water is a privately oriented one.” Beer commercials have happy fun people doing stuff together. Bottled water commercials, meanwhile, “tend to include lone individuals climbing things and running around by themselves, usually on a beach at sunrise—even though they are not being chased.”

Writing at The Atlantic, Tom Nichols didn’t pick up this particular study directly, but also lamented the degree to which we have collectively become isolated creatures who are declining to participate in healthy community building:

“This is a social sickness, a chronic and growing problem in a society that is searching for meaning and connection. This search once led us to family or faith or community involvement. But that was before we chose a life of narcissistic, consumer-driven isolation. Even before the pandemic, modern humans spent way too much time inside our own heads, inside our own homes, and away from our fellow citizens.”

There’s a very fair and poignant concern making the rounds here, that modern life is at once becoming so difficult and our consumer options so easy that we are collectively under increasing pressure to drop out of our active cultural commons and instead retreat into passive cultural consumerism: we’re “Netflix and Chill”-ing ourselves to death. The cold void of Amazon can deliver your purchases in two days or less, but no one can hear you scream.

Reading these conservative analyses, some of which I agree with, some of which I don’t, I keep having flashbacks to art history. I keep asking, “Why weren’t you guys paying attention to radical artists?”

Somebody Call a Situationist!

I mean, take The Situationists alone. In 1967’s The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord proposed that consumer society was putting all of us into a passive relationship with our own culture.

“Commodities,” he wrote, had completed their “colonization of social life.”  

“All that once was directly lived has become mere representation,” Debord wrote, documenting “the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing.”  

Ring any bells?

One can go back further than that if one wants to talk about the alienation caused by the cultural practices of capitalism — as (some of) these conservative writers note in passing, that was kind of a big deal for Marx. This stuff is not new.

But I think that special attention should be paid to the art movements — and that their voices are conspicuously lacking from this conversation — because these art movements were not just bemoaning the problem or encouraging people to lobby the government for a policy solution. They were, on the contrary, offering specific techniques that one could implement oneself, right here, right now, to combat this trend.

Which I think is distinct and different in important ways from both a general bemoaning of the problem and a purely political take on it. I mean, trying to wake people up from the passive slumber — right here, right now — that consumerism has lulled them into has at various times been such an explicitly stated goal of art movements that it’s become an easily (and justified) target for parody. Yet, if you take the problem seriously, artists have had a great deal to say about potential solutions to it … to the point where I suspect that anyone who doesn’t want them involved in the conversation isn’t so much invested in solving the problem as that they would like their political enemies to have to take responsibility for causing it.

Artists, while hardly apolitical, are generally trying to do something themselves, and showing other people how they can do it themselves.

Participatory Art Leads to Participatory Lives

One of the most significant changes Burning Man made in my life was that it connected me to communities in a meaningful way — really, it was the first time I’d ever done that. Much of the appeal was precisely that instead of simply demanding that I passively accept the forms of culture and connection that I was being handed, Burning Man encouraged me to actively create and contribute to the culture around me. Being an active cultural creator enabled me to find — or make — a place for myself in a community culture that had been lacking before. 

That didn’t happen because Burning Man had a political manifesto, let alone a set of policy prescriptions, that I believed in, but rather — and I can’t stress this enough — that it had developed a set of tools and practices that made it easy and rewarding for me to find ways in which I wanted to participate in culture. 

It didn’t lecture me on The Very Important Role of Participating, and it didn’t offer me a blueprint on participating that I had to follow, or make me sign a Participation Pledge: it gave me a better offer, in a way that art and civic projects can do but which politics and political philosophy often can’t. 

This is one of the reasons why Larry Harvey once said that his fear for Burning Man is that it would turn into “something that is received, rather than something that is discovered.” These tools don’t work if one passively accepts Burning Man culture and goes with the crowd. It has to be an active process of discovery.

Burning Man enhanced my already present interest in creating small-scale art moments — what I’ve since come to refer to as “psychomagical” art experiences. To be able to offer people experiences, wherever I am, often on a moment’s notice, that will move them from spectating to participating. Indeed, these are art experiences that can’t happen at all unless people actively participate, making meaningful choices, and becoming part of the art. 

There is, in other words, a meaningful connection between participatory art (as opposed to passively consumed art) and participatory civic engagement. 

The Artists of Today Are Addressing the Cultural Challenges of Tomorrow

I don’t think such art can wholly replace political engagement and traditional civic life — not at all. But I do think that the new warnings about public life turning into a passively consumed spectacle are curiously missing the presence of art movements that have been struggling with this problem for decades. These art movements know practical things about how to get an exhausted, burned out, population back into public life that political commentators — and often even social scientists — don’t. The tools and practices that art movements have developed, particularly Burning Man and underground psychomagical art movements, have a capacity to address this problem in ways that have a demonstrated track record of success. 

Indeed, as I’ve written elsewhere, experimental artists are often the first people to envision new social tools and skills, not yet imagined, that will help us connect to one another. 

Learning how to invite people to willingly participate, either in a given moment or in the creation of a common culture, may be one of the most vital new skills of our time. I don’t think the political conversation is going to get very far in this direction if it’s ignoring the artists who have already done so much of this work.

Cover image: Mariposita by Chris Carnabuci (Photo by Vanessa Franking)

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

9 Comments on “You Can’t Understand Culture If You Ignore Artists

  • Burning Man Project Communications says:

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  • Will says:

    “Being an active cultural creator enabled me to find — or make — a place for myself in a community culture that had been lacking before.”

    Well said and well received.

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  • Art Garpunkle says:

    The only problem is that everyone thinks they’re an artist. The culture of everyone-is-an-artist is a culture not worth understanding. It actually devalues the meaning of, artist. When everyone is an artist, no one is.

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    • David says:

      I respectfully disagree with your comment that “When everyone is an artist, no one is.” It sounds good, but it just isn’t true. Everyone can be a thinking, feeling, caring, creatively expressive human being; everyone can be an artist, and this in no way devalues (and may even enhance) the value of artists in culture.

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  • Aaroneous says:

    Another idea that might help to understand the trend to a threadbare social culture: PLACE.

    In particular this notion that more and more physical places are gated off for consumption or return on capital investment, rather than a gift to support community and connection.

    Communities have been both PUSHED out of physical spaces, and PULLED towards the promise of virtual spaces. But folks are slowly waking up to the fact that Social Media ain’t the same. And at it’s worst it’s anything but “Social”.

    If you want a renaissance of participatory living, you need to bring back spaces that are open to unplanned possibility.

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  • Geomom says:

    Soma here we come.
    Why go to a smoky bar to see a death metal band playing their hearts out? (Great show for those who were there)
    Why go to a church to participate in the liturgy and hear a live pastor who has spent a week preparing their message (Love sharing the pews with the few elders who still go)
    Why explore music/games/toys/clothes/books in a shop that someone has curated with their passion (Multisensory shared experience vs. Google’s or Amazon’s bots)
    We are definitely getting way too cozy in our pods. Myself included.

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  • Susan says:

    Eat the Rich!

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  • Juno says:

    Larry Harvey once said that his fear for Burning Man is that it would turn into “something that is received, rather than something that is discovered.” We have to work to prevent this from happening! The process of discovery is key.

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  • cupcake 2048 says:

    Yes, I agree with your point. Artists are people who have a great role in spreading the culture of the country.

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