My article about why Burning Man lacks a recognizable literary style has prompted a vigorous debate. One interesting contention that several people have made: a clear written aesthetic does emerge at Burning Man. It happens as graffiti.
“The scrawlings on the Temple, the Man Base and other sculptures are the literature of Burning Man. (Aside: don’t bring art to the playa that it’s not okay to write on; writing on art is following the principles of Participation and Radical Self-Expression.) Burning Man has distinct graffiti that you won’t find anywhere else in the world.”
“There is definitely a language of the Burner that I am aware of. Kind of a cross between New Age religion and rave goer. I’t is recognizable in the written word a poetry seen in places like the temple walls, camps, art, blogs, forums and the center camp stages.”
Ellie said that Burner writing “Might just be written on a wooden platform. Or in a port-a-potty. Often embodied in the most ephemeral of forms.”
And so on.
It’s a great point, one that I hadn’t considered. Certainly graffiti can be art – even literary art. The writing on the temple walls is absolutely part of our culture, although I question whether many of the people writing it are considering stylistic issues at the time.
I’m not convinced, though: I don’t recall seeing any graffiti that struck me as “only at Burning Man.” Quite the contrary. The graffiti seemed as ubiquitous in its style as in its presence.
But I could be wrong: perhaps someone can do a literary analysis of Burning Man’s graffiti to make the case.
But even before we consider the content, I’m stuck on Jared’s contention: “don’t bring art to the playa that it’s not okay to write on; writing on art is following the principles of Participation and Radical Self-Expression.”
Is it? For any piece of art? Not just the Temple and the Man and other pieces that are explicitly looking for it?
Is vandalizing someone else’s art actually an artistic act of self-expression?
Another writer in the comments section, Barry Brumitt, suggests that this isn’t the way it works in for some people. According to his account (I have no personal knowledge or independent verification), he created free-standing sheet metal signs on which false statements about various art pieces were printed. His plan was to go around and put them in the round near the art, creating a mis-informative art tour that could be taken, one piece to another.
He says he was told not to because doing so violated Burning Man’s vandalism policy.
So on the one hand, we have Burners saying that to tag a piece of art is a legitimate act of free expression – and on the other we have a contention that even putting false information near a piece of art is infringing on artistic expression.
Both self-expression and artistic integrity are among Burning Man’s highest values. Can this circle be squared?
Probably not to anyone’s satisfaction. But the most interesting questions about our values and how we live them are always on these frontiers.
After giving it some thought – and as always speaking only for myself – here’s my take:
Graffiti, and even harsher forms of vandalism, can indeed be artistic expression in most cases. And in most cases, I think Jared is right: if you don’t want it changed in some way, whatever it is, you probably shouldn’t bring it to Burning Man.
But I draw the line at art. Unless invited by the artist, you should keep your hands off it. Because a piece of art should say what the artist intends it to: their art is their radical expression. Tag it, and you change that expression. You are taking the words out of their mouth, plucking their vision out of the air, changing it, and then putting it back in.
Don’t do that. Make your own art. Write on the graffiti equivalent of a blank sheet of paper. Turn a subject that doesn’t say anything into its own piece of art through graffiti. Make more art, rather than drawing over existing art. Don’t engage in your self-expression at the expense of someone else’s.
But don’t we have the right to criticize art? Yes! Of course! Do that. Do that far and wide! A lot of Burning Man art sucks! But don’t do it on the piece: that only makes it harder for other people to see how much it sucks.
We don’t have to be nice. In fact, I don’t recommend it. But Burning Man’s value of radical self-expression is intended to create more expression and more art, and that means letting other people speak. We disagree best by creating more expression, better expression: not by silencing the things we don’t like.
Ironically, Brumitt’s “misinformation tour” fits perfectly into my range of fair play: he was creating entirely separate pieces of art without damaging the original. Seems not only legitimate but kind of of awesome to me.
Which is to say that I don’t expect anybody to be convinced, or disagreements to be settled, but the conversation’s interesting. What do you think?
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