The Secrets of Burning Man Style


The Sunday New York Times style section finally notices the spread of Burning Man style and Burning Manesque celebration across America's major cities. (For full context, see my book on the history and culture of the event, This is Burning Man.) The story sums up the spread of the Burning Man aesthetic into both advertising and public art: 

The Burning Man aesthetic reaches beyond parties to influence public art projects and even advertising and entertainment. "Burning Man is used as an adjective amongst agency art directors now," said Keith Greco, a production designer who uses fellow Burners as performers or artists for clients like Cirque du Soleil, Sony Pictures and Red Bull. "It's up there now with 'Blade Runner' or Cirque du Soleil. They'll say, 'Can you make it a little more Burning-Man-ish?' "

It's fitting that San Francisco — where the first festival took place on a beach in 1986 — now is home to public artworks that originally appeared at Burning Man: "Passage," a giant scrap-metal sculpture of a mother and child on the Embarcadero; and "Stan, the Submerging Man," an 18-foot bell diver covered with 45-r.p.m. records that is headed to a park south of Market Street. The works have been paid for in part by the Black Rock Arts Foundation, the official Burning Man arts organization, which has raised $500,000 this year.

It also documents the damage that such spread can do to the insular sense of self and community that often animates subcultues:

As Burning Man's tentacles stretch outward, some groups have broken away, claiming the mother festival has lost its more confrontational and youthful energy.

"The image that Burning Man has these days is just a bunch of naked 30- to 40-year-olds wearing a bunch of raver lights," said Ryan Doyle, an artist who is part of the Black Label Bike Club, whose members across the country customize bicycles and style themselves after motorcycle gangs like the early Hells Angels. "That's not an image anyone who cares about their image would really want to be associated with."

And the seeping of the Burning Man meme into one's life, as I documented in my book and this New York Times story does as well, goes beyond occasional celebrations, with art collectives forming in many major cities of people who first met at Burning Man, living and making money via Burning Man-style art installations and events.

The most interesting way to look at the Burning Man style, it seems to me, is as a post-industrial return to individuality in cultural production. To be sure, certain cliches have developed in Burning Man "looks," and craftsmen and businesses have begun to arise that semi-mass-produce some of the obvious cultural signifiers of the event and its culture, from wings to electroluminescent wire.

But the central animating principle at Burning Man, from camp structures to art cars to costumes, is individualized production and consumption–an abundant variation that the wealth we built through our mass production economy has allowed us to enjoy. Burning Man is a particularly colorful and excessive example of a beta model of a world we are all more and more living in, where our choices in what to wear, drive, make, and do–and ways to live and thrive–get more and more individualized and varied and wild. The Henry Ford economy, where we can get any color we like as long as it's black, is over. We are all, with increased wealth and improved technologies and motivated by economic liberty, moving into what we could justly call the Burning Man economy–where we have the wealth and time and techniques and beliefs to make everything exactly as we want it, bottom up instead of top down, individualized instead of standardized, in communities of both work and play that are more intentional than accidental.