Anything Commercial Art Can Do, Decommodified Art Can Do Better!

In my first post in this series, I said that decommodified art can do things that commercial art can’t. But what does that mean? Here’s how I put it in Turn Your Life Into Art (with snippets from a few different sections, lightly edited below):

Consider Disney World. Imagine the most impressive, impossible ride that Disney World can create. They’re throwing everything they’ve got at it. They’ve got actors, they’ve got sound designers, they’ve got architects with an unlimited budget. They’re going to create a roller coaster that takes you to a beautiful palace filled with secret rooms and holograms telling stories and… and …I dunno… use your imagination. Make it as amazing as you can get.

And this is my bet with you: no matter how amazing Disney World can make that experience, there is no experience Disney World can create that will be as thrilling as breaking into Disney World. 

Not “breaking in” like they create a “Breaking into Disney World Experience” – I mean really breaking in. That’s the experience you’re going to have whose intensity will remain with you for the rest of your life, and will bond you to the people who did it with you. 

If they know what they’re doing, two guys with bolt cutters can have a more potent experience than all the imagineers in the world can provide. And that’s not a knock on imagineers, or their skill and their talent, but it’s the nature of the beast. 

That should tell us something. Something we need to pay attention to.

There is no reason—none at all—that companies and marketing consultants and entertainment conglomerates can’t use the techniques and approaches for creating “transformative” experiences. Of course they can. And it will probably help them.

But they will never—never—be as good at it as mad artists and psychomagical monks and anyone who devotes themselves to this practice for its own sake. 

The essence of “transformation” is what emerges from within you. It’s the very idiosyncratic and unique ways in which our individual selves, struggling to become, connect with the collective unconscious and create together, because they find a space where they can be seen and engaged. Psychomagical art and experiences are doors that open to wherever you need to be taken, and you… you personally… show us where that is through your own projections and inner mythology.

Corporate art experiences, on the other hand, are about building brands. They cannot afford to go wherever you take them, because they are trying to lead you on a journey to a specific destination that has absolutely nothing to do with you. Harry Potter’s Wizarding World cannot and will not go off-brand to accommodate your personal mythology; Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge will always put its merchandising ahead of your inner revelations. 

The purpose of branding and marketing is to raise product awareness, reinforce brand identity, and sell widgets. The purpose of psychomagic is to give you a breakthrough experience. Brands and marketing are, ultimately, fictions; psychomagic is at its most potent when it is real. 

Psychomagical artists go where events that put branding or monetization first cannot. Psychomagical artists can make their art about you, personally, in ways that branding creatives cannot. Psychomagical artists can make your real life their subject matter, whereas corporate “experiences” are all about selling you their story.  It’s not yours, it’s theirs, and they have to sell it. 

Oh sure, corporate experience designers could work only with facts and real people—but the moment the story starts to have nothing to do with the product, or questions the brand’s legitimacy, they’re going to try and drive the experience back “on track.” At which point there’s no meaningful opportunities for real transformation.

For dedicated artists, things starting to go off track in unpredictable ways is where things really begin to get interesting. At which point, your self-actualizing unconscious perks up and says, “Let’s play!”

Psychomagic is designed to open possibility; commercialized art is designed to limit it.

People trying to build a brand can productively use all the tricks in this book, but they will never be as good at it as dedicated artists.

Cover image of “Mariposita” by Chris Carnabuci (Photo by Mark Nixon)

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 “Anything Commercial Art Can Do, Decommodified Art Can Do Better!

  • Michael Head says:

    Oddly enough I actually know someone who did just that. Over the fence after hours at DL in Anaheim. Got caught, court date, fined, banned from DL for 3 years. Worth it I’m sure.

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  • Aaroneous says:

    There’s something here, but the author doesn’t quite hit the target.

    From the initial framing of experiences as being “better” (a very Default World type of concept), their aim begins to wobble.

    Art has purpose and intention. Sure. The intention of art produced by a group that seeks return on capital investment will also include a priority of profit. But unless you take a really cynical view of social organizations, viewing “Corporate Art” as only serving the return on capital stakeholders is fairly limited.

    Moreover, viewing non-profit, collective, collaborative “psychomagical” artists as only serving the needs of participants and not a brand seems really naïve. Do you think Burning Man Theme Camps(tm) don’t care about Branding, about Attention and Velocity. C’mon now.

    People REALLY like Disney World. I mean, REALLY like it. Consumers like it. But also artists and creatives. Whose to say your enjoyment of experiences that are unpredictable and go off track are “better”. Why not, simply, different? Vanilla and Chocolate.

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    • Fancypants says:

      I don’t think he’s saying decommodified art is necessarily “better”… just that there are things that Disney can’t achieve because of the commodification aspect. Disney is the best at what it is … there’s no better theme park, imho. But there is no comparison between any experience I have had at Disney and watching the Temple burn… Disneyland may be the “happiest place on Earth” but it’s capacity to change one’s life is limited.

      Anyway, since this interests you enough to leave a comment I really recommend you read Caveat’s book… in that context I think what he’s trying to get at becomes clearer. He *is* saying chocolate vs vanilla, except here vanilla can change your life (which isn’t necessarily *better* lol — see all of the “Burning Man ruined my life” stickers)

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  • some seeing eye says:

    I understand you are saying that large budget art/experience designed by committee has limits. Disney is a stalking horse in relation to Burning Man and BRC. Disney seeks to engage children who have not yet specialized into subcultures based on individual experience.

    The open source art philosophy of BRC is brilliant. Anyone can show their art alongside Banksy or Hank Willis Thomas.

    The real question is IP. Can an art student use BRC-BMORG trademarks in their resume? Mid career, famous? How does that work with art grants? What IP of artists does the BMORG own? Artists are small businesses, they commodify their work.

    Professional communicators, like yourself, need to explain Burning Man IP and artists on playa to artists in detail.

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  • Aaron Dally says:

    Yes!!! How many beautiful flowers grow in the forests and deserts that nobody sees yet are essential to the ecosystem while those planted in center medians or in front of hotel lobbies get high visibility, are lovely for casual traffic, but have lonely roots. I like your term Psychomagic. Yes, we are a bit of that.

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  • Ross Wyeno says:

    It seems to me that much of what you call “psychomagical” burning man art is now being repurposed for the public after its time in the desert. From that perspective, it really does need to fit a narrative outside the artists intentions so that it’ll fit into whatever public venue is willing to support/pay for it afterwards; in turn, limiting it’s possibility despite vastly expanded wow-factor.

    This trend has come hand-in-hand with size and cost, which virtually necessitates multiple revenue streams. Certainly, Burning Man art is closer now to Disney World than it was 10 years ago.

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