Decommodify Permission: Make Incredible Experiences With What You Have

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

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

6 Comments on “Decommodify Permission: Make Incredible Experiences With What You Have

  • Geomom says:

    It’s still there, just highly distributed. My favorite art pieces and camps at the burn are small and often very plain on the surface, but once you engage with them, you realize that you are now an instance of some creative conception that is unique to you and those who surround you. Can’t beat that.

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  • Will Chase says:

    It’s strangely apropos that you selected a box truck for your header image, because what comes to mind here is the (alleged) Lost Horizon Night Market, which (if it really ever existed) was (hypothetically) born in Brooklyn before (rumor has it) taking up a multi-year residence in the Bay Area (perhaps) thanks to grassroots creative instigators (never heard of ’em) wanting no more than to stage and share an impactful interactive art show, using a format that generates a critical mass of experience with minimal infrastructure, while distributing the costs amongst more creators … everybody pitches in with what they have whether it’s cash, resources, skills or sweat.

    This is a highly repeatable template for powerful art experiences that I hope to see replicated everywhere there’s an instigator with a wild hair up their butt to play.

    I happen to have taken this concept to mainstream festivals, it’s worth noting, where the crews were paid (not a ton, but enough) to host them. So while doing these kinds of things for the love of it is great, don’t underestimate their ability to become financially viable projects once their value is proven.

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  • Halcyon says:

    As I read about the effort to throw an art event vs. a dance party – it reminded me of a chapter of my life in the porn industry. You can try to make art… but not if you need to get the most bang for your buck.

    Brilliant, as always, Caveat. I’m eager to hear where your head is going.

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  • Ina says:

    A lot of interesting points were made. This was a very interesting read. Thank you for this! I am left with a lot of feelings and things I want to think more about.

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  • Aaron Dally says:

    Sounds great, really. Just one question about decommodification though since your thoughts are on the helm that steers the ship; Where does a Sotheby’s auction house selling Burning Man art fit into the picture?
    Please don’t say fundraising. Sure, proceeds go to Burning Man Organization but that is only a part of the Burning Man Project. This shit show is only as good as adherence to the principles. Otherwise it’s just another organization with a lip serviced constitution. Maybe the org had to break a rule. The thing you can’t do is sometimes the thing you have to do to get beyond ideals. Still, they sold Alex Grey’s Mayan Warrior for 35 thousand pieces of silver. My apologies for being blunt and public about this but wtf?

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  • Papa Penguin says:

    Disconnected random thoughts that were induced by this journal entry…

    Aural = Primal

    Visual = Cerebral

    When you put “weird” “art” up against a DJ, it’s the whole honey vs. vinegar thing. But you can’t compare the two experientially as they touch completely different areas within people.

    I think it is safe to say that bad “art” is better than bad “music” and good “art” is more valuable than good “music,” at least for most people. However, just because something has value doesn’t mean it is commodified (conversely, it doesn’t mean it has value if it is commodified).

    The box truck in the header hasn’t been “decommodified” it has just been shifted from one already known to a new known. Is it not still branded? Or maybe you will say it was commercially branded, but now it is art? But someone still paid to rent that truck, and changing the name didn’t change that fact – I would even submit that changing it made the original more valuable, you took a non-memorable thing that would have appeared hundreds of times across the playa and transformed it into something memorable and unique – now people are going to go home and think, “that was cool how they changed the XXX truck, so it said YYY.” I submit that maybe something with minimal value just became more valuable – which is counter to the intent, is it not?

    But in the end, I have to agree with your conclusion of “putting economics aside” and “stop trying to aim for financial viability”. Yes, art can and should have the ability to generate money, but once that is the aim, I think it becomes an exercise in crafting, not creating.

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