I heard this story from a woman I met over the weekend, who lives in Hollywood.
One of the many drones who flies around the City of Dreams with the label “writer/actor/producer,” she had finally gotten her shot with a project she’d worked up from scratch and managed to pitch to people who can make things happen. It came from her heart, and they loved it. Show runners with standing were on board, and the ink was wet on the contracts.
This was in 2006. When the writer’s strike hit, everything stopped.
Everyone who had a lifeboat took one. When the strike was over, all the people who could make things happen were already attached to other projects.
Here’s where the story gets interesting. Of course she picked herself up and tried again. That goes with the territory: tourists are the only people in Hollywood who don’t expect to be regularly shot down like a marriage proposal to a stripper.
She got some more meetings and pitched her story again. But something had happened. “Just listening to myself,” she told me, “I could hear that it was different. There was no more passion in my voice: I was telling my own story, explaining my own creation, like a stranger.”
Nobody picked it up. Why would they? Somehow she no longer believes in it either. Something about the way it had been lost the first time had killed her passion for it the second.
She doesn’t understand why. She’s not sure what to do about it. It’s a fascinating conundrum. It’s got me thinking about the nature of creativity.
Creativity is celebrated at Burning Man. People go to extraordinary lengths to bring their art to the playa and put tremendous effort into antics and whimsy once there. In this atmosphere the rest of us do things we would never otherwise do; inspiration hits, memories are made, lives are changed.
Yet creativity is also oddly taken for granted. Yes, sometimes art pieces suck … quite a bit, actually … and some projects never make it. Yet there’s really no concern that inspiration won’t strike somewhere: no fear that we’ve run out of new ideas. Nobody’s worried about coming to Burning Man and not having something amazingly unexpected happen.
For all that we encourage artists, nurture artists, support artists, celebrate artists, we’ve done remarkably little thinking about what the creative process at Burning Man is, and how it’s different from creative expression elsewhere.
To my mind it is different. Significantly different. In ways we may not like to admit. Burning Man’s culture and approach is great for creativity, but terrible for art.
In the default world “art” is a ghetto for creativity. It’s where we put it. By holding up art as the legitimate avenue of creative expression, it is devalued it in other areas of life – creativity belongs here but not there.
By creating a wall of separation between what “artists” do (which is creative) and the rest of us do (which is not) we drain creativity form our own lives.
These are the basic assumptions, the basic rules, of the world we live in.
And most of the time, I’m okay with this. Art is aristocratic, not egalitarian: talent is not evenly distributed and the effort to learn artistic craft counts for much. Some people truly are better artists, and some people are better at using the artistic talent they’ve got. The rest of us are kept in line by their brilliance, which is justified by a sense of our own inadequacies.
But amazing things happen when those distinctions, real and meaningful as they may be, are put down for a while. When we view the artistic capacity and brilliance of others as an invitation to play – however we can – rather than to sit and watch, creativity becomes valued as part of every aspect of life. You dressed yourself! You designed a shower! You decorated your bike! You put on a raccoon outfit and prowled around at night! You pretended to work for Playa Info! You passed out orange slices! You said “Hello” in a way no one ever has before! Inviting creative expression that would otherwise go into these things doesn’t make them “artistic,” but it sure makes them interesting.
Burning Man may celebrate art but its larger impact is to liberate creativity from the ghetto of art. By supporting creativity in every moment (what researcher Ruth Richards calls “Everyday Creativity”), Burning Man allows the mundane to fulfill the roles we’d otherwise turn to art for.
Art remains cool, but it actually becomes less important: we don’t need it to inspire us because we’re already inspired. We don’t need it as a salve to get through our daily lives (which Schopenhauer thought it was) because our moment-to-moment lives are their own salve. Ordinary moments are filled with ambient creativity: we have no idea what’s going to come next.
Seen through this lens, I think my new friend’s problem is that her passion has become art without creativity. It used to have creativity, there used to be a stream of creativity flowing through it, but its sitting on the shelf for too long caused that creativity to stagnate. Without fresh creativity moving through it, an art project is no more inspiring than painting a house or running errands. If she wants it to live again, she has to take it someplace new.
Creativity has to move to live. By removing the frames around art and taking much of its power away, Burning Man keeps that energy moving everywhere. You don’t get to stagnate at Burning Man. If you try to go through the motions, those motions, filled with the inspiration and creative power of a community, will flatten you. Into an inspired shape no one has ever seen before.
Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man. His opinions are not statements of the Burning Man organization. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com