Burning Book Club – Introduction: We’ll run out of money before we run out of art

(This post is the second in a new book club, and inspired by reading the introduction of Scott Timberg’s Book-Burning-225x300“Culture Crash: the killing of the creative class.” Read all the book club entries)

If there is a crisis in the arts, why do we care?

We live in unsettled times – climate change is throwing the whole planet into environmental chaos; there is a constant buzz of military action in a “war on terror” that shows no sign of ending and theoretically never could; global hotspots between major powers like the U.S., China, and Russia, threaten to erupt; antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria are becoming an increasingly common fact of life; government power, especially for surveillance, is running unchecked …

When we say “it’s a problem that artists can’t make a living,” this is the competition. This, and the fact that as a result of automation and corporate policies there may soon simply not be enough jobs to go around for anyone.

So a guy can’t make a living painting paintings? So a woman can’t make a living sculpting sculptures? So I can’t make a living writing little stories? So what? What’s at stake?

It’s not like we’re going to run out of paintings or sculptures or stories. If anything, digital images and 3d printing and the internet make all these things easier to come by than ever.

Scott Timberg opens his book “Culture Crash: the killing of the creative class” by making a case that art itself is in danger.

“If we’re not careful, culture work will become a luxury, like a vacation home,” Timberg writes in his introduction. “The price we ultimately pay is in the decline of art itself, diminishing understanding of ourselves, one another, and the eternal human spirit.”

As an artist, I would very much like to think Timberg is right – and that the world will not go on turning in some vital way without me and the work I do. As a human being, however, I think Timberg is very cogent in his analysis of the problem we’re facing, but very wrong in his analysis of what’s at stake.

Art is not in any danger. And I think Burning Man, as an arts and cultural institution, inadvertently demonstrates why. (more…)

The Burning Man Minute for July 7, 2015

Burning Man news comes at you faster than a speeding metaphor! More powerful than a leaping analogy! You need to digest it like a symbolically appropriate digesting thing! That’s why there’s: The Burning Man Minute!

Still not caught up? See previous episodes of The Burning Man Minute here and here!

You got your money in my art! You got your art in my money!

This is one of my favorite stories about a piece of art.

michelangelo last judgment
Michelangelo’s Last Judgement

After Michelangelo was commissioned to paint “The Last Judgment” on the wall of the Sistine Chapel, the Vatican’s Master of Ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, examined the painting in progress and said it was shameful for a sacred work to depict nude bodies, and that it was a painting more fit for a public bath than the Holy See.

In revenge, Michelangelo gave one of the devils in hell da Cesena’s face, and added donkey ears.  (Lower right hand corner:  he’s also got a snake wrapped around him.  Close-up below the jump.)

Da Cesena complained to the Pope, but His Holiness replied that there was nothing he could do, because this was a devil and his authority as Pontiff did not cover hell.

The painting remains on the wall of the Sistine Chapel to this day, viewed by millions of tourists each year, and while Da Cesena was a rich and powerful man at the time, the only reason we even remember his name today is because Michelangelo snubbed him.

Aside from being hilarious in its own right, this story sits right at the intersection between art, sacred culture, and commerce. Michelangelo was a hired gun, paid a lot of money to make sacred art by people there is every reason to think he didn’t particularly like or respect, and the result has become a fixture of western culture. (more…)

Why Radical Inclusion should make us uncomfortable

I’ve always taken Radical Inclusion very personally because I’m convinced that, if it weren’t for Radical Inclusion, I never would have been let into Burning Man.  You didn’t know me back then:  somebody would have said “I don’t know about this guy.  Is he reaaaaally one of us?”  Instead they said “Welcome Home.”

Done right, Radical Inclusion is the engine that keeps our creative energies going year after year – and is frequently uncomfortable.  If it’s not at least a little uncomfortable from time to time, you’re probably just playing with the people you’d hang out with outside of Burning Man, and what good is that?

An open letter to businesses who want to offer luxury trips to Burning Man

Starport by Carey Thompson, 2012 (Photo by Scott Williams)
Starport by Carey Thompson, 2012 (Photo by Scott Williams)

Dear Entrepreneurs:

We’ve never met – at least I don’t think – and so I don’t know whether you’re true believing Burners who are just trying to make a buck sharing something you love without thinking it through or opportunists trying to strip-mine our culture and sell the raw materials to the highest bidder.  Could go either way, and I prefer not to think the worst about people, no matter how often it’s justified.

And hey, let he who is without sin cast the first stone, right?  I think pretty much everyone who has been inspired by Burning Man has wondered “How can I make THIS what I do in the world?  Can I make Burning Man economically productive for me?”

It’s a completely reasonable question.  Why wouldn’t you think it?  Decommodification is a principle, but paying rent is a necessity.  The question of how to make Burning Man a sustainable part of one’s life is one that Burners around the world are grappling with, experimenting with different models, and I think they’re at the vanguard of Burning Man’s next big step.

But some approaches … most particularly selling Burning Man merchandise … aren’t going to work. And most of the schemes I’ve seen to offer “Burning Man Experiences” aren’t going to work either.

But not so much because of the money thing.

I want to explain why, not so that I can yell at you for trying, but because maybe if we get on the same page about what the problem here is, you can come up with an approach that will work.  So the dynamicism and energy you’re obviously bringing to this effort – starting a business is challenging – can be harnessed in service of the community you’re trying to introduce people to.  And so that those people can be better introduced to our community.

Because right now there’s a serious problem with what it looks like you’re trying to do, and it’s not actually decommodification.  Well, maybe that too, but there’s a much bigger, much more serious, problem here.  That’s the one I want to talk about. (more…)

Global Leadership for a world of amateurs

I’ve crashed about half of the Burning Man Global Leadership Conferences (including back when it was the “Regional Network Conferences) and can not think of any higher praise than this: as a person who frequently tries to come up with new things to say about Burning Man, I always leave thinking “Wow, there’s so much to talk about.”

