Why I Consider Burning Man the Greatest Cultural Movement of Our Time
For over a century, a central basis of art has been what critic Robert Hughes termed “the shock of the new.” Modern art has taught its followers to yearn for subversion and disruption, the undermining of anything they believe an artwork to be: Marcel Duchamp’s upside-down urinal, Andy Warhol’s eight-hour film of the Empire State Building, Jackson Pollock’s dismissal of any figure-ground relationship by splattering paint directly on the canvas. The dismay they caused quickly turned to admiration and accolades.
I have only felt that delectable, euphoric “shock of the new” twice in my life: when I saw the first exhibit of Jeff Koons’s porcelain and wood sculptures at the Sonnabend Gallery in SoHo in 1988, and when I went to Burning Man for the first time in 2000. Koons’s “Banality” sculptures horrified and fascinated me with their vacant pop culture glamor. It had never occurred to me that such deplorable kitsch could become objects of aesthetic contemplation. Burning Man impacted me in a different way. The festival expanded my sense of what art was and could be. It rewired my sense of what human beings are capable of. The shock has been permanent—my desire for more of it remains addictive.
As most will likely know by now, Burning Man is a weeklong arts festival that takes place in the Black Rock desert of Nevada. The event began with a few hundred people on a beach in San Francisco and celebrated its 30th birthday this past Labor Day weekend. It moved to the desert in 1990, where it kept expanding. 25,400 people were there in 2000. This summer, some 75,000 made the annual pilgrimage, creating, for one week, the tenth largest urban center in Nevada. The event might easily be double or triple the size save its cap on yearly admission.
Burning Man’s shock to my conceptions of art and human potential has compelled me to attend for 16 of the past 17 years (I skipped 2015). I fell in love with its giant sculptures and installations, which are scattered across the enormous blank canvas of the windblown desert—and are mostly reduced to ash in the event’s final days. At Burning Man, you don’t just admire the art, you become part of it. On the playa, I have chased a gigantic white whale art car in a 17th-century schooner, ridden golden dragons to secret cabarets inside of massive dice cubes, slept on shag carpets beneath a forest of white rustling plastic strips, and witnessed dozens of purple, luminous dawns from ziggurats and pyramids. I’ve had a million other peak moments now lost or half-forgotten in the shifting sands of time.
Magnificent as many of the sculptures and constructions I explored were, I rarely considered them to be unique artworks made by talented individuals or local collectives. The festival seemed like one collective art expression, a coalescence of a shared vision among many individuals and communities that gets expressed in the artworks, the costumes, the design of individual camps, and the overall layout of the city: a vast semi-circle laid out like a clock, rather than the rectangular grid of many modern metropolises. In this way, Burning Man is similar to what Richard Wagner described in the 1850s as a Gesamtkunstwerk, a “total work of art” that uses and combines any and all other art forms to affect all of the senses, becoming more than the sum of its parts.
Despite some concerns about the future direction of the gathering, I still consider Burning Man the greatest cultural movement of our time. This may seem like a strange thing to say about an event that routinely gets dismissed as a hedonistic, drug-saturated, glorified rave. Wagner talked about the “great United Art-work” as “the instinctive and associate product of the Manhood of the Future.” There was—and still is—something peculiarly futuristic, as well as operatic, about Burning Man. It reveals how permeable human nature is and how quickly people will transform when given the opportunity to be part of something new and better. The total context of an environment where people are liberated from commercial transactions, and given license to share their gifts, express their full individuality, and be inclusive toward others has a transformative impact. It also creates a unique context for artwork that celebrates our highest potential—at the cost, perhaps, of some critical distance and discernment.
Many of the mainstream art world’s conventions get turned on their heads at Burning Man. In a museum or gallery we generally expect to encounter art as groupings of discrete objects that we view, and judge, within a pristine white cube. One of Burning Man’s cardinal tenets, on the other hand, is that there are no observers, only participants. In such a context, art is inherently interactive. At Burning Man, art is sublimely relational, meant to be touched, climbed over, played on—and ultimately fed to the flames and destroyed.
