Burning Man Critics Miss the Point

I'm not obsessed with Burning Man, I don't spend my whole year planning for it, I don't have a playa name, and I don't think of it as my "home." But I do think the culture it has created is amazing and impressive, and I'm bothered by how much people are missing the forest of values preservation for the trees of commercial intrusion. 
09/15/2015 05:41 pm ET Updated Sep 13, 2016
BLACK ROCK CITY, NV - SEPT 2: First-time Burner Sonja Lercer of Whistler, B.C., Canada, dances on the LOVE installation at la
BLACK ROCK CITY, NV - SEPT 2: First-time Burner Sonja Lercer of Whistler, B.C., Canada, dances on the LOVE installation at last week's 25th annual Burning Man festival. (Photo by Keith Carlsen For the Washington Post)

It's been a week since Labor Day, so if you live in the Bay Area, that means your Burner friends are still giving extra long hugs, there are still dusty cars on the streets, and you just watched your colleagues give four days of wide-eyed looks like they don't totally understand this world you're co-inhabiting.  

It also means that we've just gotten another round of pronouncements that Burning Man has, indeed, jumped the shark, ruined by too much money, too many celebrities, or just too many of "these people." Whatever the cause, it's just not the same as it was [fill in the year when the writer started going to the playa]. Even Quiznos has gotten in on the act, which is funny until you taste their sandwiches.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion. But for me, the problem with these jeremiads is not that they are wrong about the gestalt of the festival -- which I think they are. It's that they are missing the interesting story about Burning Man's evolution, which is how much the community has maintained its core principles while being buffeted by the totally predictable and completely unavoidable influx of money, people, and attention.     

Before I make my case, a brief admission. I didn't go this year, not because I think Burning Man is "over," but because I went last year and I usually don't go two years in a row because it takes so much time and money. Also my camp kind of fell apart. But I went last year and I sincerely doubt that has much has changed since 2014. I have also gone four other times, starting in 2004. I'm not obsessed with Burning Man, I don't spend my whole year planning for it, I don't have a playa name, and I don't think of it as my "home." But I do think the culture it has created is amazing and impressive, and I'm bothered by how much people are missing the forest of values preservation for the trees of commercial intrusion. 

The principal evidence for how and why Burning Man has sold its soul are the so-called "turnkey" camps where rich people drop thousands of dollars for a hosted and catered Burning Man "experience." Here's a particularly unhinged account of how the plug and play camps show that Burning Man's principle of radical self-expression is really a right-wing Ayn Randian ideal, indistinguishable from the mottos of Silicon Valley social media giants. *Deep exhale*

There are certainly more of these camps than before. But they are hardly a new creation. People have been paying other people to set up their camps for year. They are just paying them more now, the camps are snazzier, and they have gotten a ton of media attention. I know some of the people who run one of these camps, and I hung out there for a few hours last year. The design was amazing but the vibe was off, as you would expect. Not much soul.

Now, I personally think these camps are wack, and they obviously run afoul of Burning Man's 10 principles, particularly radical self-reliance and radical inclusion. Which is why Burning Man is taking some actions to try to minimize their impact.

But even before this crackdown, I don't think these camps had much of an effect on the average person's experience at the festival. They are relatively closed off and so most people won't interact with them. Which leaves people to visit, oh, 98 percent of the rest of the camps that are building their own structures, making their own art, cooking their own food, fixing their own art cars, inviting in friends and neighbors, and generally creating community. The people in the plug and play camps may not "get" it, and I sincerely believe they are missing out, but I've yet to hear a convincing argument about how their marginal existence fundamentally detracts from the overall vibe of the city. If anything, it serves as a useful counterpoint for newbies to see what it looks like to depart from the 10 principles. 

Another, perhaps deeper critique is that Burning Man is out of step with our political moment, a world on the verge of ecological collapse. I am sympathetic to this viewpoint, but the thing is, Burning Man, in my experience, has never been particularly political. It has always been a fossil fuel powered orgy of creative expression that doesn't have much to say about politics or political engagement.  

