The Art of Burning Man (But Is It Art?)

burning man
"Oink" - Burning Man Festival

This week, hundreds of artists from all over the world will begin assembling one of the largest and most dazzling group art shows in the United States, or anywhere.

Approximately 50,000 people will view the show during its week-long run, making it proportionately even more popular attendance-wise than the recent Alexander McQueen hullabaloo at the Met.

So why don’t you know more about it? And why aren’t you there?

Well, unless you planned ahead and bought your ticket for Burning Man several months ago before they sold out (in which case you’re probably on your way to Black Rock City already), it looks like you’re going to have to settle for experiencing this year’s assortment of “radical self-expression” via some kind of online facsimile (or coffee table book, if you still do that sort of thing).

25th anniversary of the event

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the event and by all accounts the art on the playa promises to be bigger and trippier than ever.

So if there are so many amazing things to see in Black Rock City every year come the last week in August, how come most people who aren’t part of the Burning Man community don’t hear more about them the rest of the year?

Part of the reason is the ephemeral nature of Burning Man itself: in keeping with event’s core tenet of “leaving no trace” in its remote Nevada location, all the installations are already starting to come down by the time the rest of America is busy finishing up their last six packs of Bud Light in the wee hours of Labor Day.

Aside from the remoteness of the location and the difficulty and expense of getting there,

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"Belisama" - Burning Man Festival

however, the tribal nature of the event may have something to do with the why the art of Burning Man isn’t better known among the wider art-appreciating public.

As a friend of mine who’s a  ten-year Burning Man veteran explained to me, many regular attendees tend to divide the population at large into “Burners” and “everyone else”, and there’s some sense that if you don’t commit to being there, the art isn’t for you anyway.

(Then again, I’ve heard the same thing said about the Venice Biennale.)

Is It Art?

But that elitism works both ways. I asked another friend who attended Burning Man three years ago (and hated it) for her take on the art there and she dismissed it as “a bunch of hippy shit” that was “only interesting if you’re on mushrooms” — which is a pretty harsh assessment when you consider the scale, scope and virtuosity on display in galleries such as this one.

Still, given the number of arts professionals who invest time and energy in Burning Man every year (to say nothing about the many year-round Burning Man-flavored arts events in places like San Francisco and New York City associated with the Black Rock Arts Foundation and other entities), it’s curious that its art seems to be regarded as much of a world apart as it is by Burners and non-Burners alike.

Then again, maybe that’s the whole point.

I'd like to know your opinion of Burning Man.  Is it art? Tell us in the comments. If you've been there, let us know what you thought about it.

This Post Has 8 Comments

    1. Gary Bolyer Fine Art

      Thanks for your interesting take on this subject. And, of course, Stephen Colbert has affirmed the whole thing as art and so it must be. LOL. And thanks for the link. I know many readers will find it interesting.

  1. Cindy Geiger

    Well, Gary, I just viewed some of the works by Burning Man. I am knocked out and Yes, yes, yes I think this is art. Such creativity and imagination. I don’t care if the artist was/is on mushrooms or anything else, I think these works are amazing. I’d like to see your “friend” come up with even one piece to match the creativity in these works.

    1. Gary Bolyer Fine Art

      I know that when you look at the scale of these pieces they do just blow you away. They are pretty amazing, I agree.

  2. ~e

    A lot of the art pieces end up in the default world. Wine Country Garden Design Center has the Spread Eagle. Wilson Winery has the Coyote. We Care Spa has the Temple of Gravity (of course you can’t touch it anymore). San Leandro Tech Center (finally) has Truth is Beauty, it was travelling for quite awhile. Bliss Dance is at The Park on the Las Vegas Strip.

  3. hgf

    Superb blog! Do you have any helpful hints for aspiring writers?
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    lost on everything. Would you recommend starting
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