b r e t t (ex_askesis860) wrote in burning_man,
b r e t t

art by the masses vs. art for the masses

Burning Man has been subsidizing art for most of its existence. The Man himself is a piece that's partially funded by ticket sales, and has been for many years. It's a permanent feature of the festival, and one that in recent years has enabled the creation of several spectacular, moving, and profound works of art that have garnered international notice. However, I've come to the conclusion that this practice is destructive to at least two things I really love about the festival.

The lesser threat of art subsidies is to the egalitarian spirit of the community. One of the explicitly stated goals of Burning Man is to break down the performer/spectator, producer/consumer diads that comprise so much of the rest of our culture. Burning Man is something we enjoy, but it's also a thing we create. Everyone is meant to participate in all of those capacities. It's a big part of the subversive influence Burning Man exerts. Out in the Real World, large groups of people pay money to stand and face in one direction to look at a rock star. At Burning Man, you are the rock star.

By paying artists who do a certain kind of work, we create two classes of participants: "real artists" and everybody else. Of course, real, genuine artists have always been a part of Burning Man, but providing them with a portion of the "tax" we all pay officially elevates their contributions.

But don't these subsidies help create awe-inspiring works? Art the festival would be without if not for the subsidies? Yes, and I see that as the second and more serious problem. Putting professional quality art on the playa, especially art of prominent scale or placement, undercuts the amateurism that, for me at least, is the single most liberating thing about Burning Man.

When I arrived on the playa on '96, I was not a creative person. I'd done a bit of writing, but I'd never built, painted, composed, installed, performed, or any of the rest of it. I wasn't talented, and I thought art was something made by a group of people called artists who had special skills I didn't, people with whom I had a commercial relationship.

What I found in the desert for the very first time was art that hadn't been produced by trained professionals. They were people just like me in most respects. They weren't trying to become rich, or famous, or even recognized beyond their immediate community; they were just having fun. What this meant is that I was exposed to a lot of bad art. But it also meant that for the first time, I saw art as something that can come from anywhere, everywhere. For a few days, I was surrounded by art that had come from people with day jobs and no training, people who were only different from me in being unafraid to fail, unafraid to look like amateurs, unafraid to see what they were really capable of.

Time and again I heard things like, "this didn't turn out quite the way we'd hoped, but just you wait until next year." And then, on Sunday it all went up in flames. No souvenirs, no tokens. No Accomplishment you could use to comfort yourself that you did something creative once. It drove home the point that what mattered was making the art - not the art that happened to be left over after the process.

This changed my life. I came away from my first burn with the permission to try things, with the courage to make things that weren't perfect, with the realization that, "hey, I can do that." I realized I had a right to create. Were this my experience alone, I wouldn't give it very much weight. But I've been told similar stories by so many people that I have reason to believe something important is happening out there, something with the power to change the way people think about art, creativity, process, and product. Something is happening that lowers the bar set so far out reach by commerce and criticism.

Having to compete with something awe-inspiring intimidates me, makes me less enthusiastic about my own efforts, makes me not want to try. What's the point - I could labor for a lifetime and never do anything a tenth as good. It makes me feel like I'm back in a museum, with no obvious connection between what I can do and what I'm seeing. It turns art into something that comes from an alien place. If that interferes with my own creative motivation, one might say that's my problem. And it is. But does that mean I don't deserve to be helped with it? Lots of people have that problem, and Burning Man helped them with it, helped me with it. One of the greatest things I got out of Burning Man was that it let me in, and I hate the thought that the opening is starting to swing shut. That it gives people the freedom to express themselves, and then immediately erects a barrier in the form of people who do it better than you could ever hope.

Anyone who claims to have had their eyes opened, their lives changed in Black Rock City knows what I say is true. There are hundreds of stories about people learning that they had a hidden desire, a hidden gift, a hidden fear. We, the people of BRC, hear these stories with delight and satisfaction, because we know we're involved with something that's changing people for the better. So it's a little disingenuous to say, "if true eloquence shames you into silence, that's your problem." If we don't need any help or encouragement to get started and keep going, then we don't need LJ, writers' groups, musicians' circles, etc. We would never tell all those people who believe they've been helped with something
out there in the dust that they just should have figured it out on their own. If we could all snap our fingers and drop our inhibitions and lose our preconceptions about what we can and cannot do, well, we wouldn't need Burning Man at all.

I know it won't happen in Nevada, but I will try to impress those who guide the regional Burn with the urgency of amateurism. Erasing the lines between artist and consumer, performer and spectator frees people from something poisonous in our society, and I believe we need to get as much antidote to them as we can.
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