Also crucial to the aesthetic of Burning Man is the event’s enormous scale. It conveys a sense of limitless expansion, where imagination is the final frontier. Some of the most extraordinary art experiences one can have at the festival involve getting lost in its seven square miles of vast and largely empty desert. Bicycle through “deep playa” to the event’s orange mesh perimeter fence in a white-out dust storm, and you may well encounter, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, an installation of a Bedouin tent surrounded by pulsing LED flowers, where a cowled, silent man serves you piping hot Moroccan mint tea.
Sculptural installations at Burning Man often play with our sense of scale. In 2003, for Zachary Coffin’s Temple of Gravity, enormous stones were suspended on tensile cables in mid-air for those brave enough to crawl over them or lie beneath them. Unbelievably enormous structures that rival wonders of the world get built each year and detonated in the event’s final days. In 2007, Dan Das Mann and Karen Cusolito created Crude Awakening, a 99-foot-tall oil derrick in front of which massive humanoid sculptures bowed in adulation. In 2012, Otto Van Danger’s Burn Wall Street saw an entire scale model of Wall Street built and blown up in a sly homage to the Occupy movement. This summer, a team led by Dan Sullivan built a pair of 60-foot-tall pyramids called the Catacomb of Veils. At around 6 a.m. on Friday morning, with the Playa engulfed in a brilliant, pink sunrise, the pair burned to the ground, sending off massive cyclones of smoke and leaving only the smaller pyramid’s metal crown to testify to their former existence.
As a Wagnerian gesamtkunstwerk, Burning Man heightens and stimulates the various senses to a great degree—it also often confounds or denies our yearning for completion or satiation. Just as often as you may stumble upon that would-be Bedouin and his mint tea you may also be wandering and hear some faint throbbing beat or see some quavering lights far in the distance and race toward them, convinced that some extraordinary art piece or dance party is taking place, that some revelation is at hand. Upon reaching the source, you might just find a speaker throwing out skittering beats next to a few gauze-covered poles, and nobody else around, nothing but dust, as far as the eye can see. As a vast social sculpture, Burning Man conveys elements of Buddhist teachings—on the incessant nature of craving, on impermanence and emptiness—without being pedantic about it.
Burning Man also represents a cultural edge-space where art, entertainment, and spectacle cross back over toward their original roots in ritual, ceremony, and religion. This is something that is difficult to talk about without inviting ridicule. As a unified artwork or social sculpture defined by a set of 10 principles (“Leave no trace,” “radical inclusion,” “gifting,” “decommodification,” and so on), Burning Man functions in the lives of its regular visitors as a ritual, an annual pilgrimage—a ceremony that celebrates the turning of the year, the recreation and transformation of the self, and the mystery of existence itself. Such events were known throughout the ancient world. Most famously, the Eleusinian Mysteries in Ancient Greece was an annual gathering for all of the luminaries of the Classical World that lasted for 1,500 or more years, only coming to an end in the 4th century A.D. at the behest of Christian Roman emperor Theodosius. Burning Man seems an organic return to these archaic mystery traditions, but in an American grain.
We often forget that profane art is necessarily a product of a secular culture. The galleries and museums of our postmodern world are desacralized versions of the ancient temples and shrines where people went to find aesthetic awe and mystical wonder—praying to pantheistic gods inhabiting sculptures, effigies, vases and friezes. Even today, the artwork remains an object saturated with a mysterious manna, reflecting and upholding the order of things with its totemic presence. Today, the occult power we innately ascribe to art in the mainstream art world is honored and recognized through monetary value. Subjectively priceless yet objectively valueless, art has become an investment vehicle for a civilization that worships money above all else.
