For the past year I’ve been visiting different Burning Man communities and offering to work with local artists and creators to collaborate on some kind of weird art experience for everyone who wants to participate. The reason—at least at the time—was that since publishing my new book Turn Your Life Into Art: Lessons in Psychomagic from San Francisco’s Underground, a how-to manual for creating “transformative” art experiences without much of a budget, I believe I have something to offer people who want to do that kind of thing. (If you want to get the gist of what that is, without having to buy the book, you can read a quick overview here, or listen to my conversation on Burning Man LIVE here).
In practice… well there’s a lot to discuss about that, but here’s the primary dynamic that I’ve seen, which has happened over and over again:
I would talk with members of local Burning Man communities about working with whoever wanted to jump in to create a free “psychomagical” art experience for members of the community. Not a happy hour, not a DJ dance party, not a meet-up (though it could be part of a meet-up), but a unique “Burning Man style” art experience that people in the community could participate in and perhaps laugh with or be moved by.
And almost every time, someone would tell me: “Oh, I’m so glad you’re doing this. We don’t get to do this very much, and we really want to be doing more of these kinds of art things.”
In response, I’d think: “Well, why do you need me to give you an excuse? Why don’t you just do this yourself?”
But then I’d think: “Well, if I like creating decommodified art experiences with people, why do I need to have a new book out as an excuse to go to different communities to ask if they want to create something together? Why don’t I just do that anyway?”
And… I think these are the right questions to ask. I think that even after 30-odd years of Burning Man and two years doing it ourselves without Black Rock City, we’re still looking for permission in much of our lives to create the kind of experiences in the world that we want to have. Me just as much as anyone else.
I’d like to consider how we can get beyond that. We have celebrated Black Rock City as the world’s greatest permission engine. How can we better become our own permission engines, without it?
Art Doesn’t Ask Permission From Commerce
I’m going to be writing a lot more on that question and on what I’ve seen and learned from the past year’s events—this is going to end up being a small series of articles, I’m sure—but what I want to focus on here is the context in which this dynamic is happening: the degree to which the larger culture teaches us to think that “permission” requires “economic viability.” Because I think that’s a big part of the issue.
This isn’t a new problem—and part of the reason I was so emphatic with my local collaborators that we were creating an art experience rather than a DJ/dance party event is a conversation I had almost 10 years ago with members of the Regional Network at a Global Leadership Conference.
“We’re losing our weird art experiences to big DJ parties,” one Regional rep told me, and several others in the conversation agreed. “Because we can work our asses off to throw a weird art event that everybody loves and everybody is passionate about, but a lot of people don’t understand, and maybe 100 people get to experience it and we’re lucky if we break even on it. But it’s so easy to just get a DJ and some glowing poi dancers and throw up some decorations, and we can get 1000 people to go through it and make a lot of money. So even though we want more transformative art, we’re getting more dance parties where people dress like the playa.”
And that is a completely understandable dynamic. It makes perfect sense. Especially if—particularly if—you assume that making money is a condition of a successful event. That economic viability and broad reach is a critical component of successful art experiences, rather than “nice to have” variables.
Which… is also a completely understandable assumption, given the world we live in.
But I think it’s profoundly mistaken. In fact, I have come to realize over the years I’ve been learning how to create this kind of art that there are kinds of experiences that only come from decommodified art. There are things that decommodified art can do that art-for-sale (however brilliant and worthy) generally cannot. And that this is at the essence of the kinds of experiences Burning Man culture is so good at creating.
I’m NOT saying that artists shouldn’t be able to make a living. Anyone who says that has no humanity left in their imagination. And I’m not saying that economics aren’t important. Back in 2016, Burning Man did a whole series on the relationship between Art and Money, and how money—properly applied—can supercharge an art scene, while improperly applied it can kill it. I stand by that work, and very much encourage you to read it here. Broadly speaking, we do want more money to support the arts and artists.
But it’s worth remembering that the acts that created Burning Man as an event and as a culture were completely decommodified. The sparks that lit us were not for profit, and at first were not very concerned with breaking even.
The Cacophony Society did not have annual dues, nor did you have to buy a membership to create an event—far from it. Danger Ranger put all those epic newsletters together out of his own pocket. Similarly, the first Man Burn on Baker Beach was basically a family picnic. The question of financial viability never came up.
Once it got going, they started thinking about it—absolutely. The first few “Burning Mans” on Baker Beach were decommodified, but before it left for the desert, they tried selling T-shirts and other merchandise. But they quickly realized that making the event merch-friendly actually kind of ruined the experience they were trying to create. Early on in the desert, there were a few people who tried to sell things like hamburgers and fireworks… and they stopped because people realized that the more they did this, the less interesting the experience as a whole became. And so Decommodification as a Principle was born, not out of a sense of moral righteousness but because there are things that art can’t do when it is commodified.
Over time, compromises had to be reached—the event got too big for people to pay out of pocket or by passing a hat around. Was something lost at that point? Yeah, probably—but the ethos of keeping all but the most essential commerce outside of the experience helped preserve something exceptional.
Now, I’m not saying—at all—that art and money are incompatible. (Again, read this series.) I am saying that it’s no accident that the “Burning Man” experience came out of a tradition of art that did not consider breaking even to be all that important, let alone making profit. Burning Man, the Cacophony Society, The Suicide Club, Communiversary… individual members of these organizations were absolutely hustling their art, trying to make a living, and god bless ’em, but the movements as a whole emphasized art as a human activity distinct from commerce. And, that distinction made magic possible.
It’s not an accident. And, if we want to create more art in that tradition, we need to be more deliberate about it. This can be uncomfortable, and begs a lot of questions about resources and privilege and permission, but it’s also a reality that we shouldn’t ignore. Especially when we can do more for people by answering those questions than we can by ignoring them and hoping they go away.
Decommodified art can do things that commercial art can’t.
We’re never going to be able to ignore money—nor should we aspire to that!—but I think the first thing we can do to give ourselves permission to create more transformative art experiences out in the world is to start by putting economics aside, stop trying to aim for financial viability, and instead ask: what can we do with the resources we actually have and are willing to devote to it?
The answer is almost always: something incredible. If we know how.
More on this to come.
Cover photo by Susan C. Becker