John Curley once wrote that many of the world’s greatest photographers come from around the globe specifically to take pictures at Burning Man. It’s obvious why. Burning Man has pioneered a unique visual aesthetic.
Look at a picture: there’s no question that it came from Burning Man.
It’s not just photography. Look at sculptures, or installation art: there’s no ambiguity which are in a “Burning Man” style and which aren’t. Some people at Burning Man may do other things (God bless ‘em) but Burning Man has still pioneered a distinctive look in the fine arts that many imitate but no one else really owns.
Architecture? Same thing. Fashion? You betcha. Sure you’ll find people in all kinds of outfits out on the playa … but when we talk about “Burning Man fashion,” we all know what we’re talking about.
While the arts at Burning Man are very diverse, the fact remains: for years Burning Man has been the center of major new trends in all the visual arts, and is still going strong, its distinctive influence only growing.
What about music, though?
That’s more complicated. However many of us wish it were different, Burning Man definitely has a distinct sound: a week of throbbing dubstep is practically synonymous with “Burning Man.” Again, not the only thing you’ll hear out there (I for one sing sea chanties, and Adrian has been evangelizing mash-ups for years), but definitely a signature. If someone says “Burning Man music” that’s what most people think of, and everyone knows it.
Unlike with the visual arts, however, I don’t think a serious case can be made that Burning Man is pioneering this sound. In fact, it’s fairly derivative of rave culture and club music. Sure, many of the world’s greatest DJs come to Burning Man to perform, but where the photographers are coming to take pictures that they couldn’t possibly take anywhere else in the world, the DJs are coming to do exactly what they do elsewhere for an audience.
It’s probably fair to say that Burner culture has an influence on that music, but we’re not leading the aesthetic.
That’s a pretty big jump down in influence from the visual arts to music. And when you get to the written word the influence disappears entirely.
Burning Man has no signature writing style, derivative or otherwise. For all the hundreds of books and articles that have been written about Burning Man over 26 years, for all the scholarly papers, the blog posts … no particular verbal style has emerged. Saying “that’s like something you’d read at Burning Man” is nonsensical. Could be anything.
Burning Man has no particular style of poetry, no particular authorial “voice.” The Great Burning Man Novel has yet to be written – let alone to inspire others to write under its influence.
Why is that? Why does Burning Man have such an advanced visual aesthetic … one that truly is influencing the whole world … and absolutely no literary culture at all?
I’m honestly asking here. I don’t know. I’m hoping someone can tell me.
I do have a few ideas to put out there, for what it’s worth, but nothing that adds up to a theory. Here we go:
Visual Arts are often more collaborative
A single person can’t build the Man, or the Temple; a single person can’t build the massive sculptures we take for granted, or be their own troop of fire dancers. These kinds of visual projects need teams, they need communities, and so are well suited for the kind of culture Burning Man is and aspires to be.
Writing can be done collaboratively but … well … other than collections of stories and essays, can you name one great book that was written collaboratively? Where a group of people got together and said “what’s the right word to put here?” It doesn’t work that way – at least not well. While there are forms of writing that are more social than others, writing as compared to the teamwork needed to construct massive installations and sculptures and architecture is a solitary pursuit, and thus perhaps doesn’t go well with Burner culture.
Reading and Writing aren’t really something we do at Burning Man
Not only is the experience of creating literature a more solitary process, but the experience of reading it is generally more solitary as well. The archetypal novel, after all, is read quietly to oneself in a comfortable spot for hours on end.
There are, of course, poetry readings in which words are digested out loud – and Burning Man has those. There’s even a regular spoken word series at the Center Camp Café stage.
But even these are harder to experience than most visual arts. Want to see the temple? Show up any time, day or night. Stay as long as you want. Chat with your friends. Write something on the wall.
Want to see a poetry reading? You have to show up exclusively when it’s happening, and the best way to experience it is to sit or stand quietly for a prolonged period of time. Well, okay, it doesn’t have to be quiet necessarily: if it’s especially awesome you’ll be shouting like a hyperactive Greek chorus … but that’s a best case scenario. What you can’t do is talk with your friends, turn your back and go do something else and then come back later, or zone out.
Visual arts can be experienced on your schedule, at your level of engagement, and even be consumed passively. Literature of the communal kind cannot. You have to be an active participant at a specific time and place – even if being “active” in this case means sitting still and listening.
The way visual art is experienced is more conducive to Burner culture and Burning Man’s logistics.
There are exceptions, of course: if you want to see the Man burn you need to be at a particular place at a particular time. But that kind of event is a mainstay of Burner culture. What would the literary equivalent of that be?
Nothing comes to mind.
Like attracts like
Burning Man was originally centered around an icon: a literal wooden man burning on a beach. All kinds of people can (and did) say “that’s cool, I want a piece of that,” but the people most eager to participate in the creation of startling visual images will be people interested in startling visual images. It may be that Burning Man developed an extraordinary visual aesthetic over 26 years because people were doing extraordinary things with visual images at its beginning – and that it didn’t develop any kind of literary culture because that’s not what people were doing back when. Like attracts like.
A literary culture takes longer to develop
I don’t know why this would be, exactly, but maybe it does. If only we could know whether primitive homo sapiens were exchanging poems around the camp fire before they were painting cave walls.
Can’t rule it out – though I find the idea unsatisfying. But could be.
Any and all of these could be true, or not. In any case, the important question is probably not “why hasn’t Burning Man developed a literary culture thus far?” but “is one going to develop in the future?”
If not, why not? Will we be missing something important? Is this gap relevant?
If so, what will it be like? What would a Burning Man literary aesthetic be like?
Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man. His opinions are in no way statements of the Burning Man organization. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com