Burning Man points toward a transition where we realize, once again, art’s function as an expression of a community’s aspiration as well as as a vehicle for collective myth-making. In the past, humans got lost in their myths and belief systems. Today, we can enjoy the mythic power of ritual and spectacle while remembering that all belief systems are ultimately mental constructs that lack an intrinsic or ultimate value. In this way, we can have collective experiences that are spectacular, aesthetic, and, for some, spiritual, while avoiding dogma or cant.
As somebody who has written on shamanic cultures in the Amazon and Africa, as well as traditional myth-based civilizations like the classic Maya, Hindus, and Egyptians, I find many resonances with their ceremonies and practices at Burning Man. To its credit, the festival recognizes and assimilates its surrounding rituals with a self-knowing wink. One year, the Man himself—a 50-foot-tall stick figure that gets dramatically exploded on Saturday night—was ringed by little shrines where costumed Burners stepped up to assume the role of Gods and oracles, pranking passersby. There is also the cult of the little Man, whose devotees burn a tiny effigy in a ceremony that parodies the main event. As in indigenous rituals such as peyote ceremonies, fire plays a major role, acting as a beacon and a gathering place for those in meditation, prayer, or trance to commune with the elements of earth, air, and fire.
As an organization, Burning Man shies away from anything vaguely sanctimonious or even “mystical.” It makes some odd judgments, I find, in deciding what art receives funding and institutional support, and perhaps avoids work that is more challenging or inherently critical. The art of Burning Man is different, in crucial respects, from the types of art celebrated in the mainstream art world, displayed in magazines like Artforum and museums like MoMA. And it is instructive to explore these differences.
The mainstream art world tends to celebrate work that is oblique in its meaning. Willem de Kooning once wrote, “Content is a glimpse,” and that still fits most art today. The values and ethos of the mainstream art world are shaped by European postmodernism and reflect a particular critical discourse. Postmodern art succeeds by fitting into a particular syntax that has evolved over decades.
Consider a monumental sculpture like Kara Walker’s A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, a 75-foot-tall sphinx, which drew over 100,000 people to Brooklyn’s since-demolished Domino Sugar Factory in 2014 and uncomfortably reflected on race, gender, and historical memory. In scale and ambition, the piece would seem perfect for Black Rock City. But I don’t think it would have been popular out there.
Similarly, some artists at Burning Man create enormous steel sculptures out of words, such as this year’s @EARTH#HOME by Laura Kimpton and Jeff Schomberg. But contrast this piece with a hypothetical enlargement of a phrase by Jenny Holzer—such as her famous “Protect me from what I want”—and the difference is clear. Burning Man is meant to create the sense—or illusion—of a liberated culture. Much contemporary art points out the distance we still need to go to overcome the oppressive ideologies we have invisibly internalized.
The focus of Burning Man art is collective enjoyment, rather than removed aesthetic judgment. But the pedigree of Burning Man art does, however, encompass ’60s Happenings—performed by artists like Allan Kaprow, John Cage, and Carolee Schneeman—Dada, Surrealism, and Pop Art. It is also informed by the human-potential movement, which is centered in Northern California. Many of the early founders of Burning Man belonged to the San Francisco-based Cacophony Society, which mingled post-punk aesthetics and prankster humor, with a tinge of hipster nihilism. The Bay Area is a haven for experiments with personal identity and sexuality, including transgender identities, queerness, BDSM, and kink. These areas remain a focus for many in the Burner community.
The photographer Leo Nash captured a central aesthetic of the early years of Burning Man in his book Burning Man: Art in the Desert (2007). Mostly taken in the 1990s, the photos are all black and white, surprisingly stark, unpeopled, and even minimalist. Nash’s images counterpose the vastness of the desert with the industrial machines and sculptural interventions that humans drag out there. The underlying tone is a Beckett-like futility.
In more recent years, another main influence has been the progress-oriented positivity of Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs. This has created its own cult of futurism in the singularity and transhumanist movement on the playa. Founders, CEOs, and venture capitalists have arrived in droves, bringing their Robot Hearts, Mayan Warriors, 747s, gigantic mobile rubber ducks, and million-dollar art cars. The art has become more baroque, supporting entire industries of fabricators, welders, and lighting designers who have started to take up residence in Reno, sparking an urban renewal.