Don't get me wrong, I think that's far from ideal. Burning Man should think much harder about how to promote ecological sustainability, and I can imagine a future in which everyone turns their art cars electric and figures out how to do fire art with bio-gas. But the truth is, the festival has always been more escapist and utopian than it is serious about overturning the dominant political and economic paradigm. Indeed, Burning Man seems only possible in a late capitalist society where technologically-adept elites have leisure time and excess capital available to throw the most amazing, creative, and difficult-to-organize party in the world.   

And the creativity continues to be off the charts. It's not worth wasting words here describing the unimaginable creations that dot every inch of the playa. If you have any doubts, just check out the pictures

But if Burning Man was just about cool sculptures, impressive art cars, and amazing outfits, then it wouldn't be that interesting to me. It's also about building a city with a different set of norms, where giving is the currency, creativity the common bond, and openness the expectation. I'm sorry, but if people who have been in the last few years think that is no longer the case, I don't know what city they were hanging out in. For my money, the Playa still provides. 

Here's one small story about what that looked like last year. On the day of the burn, I headed out on my bike to give a message to a friend. Coated with a week of dust, my creaky bike started to give out half way, the chain had fallen off and I couldn't fix it. But I would not be deterred! So I found a random camp of people I didn't know and asked if I could borrow one of their bikes. They said sure, and off I went. I came back 30 minutes later, message delivered. In the time I was gone, someone in the camp had taken the time to fix my bike. And I wasn't even surprised. Because that is the culture of Black Rock City. 

Here's another story from last year. That same day, while I was biking cross playa, my camp mate spent the afternoon baking dozens of chocolate chip cookies (yes, we had a solar-powered oven). When I came back to camp and saw them, I thought to myself -- that is way too many cookies, we don't need all of those. Fast forward 10 hours. The sun is rising. We are at the far edge of the festival in our art car. A girl from our camp is playing piano and singing a haunting cover of Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game" through our huge speakers with a voice that would make you melt even if you hadn't been up all night. My camp mate saw her moment. She grabbed the cookies, walked off the car, and started handing them out to the dozens of people listening to this impromptu concert. I don't know if she planned it or not, but it sure felt right. That is the culture of Black Rock City. 

Because I can't resist, here's one last one. Friday afternoon last year. I head out in a dust storm with two camp mates because one of them thinks that would be a fun time (it's not). We seek shelter behind a small sculpture where I find a girl with a knapsack. In it is a plastic ukelele and melodica. We get to talking and she explains that she carries these instruments around because they are cheap and hard to break, and pretty much everyone can play one or the other. It becomes clear that what she wants is to have a little jam and that this is basically what she does at Burning Man. I ask her to remind me of a few chords on the ukelele, I begin to strum, and she plays a haunting little melodica melody along. We play for a few minutes, she thanks me, and heads on her way. I will almost certainly never see that girl again. But I will never forget our little duet. Because that is the culture of Black Rock City.     

I could assail you with dozens of other stories like this, and so could other attendees. Each of them on their own is a thread of goodness. But together they form a tapestry that is unmistakable, it depicts a city that continues to live by a different set of rules, where giving is the currency, creativity the common bond, and openness the expectation.     

It may be that this whole argument comes down to a question of viewpoint, and where you fall says more about who you are and your history than what's actually going on. But I think the right way to think about this is the martian test (h/t to Dan Carlin, my favorite podcast host, for this one). If you took a martian, dropped them in Black Rock City, and asked them for a report back, what would they recount. Would they tell you about how Turnkey camps have robbed the spirit of the place, or how there are too many frat bros, or how the celebrities have turned the place into Times Square? Or would they tell you stories like mine?    

People have been writing Burning Man's obituary since it began. A friend who has never been told me he was offered tickets in 2001, but had heard that it was "so over" by then, so he didn't go. He's still never been, and every year I tell him, it's not too late. The city may have changed, but its core stays the same.