Desert Censorship

Artistic paradise lost?


Artistic paradise lost?

Burning Man, an annual art festival and experiment in alternative community held in Nevada's Black Rock Desert the week before Labor Day, was once said by founder Larry Harvey to be "the place on earth where the First Amendment is most fully exercised." (See "Burning Man Grows Up," February 2000.) Each year, tens of thousands of participants gather to create giant temporary art objects and live in elaborate interactive theme camps. But this year Pershing County police officers tested the First Amendment, ordering a gay men's camp called Jiffy Lube (slogan: "Get in. Get off. Get out.") to take down, or hide from public view, their central art piece.

The art in question was a cartoonish, 12-foot-tall mechanical piece that portrayed a moving naked man performing anal sex on a kneeling naked man. Jiffy Lube camp organizer J.D. Petras, the piece's designer, decided to avoid possible arrest by moving the piece from public view to inside his camp. Some more radical campers wanted to risk arrest as a First Amendment test case. (In a festival chock full of giant vaginas, some Jiffy Lubers sensed anti-gay bias behind the cops' crackdown.)

During an anti-censorship rally in which protesters carted the piece through Black Rock City, the 24,000-person temporary city that arises to house the festival, founder Larry Harvey told angry campers that, though they might win a First Amendment case, the Burning Man community would be the ultimate loser.

"You'd be famous, man," he told an angry Jiffy Lube camper. "You'd be in Time and Newsweek. And we'd be off the desert." Harvey said an obscenity arrest would make it impossible to get next year's permits, since they require the cooperation and approval of local authorities.

Burning Man has built a considerable reputation as an anything-goes festival of free expression and liberated community. Devotees are filling computer bulletin boards and listservs with their disappointment that the event organizers didn't stand up to the cops, fearing that the institution of Burning Man has become more important than the principles they thought it stood for. Meanwhile, Harvey argues that friendly dialogue with local law enforcement—unmarred by arrests or court cases—could help ensure that such interference won't happen again. "The last thing [the police] want is to get in the business of policing what is and is not art," Harvey told me in an interview after the event. Because the piece was on a road near a camp dedicated to children, Harvey thinks it was more an issue of appropriate signage than of art censorship.

Petras reports that many disillusioned Burners are planning to "make sure that 'no art censors!' is the unofficial theme for next year. People will be making artwork that's very pushy, just to make a statement and to see how far they can go."