The success of Burning Man reveals a familiar pattern of cultural assimilation. As with Beat poetry in the 1950s or punk rock in the 1970s, what was once the expression of a small group of outsider artists and provocateurs gets integrated into the cultural mainstream. In the end, countercultures tend to prop up and support the commercial society, creating new styles and trends that can be sold to the masses even as they influence the mass consciousness.
In its own way, Burning Man threatens to become something of a countercultural Walt Disney World, albeit one with anti-authoritarian values that inspires people to step into the frame as artists and participants. As the event has grown in cultural influence and become an institution, it has lost something of its rebellious, chaotic, prankster edge. The fashion and attitude of Burning Man has become codified, and new hierarchies of cool subtly inscribed. But, as the New York-based magazine Jacobin noted last year, nothing in the core tenets of Burning Man oppose libertarianism or post-industrial capitalism. And this means that the wealthy have a great ability to influence the collective experience, as they can fund large-scale sculptures, theme camps, and art cars.
Despite these and other issues, Burning Man remains a tremendous inspiration for many people, and it continues to take new directions. Recently, a consortium of wealthy Burners (rumored to include luminaries such as Google’s Sergey Brin, Tesla’s Elon Musk, and Cirque du Soleil founder Guy De Liberte) worked with the organization to purchase Fly Ranch, 3,800 acres of desert near Black Rock City, where they plan to build a permanent community and experimental think tank. As the art of Burning Man becomes more well-known, the artists who have made their names through the festival are receiving public and private commissions. (Long-time Burning Man artist Leo Villareal was recently brought on by Pace Gallery.) Some have garnered international recognition.
In 2000, David Best and Jack Haye built the first temple at Burning Man, the Temple of the Mind. It was constructed from discarded wood scraps from a toy factory making dinosaur models and dedicated to a collaborator who had committed suicide a few months earlier. Best’s temples added a new dimension to the event—a serious note of remembrance and reflection. During the week, the temples are thronged with costumed Burners. They pray, meditate, write on the walls, and create shrines for loved ones who have died—or for parts of themselves they want to release. In 2001, Best created the Temple of Tears, a diaphanous structure that evoked Tibetan and Cambodian sacred architecture. I found it one of the most moving sculptural installations I had ever encountered.
Before Burning Man, Best was a West Coast artist with a successful career, but he had never made work that impacted people as the temples did. He recalled a father whose son had died approaching him to say: My son committed suicide and you set him free. “I had never made art that healed a family,” Best recalls. “It changed something for me.” He sees the Temples as an act of service for the community, one that requires humility from himself and his crew of 80–100 builders.
Best says his 2016 iteration, called simply The Temple, was his last on the playa. But, with the support of the Black Rock Arts Foundation, Best has started taking his temples out into the world. In March 2015, he built one in Derry, Ireland, to symbolize and help accelerate the healing between Catholics and Protestants. One year later, Best worked on a project in a town in Nepal that had lost its central shrine due to the 2015 earthquake. (The process also partially inspired The Temple this year.) He is currently preparing to create one in Israel, with the intention of bringing together Arabs and Jews.
Burning Man has created something like a parallel art world. Over the years, I have watched many artists find their place at the event and build careers through their relationship to it. Kate Raudenbush’s Helios (2016) drew inspiration from the theme of Leonardo da Vinci’s Workshop, and sought to fuse art and technology. A large wooden construction partly funded by a grant from the Burning Man Arts Foundation, Helios was only fully activated when six viewers took positions on it and remained still for a minute, completing an electrical circuit. At that point, a beam of light shot out from it, reflecting each person’s intentions—for a better world or better future.
