Burning Man: It's Still Great Even if People Richer Than You Are There (And Buy the 10th Anniversary Edition of My Book!)


It's the season when people's thoughts turn to BigThink about Burning Man, the ever-growing (now over 60,000 people) festival of art and excess and community that appears and disappears every year the week before Labor Day in Nevada's Black Rock Desert.

I am quoted at some length today in both a New York Times and an ABC News story focusing on a story so hot it's been on the burner (ha) since at least 1996 when Wired did a cover story on the event, and 1997 when Time called it "the bonfire of the techies": Rich people from the tech industry go to that event, and some of them even act rich there! Why do rich techies like it? Because it's awesome, and because it was born of their Bay Area art and wild creativity scenes.

This bothers some Burning Man people. For an impassioned and lengthy take on the belief the event has jumped the shark because of the wealthy and the Republican, see this SF Bay Guardian piece by Steven Jones, author of the book Tribes of Burning Man.

But it doesn't bother me. As I told ABC News:

Brian Doherty, senior editor of Reason magazine and author of the book, "This is Burning Man," has been to the event for the last 20 years. In his tenth anniversary e-book reissue of his work, he includes an afterward that discusses some of the class issues that have arisen.

"As someone going to the event for now 20 years straight, I'm not sure why people are bothered by the increasing presence of tech industry folk and their money at the event," he told ABC News.

Wealthy attendees can bring their resources where they go, and that includes contributing to one of the centerpieces of Burning Man: artistic expression.

"Some of the most amazing art you see out there—which I hope is part of the reason people want to go there, to see staggering works of art of a variety and scope you can't find in the normal art world—takes big money to make, and a lot of that money is tech money," he said….

"And to me it seems based in just weird class anxiety—the idea that other people are having an easier time of it than you because, say, they can afford a really nice air conditioned trailer or even essentially servants to feed them and take care of them. That does happen," he said.

Doherty acknowledges that it's easy to poke fun at these services, or to say that attendees are missing the point of Burning Man.

"But to me, if you let the fact that someone else is experiencing Burning Man differently than you choose to really bum you out or ruin your good time, you are the one who is missing the point," he said. "If not for the big art they help fund, there is no reason for the typical burner to even know that super-rich techies are there, except reading about it in the paper."

This is as good a time as any to hype that on its 10th anniversary, I've produced a 10th anniversary ebook-only edition of my first-and-best history of the event This is Burning Man, selling for the ebook-appropriate price of $4.99, thanks Amazon! And the edition is self-published, hint hint.

Bonus Burning Maniana: Elizabeth Limbach at The Atlantic discusses the culture of "gifting" and potlach that animates an event at which explicit cash for goods and services is officially discouraged. Of course, our fun and art there is a result of the excess spilled by modern capitalism such that 60,000 of us can survive off of what we can afford to bring and consume, in often very high style, from the world outside the desolate dry lake bed we call home for a week during Burning Man.

From Limbach:

Burning Man is best known for its abundant art, including large-scale installations that protrude from the monotone earth like surreal trees in an unruly forest. The organization dishes out art grants to nourish these expensive projects ($825,000 to 66 installations last year), but many builders also turn to crowd funding.

"Crowdsourcing effectively removes the power from large money groups to decide what gets made and what doesn't," says Matt Schultz, the artist behind several behemoth Burning Man pieces, of the crowd-funding phenomenon. "It enables the power of individuals to decide. It allows us to find the resources we need to make something amazing. It democratizes the act of production."

Despite the cultural liberalism that animates many of its attendees, it is indeed an example of the best of the anarcho-capitalist vision: people gathering of their own will, giving freely to the support of the civic structure and culture via ticket sales and what they expend to make the scene colorful and spectacular, and making something truly amazing and unprecedented.