Wall Street Journal Flames Burning Man

I read an interesting column in the Wall Street Journal last week. In “The Dead-End Cult of the ‘Burning Man’  Real creativity has nothing to do with antics in the desert, ”  Holly Finn  dismisses Burning Man as  a waste of time and opines that groups are fine for barn raising but that events like Burning Man only serve to infantilize the creative process. Even though I have never attended Burning Man, I wondered what  it was  about the event that caused  Finn to view it with such disdain.

todd's art carBrushingBurning Man 2006

For the uninitiated, Burning Man is a weeklong festival held every year in the Nevada desert. Attendees cast off the routine of their daily lives, wear zany costumes, party, meet other people and explore alternate means of self-expression. They are encouraged to volunteer on artistic and technical projects with other attendees, using whatever creative skills they might have. Burning Man also endeavors to create a safe space so participants are willing to try doing things they have not attempted before.  They might help to  build a giant wooden puzzle, collaborate on a mural or  construct a stage for drummers and dancers. They might even try drumming or dancing themselves.

Finn quotes noted  innovator and inventor Saul Griffith as complaining that his friends who attend Burning Man borrow equipment from him, don’t return it and don’t say thank you. I wouldn’t like that either.  But Finn claims that Griffith’s real problem with “Burners” is that most of them are creative for only a few weeks of the year, not 52. Does this burning problem keep him up at night?   I don’t know.  But his  friends seem to have some  creative ways of acquiring free stuff.   Maybe they don’t even go to the festival.  But I digress.

Finn asserts that innovative ideas come from individuals, not groups.  It’s hard to disagree. (Although Bell Labs might be an exception.)  But should we dismiss Burning Man simply because the 50,000 people expected to attend this year are not going to discover a cure for cancer, produce another Pietà, or find an economical way to save the Space Program by the  end of the festival?

Why are 50,000 people planning to attend Burning Man this year anyway? The answer is complex, but I speculate that some of them would like to expand their personal and creative horizons and are hoping Burning Man might help. Should they ridiculed?  Maybe.  It’s hard to get past some of those costumes.   But pitied and dismissed? Not so fast.

Most people I know are not able to create fearlessly. They have a voice in the back of their head telling them they have no business trying to make an innovative work of art or the next iPad.  Even if they manage to push through this fear,  they  still have to get their ideas out into the world.  If they can do that, then they have to deal with criticism, constructive and otherwise, and the ever-present  potential for failure.  All of this can make one feel extremely vulnerable, which not many people can handle.  Add to that  a corresponding lack of control over the outcome.  Talent and hard work might not be enough to carry the day.  Van Gogh proved that cutting off your ear is no a guarantee of success, at least in your lifetime. Let’s face it, in our society, being an innovative artist, inventor or entrepreneur is risky and not everyone has the stomach for it even if they have the desire.  You can be a mediocre plumber, teacher, lawyer or mechanic and still scrape a living together.  It’s easier to hide in one of these roles than making peace with vulnerability.

At the same time creative souls can’t help but be drawn to like minded people, hence the group art events and community art groups. For some people,  the stimulation and feedback they get from participating improves their work and sets them on a new path. Not everyone has the chance to explore or test his or her creative passions when they are first sparked.    Community art groups and events can provide a launching pad for these people. For others,   participation in art groups will always be a social event  with learning and creativity put on the back burner.  I  concur with Finn’s observation that community art groups and events can lead to participants losing their individuality and  moving in lock step with the group instead of  searching for their own voice.  But for some, events like Burning Man  can be a place to dip their toes in the water and open themselves to new creative possibilities

Finn maintains that infantilization in groups causes people to shirk responsibility for their actions, and argues that  this infantilization at its worst  is destructive, giving  the London riots as an example.  We have seen this sort of thing religious happen with cults and fundamentalist groups, but if I could pinpoint what caused the London riots, I would be a highly sought after consultant.  Alas, I am only a middle aged woman with too much time on her hands.  Even so,  I don’t think we’re likely to see  fired up members of the Burning Man cult destroying cities anytime soon.  For one thing, the nearest city is a long way from the festival.  Besides, most of the people  who go have day jobs. Do you know how much it costs to attend Burning Man?  I’d wager that some of them even take showers.

And while I agree that groups are rarely on the cutting edge of innovation, it’s also true that new ideas do not spring fully formed from the mind of the inventor or artist (Ok, ok  Mozart, make a liar out of me). A seed has to get planted and gestate. I don’t pretend to know how this happens.  (If I did, I  would  I would be that highly paid consultant I mentioned earlier.)  Do I need to remind you that manure makes a good fertilizer?

One of Burning Man’s strengths might cause its biggest problem: it strives to be accessible and inclusive. That means it is going to attract a lot of Yahoos who think they are at a rave and behave badly.  As for the criticism that the  festival goers don’t  produce any significant work during the festival, isn’t that like shooting fish in a barrel?  The festival only lasts a week and the works created there  are not meant to become icons in the annals of art history; they are supposed to be temporary.  One of the festival principals is to leave no trace of the festival on the landscape after it is over.  And with 50,000 people in attendance you can’t expect everything produced to be quality.

But that is not the reason events like Burning Man can make a contribution although, like so may other things we do to “improve” ourselves, the results don’t show right away.  The goal of Burning Man  as I understand it is to help participants find the means for self expression and to help each individual connect to his or her  creative powers.  This is a solitary exercise even though the festival is so big.  Some people will use Burning Man as an  excuse to party in the desert for a week (although I would prefer to party in an air conditioned venue without sand in my crotch).   But others will choose to go on this solitary journey.  A  few will continue on the journey long after the festival ends.   What’s wrong with that?