A professional photographer when she first attended in 1999, Raudenbush changed careers and found a “sense of purpose” as well as her community through the event. Over the next decade, she made a series of sculptures, generally welded from steel, that became increasingly large-scaled and ambitious, each one focused on a particular idea, such as “self-empowerment” or “connection to nature.” She will exhibit during the next Venice Biennale with a group of Burning Man artists as part of “We Are from Dust,” located on its own small island.
One of my favorite all-time works at the event was Harlan Emil Gruber’s Sapphire Portal (2007). Gruber’s work includes three-dimensional, interactive geometrical forms such as dodecahedrons and icosidodecahedrons. The Sapphire Portal was a circular construction 61 feet in diameter, nine and a half feet tall on the outside, painted the color of the dawn sky, with geometrical structures at the center. It emitted a continuously changing low-frequency hum. I spent many hours in this construction, which seemed to have the capacity to trigger profound meditative or visionary states that were experienced collectively by whoever was present.
With a formal resemblance to art by Robert Irwin and other works of ’60s Minimalism, Gruber’s installations are meant to be “consciousness changing” devices. His 2016 project, the playa-colored Alcyone Portal was “intended as a key to shift the Earth into the next vibrational dimension by aligning participants’ vibrational energy bodies to the evolution of the Earth’s vibrational energy body.” It was his thirteenth time bringing work to the playa, despite his lack of formal recognition by the Burning Man organization, from which he has never received an arts grant. “I was told that they refuse to consider work that has a spiritual content,” Gruber says. This seems a bit arbitrary, as many people would find works like Best’s temples and Raudenbush’s Helios equally spiritual. However, it is also testament to the magnetic power of the event that artists continue to create large-scale work for it it even without institutional support.
Burning Man continues to evolve into a cultural force and globally influential movement. Part of what makes it very significant is that it represents a transition from the rebellious, isolated individualism of past countercultures to a realization of community solidarity, rooted in shared values and ideals. These values include the innate desire for self-expression and for personal liberation in any form that doesn’t negatively impact other people or the planet itself.
A major development over the last decade has been the rapid growth of a global network of regional Burning Man events—as well as hundreds, if not thousands, of festivals and gatherings directly influenced by Burner culture and ideals. There are now yearly gatherings across the U.S., and in Europe, Israel, Australia, and South Africa, that attract thousands. The basis of this movement is the 10 principles codified by Harvey, which all regional events must adopt. Many other festivals have sprung up—such as Gratitude Migration in New Jersey or Envision in Costa Rica—which are not exactly Burning Man regionals (some include commerce, which Burning Man forbids), but express more or less the same ethos. What is forming is a nascent global network based on communion and celebration, where millions of people plug directly into a living participatory culture, rather than one based on consumerism and mediated experience.
As I discuss in my new book, How Soon Is Now?, we are facing a global ecological crisis that will unfold over the next decades, causing profound changes in culture and society—even threatening our species with extinction over the coming centuries. I often wonder if this new, more experiential way of being is pointing toward a shift that may, ultimately, have great significance for human civilization. In perhaps the best version of the future we can envision from this point in time, we will see the emergence of a directly cooperative and participatory global culture, where presence and self-expression is prioritized over owning luxury goods or demonstrating status.
The festival also belongs to a larger cultural shift from material possession toward direct experience as the highest value. This so-called “experience economy” marks a transition in cultural ideals and values that may have great significance as the deepening global ecological crisis and depletion of natural resources forces us to transform our relationship to the Earth as a whole.
The German conceptual artist Joseph Beuys once wrote, “Only art is capable of dismantling the repressive effects of a senile social system to build a social organism as a work of art.” We live at a time when political and social structures seem to be failing us. Burning Man points toward our latent capacity to reinvent our world according to different principles and ideals, giving art a new meaning and purpose. The gathering has attracted the best and brightest from across the world, inspiring and transforming people’s sense of what’s possible. I remain curious to see what evolves.
Photographs by Alexander Forbes, with image design by Philip Warner Patton. © Artsy