But sitting in on a few (just a few) of the presentations and round-tables the other weekend, I was often less struck by what was said than by the way it was said.

For all that Burners are in no way lacking in aesthetic and technical know-how, the GLC is about as far away from a TED conference as you can get: it’s so far from slick it’s dusty. Presentations frequently have all the sophistication of colored markers on white paper, and the state of the discourse is often basic compared to what’s out there.

I meant all this in a good way.

One of the smartest things I think I ever wrote about Burning Man is that it is “for amateurs” – that Burning Man is so amazing in large part because it is full of ordinary people trying to push their capacities to do new things, rather than a professional class of “producers” and “entertainers” doing what they know how to do over and over and over again. It is this fact, this eternal amateurism in the best sense, that keeps Burning Man an engine of possibility rather than a slickly produced Vegas show.

Attending the panel on community outreach through art highlighted this distinction for me. There was plenty there worth writing about for on its own terms (which I hope to get around to later), but for the moment I’m going to highlight just a small piece of it to make a point: (more…)

What I’ve learned about Burning Man from reading “Culture and the Death of God.”

Burning Books 2(This post is inspired by reading the final chapter of Terry Eagleton’s “Culture and the Death of God.” Read all the book club entries)

So here’s the thing about cults:

Every time one’s in the news or does something big – no matter where in the world – everybody in the media rushes to assure themselves that only losers belong to this organization: it’s for sexless poor people who just can’t hack it in modernity.

And every time – from Aum Shinrikyo in Japan to ISIS in the Middle East – they’re wrong.   Every time we’re stunned to learn that many of the cultists/fundamentalists/terrorists were actually economically successful. That they had relationships, and families, and ties to the community.

Our delusion that successful IT managers or people with friends wouldn’t join a cult or strap on a suicide vest is the conjoined twin of a larger cultural delusion: that modernity offers everything we need to live satisfying lives.

The evidence is clear that for a huge swath of people, it doesn’t. If you add up:


  • The people who seek solace and meaning through religion;
  • To the people who (unprecedented in human history) need to take medication just to be functionally free of depression and anxiety
  • To the people who are clinging to pseudo-scientific and New Age platitudes about “quantum weirdness” to find a sense of meaning
  • To the people who are fanatically devoted to radical politics because the world as it is needs to change
  • To the people who hold some abstract notion of “ART” as something that can never be understood except as a pure bringer of purpose where nothing else will do;
  • To the people who hold some abstract notion of “SCIENCE!” as something that can bring all purpose and meaning to life if we were to just try harder to turn ourselves into beings of pure thought;
  • To the people who aren’t any of these things but are unhappy and unsatisfied and running on a treadmill that feels like it isn’t getting anywhere …


Then you get most of the world’s population.

Let’s stop deluding ourselves: modernity has many good points. It offers unprecedented freedoms and opportunities and social advancements. But it leaves a giant void in most people that it cannot fill because it’s always trying to commercialize and monetize it. Turning lonely people into consumers does not make them less lonely – it only makes them consume more.

The result is seen in its starkest terms when people who have everything to live for in a modern society run off and join what amounts to a death cult: they need to make a drastic break because other is no other kind. There is no soft opt out. (more…)

Primal Screaming over Burning Man (and the war of cultural appropriation)

The_ScreamOne gets the impression that many Burners thought that when Burning Man got big enough for the forces of liberal consumer capitalism to notice it, that those forces would just roll over and plead for Larry Harvey to rub their belly. Or that the New York Stock Exchange would hang the 10 Principles on the wall and replace the opening bell with dub-step.

That was never going to happen. Burning Man’s entry into the world as a genuinely large scale movement was always going to be a complicated, messy, clash of ideas.

And now that Burning Man has grown big enough and popular enough to be co-opted by market forces, those forces are trying their level best.

Burning Man has been imitated – on the surface – by people trying to make money for some time. This attempt at full-on appropriation is beginning in earnest now, as opposed to 10 years ago, because without a merchandizing arm (which Burning Man has always refused to do, its recent asinine experimentation with scarves as donation premiums aside), it is difficult for appropriators to make money without scarcity. Not impossible, but difficult enough that the massive machine of the marketing/lifestyle complex didn’t really turn its sights on Burning Man.

Now that we’re living in an era of ticket scarcity, however …

Yet as the conflict is joined, the many Burners who talk about Burning Man as though it had “sold out” – as though it had been defeated – are confusing the ending with the beginning.   They are declaring that the civil war has been lost because shots have just been fired against Fort Sumter, when in fact this is a prelude to the massive conflict to come.

Burning Man culture and the Burning Man organization haven’t lost a fight against liberal consumer capitalism – they’ve only just begun it.

This – what Burning Man is going through right now – is what that looks like at the beginning. The early stages.   When market forces decide not to care that we have 10 Principles or that some people put their life into a theme camp for others to enjoy and now can’t get tickets.

What’s happening now was not only inevitable, but predictable: from Walter Benjamin to Theador Adorno to every fucking post-structuralist some of us were forced to study because we took an English class in the 90s, there is a huge body of literature and research showing that yes – yes indeed – when a counter-culture gets big enough, the forces of liberal consumer capitalism try to appropriate it for their own ends. And, so far, they have been successful every time. That’s how Che Guavara ends up on T-shirts made in third world factories and sold to college students whose dorms are cleaned by immigrants making minimum wage.

The fact that it’s happening is why discussion about Burning Man has largely transformed from a dialogue into a primal scream. (more…)