Burning Man and that dirty word "hippie"

To the thinkers of the town the impulse into [the desert] had ever been irresistible, not probably that they found God dwelling there, but that in its solitude they heard more certainly the living word they brought with them.
–T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom

Then one said unto him, Behold, thy mother and thy brethren stand without, desiring to speak with thee. But he answered and said unto him that told him, Who is my mother? and who are my brethren? […] For whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.
–Matthew 12:47-50

I’ve wanted to go to Burning Man for several years now; I remember bringing it up in the confines of my cubicle at the Employment Development Department. I raised the subject with my two closest friends in the office, a pair of guys in their thirties. These are good people: they’re both happily married, they’re great at their jobs (which, after all, were vaguely socially important, as we managed unemployment insurance), they’re witty, and they have Netflix queues to die for. One of them has two very happy little kids.

Here’s what they said about Burning Man:

J: Why would you want to do that?

T: Yeah, man, that whole thing seems pretty lame. We knew a guy who went every year, but it was basically to look at naked chicks. Is that really worth getting your skin burned off in the desert?

Or again, this summer, I brought up my tentative plans with a friend of mine who’s teaching poetry in Pensacola FL, and writes good poems. He’s a talented artist, a brilliant teacher, and one hell of a sweet guy. Here’s what he said:

Fink: What are you doing? You don’t want to run around with a bunch of crazy ol’ hippies!

None of which is meant to suggest that the reaction among all, or even most, of my friends has run so counter. Most of them are just curious to hear how it goes. But it does seem worth considering why I want to go, what Burning Man means prospectively, and how all this relates to the curious case of the 1960s.

1. Hippies are not dirty. Nor are most people dirty enough.

There is a common belief that hippies do not shower. They do. I will tell you who doesn’t shower: The Strokes, and unhappy guys. I’ve known all kinds of unhappy guys, including nerds, punks, hippies, “sophisticated” guys who live a “European” lifestyle, and others. (Europeans also shower, incidentally.) So while it is possible that you will see a longhaired guy who has a lot of body odor, this is because in his misery he has given up on hygiene, not because of the Grateful Dead.

Now, Burning Man is a pretty dirty place, because it happens on this huge flat expanse of dusty desert. The dust blows around, covering everything in a layer of alkaline. I found out today that, apparently, campers have to soak their feet in vinegar as a protective measure. This is necessary dirt. The only place where Burning Man is allowed to happen is a godforsaken part of Nevada. In a perfect world, you could have the same event under pleasanter conditions in Big Sur. But this dirt is an acceptable sacrifice in the same way that when you slide into second base, you get covered up to your armpits in red clay. Some of my best childhood memories involve mud, grass stains, seaweed, humus. If this sort of “detergent commercial” event happens less frequently now, that’s just a shame.

2. Burning Man is an incredibly organized environmental experiment and art museum.

When I first found out that I would have to be a “participant,” and not an “observer,” I was terrified. I am awful with my hands, and I haven’t made any visual art since middle school. However, last week I went up to Los Angeles and helped a complete stranger put together a huge wooden square box (more like a hut, really) filled with mirrors. He then jury-rigged a way to hang red Christmas lights in the hut, which are of course reflected to infinity by the mirrors. The effect is as you can see.

It turns out that this is based on the work of an artist I’d seen displayed in Madrid, in the Reina Sofia museum. That piece used black velvet and white lights, and the effect was like standing amidst a starry sky. That piece still stands as the single most moving work of conceptual art I’ve encountered, so I was stunned to show up in Los Angeles and discover that I was going to be directly involved re-creating it.

This is the leap that Burning Man makes possible. I remember a shiver of awe when I took a green apple off its perch at Yoko Ono’s “Yes” exhibition, and bit into the apple, with the attending security guard suppressing a smile. The point of the exhibit was to take a bite out of a work on display. But it was still Yoko Ono; it was still SFMOMA. The people in our camp have put weeks of time and plenty of money into building art and preparing costumes, and we are probably on the low end in terms of investment. Just today I was forwarded this, which is (as it says) plans for a three-story mobile Victorian mansion to be constructed in the middle of this alkaline wasteland, for no purpose besides aesthetic splendor and grand play.

The confidence of the participants is such that practically as soon as this entire desert of art is successfully created, and experienced by the campers, it is either taken down, or, in most cases, burned. The famous symbol of the event is the gigantic statue of a man that is burned. The point, as far as I can discern it despite total inexperience, is that creating art is its own reward, and should involve a celebration of the transience of the material finality of that creation. Sartre wrote that in order for anything to be created, something equal must be destroyed — the “Man” can be constructed and burnt every year because the old one is already ashes. Dadaism is not dead.

Going along with this is the ecological project of “leaving no trace,” as they call it, which does in fact succeed in returning the desert to something close to its original state. A city is constructed and destroyed — well, you know all this. I went into the preparations thinking that the event in general, and our camp in specific, would be haphazard. On the contrary, none of this could happen without thousands of hippies organizing throughout the entire year. They just aren’t as flaky as they seem. The statements on the official website about the community, and the lists of community rules, are the most concise and intelligent documents of their kind that I have ever seen.

3. Burning Man is bigger than Christmas or Hanukkah. It has two ideologies: the silly stuff that floats the surface, and the core.

For most of the people who are committed to Burning Man, it occupies a larger place in their non-professional lives than any other event, including all family and national holidays. You would have to put Christmas, New Year’s, Thanksgiving, with all their attendant hassles and joys, together to make one Burning Man, and you would still be leaving out the art.

This draws me, because central to the vision of Burning Man is the vision of a community based on artistic expression and generosity. Burning Man is certainly parasitic on the “real world” of jobs that pay for it, and networks of family and friends that arrange to attend it together, survive it and celebrate it. It remains something of an epiphenomenon, floating precariously on the surface of the real.

But for me, it could turn out to be the realization of a dream that sent me harrowed through Southeast Asia (never finding what I was looking for), and that informs my perspective on everything from the situation in the Middle East to my hopes for academia: The ludic, aesthetic community of all people.

I don’t have a lot of faith in the biological family, for the simple reason that I don’t have much of one. I have two wonderful parents; when they die, although I will technically have cousins and aunts and so forth living in various parts of the United States, no-one biologically related to me will constitute my “family,” except perhaps for children. My family will consist of the people who could show up at any time, at my door, and stay and live with me for as long as I could provide.

Nor do I have any faith in religion. Having a girlfriend whose parents broke you up over a question of religion changes you. Obviously, this whole entry starts with a quotation from the Gospel of Matthew, but the intended meaning is secular. I am horrified by religious fundamentalism in this country, and believe that religious governments in the Middle East (both Muslim and Jewish) have no future.

Ironically, though, the sense of the community I envision is often most present in religious texts, and I am in some ways excited by the present revival of academic interest in religious writing — in St. Paul and Augustine, in the Jewish mystical tradition, in the Koran. For sheer beauty, no film I saw last year equaled Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring.

Burning Man is distinguished by a predictable reticence about these big religions, and a lot of variations on paganism, Wicca, and who-knows-what-else New Age spiritualisms. This is mostly too bad, although in some cases, just as with the big world religions, there are good ideas walking around dressed as New Age systems of belief.

In fact, some of us might think back on the sixties and feel a certain hilarity in the face of its mantras and tokens. I know I feel that way. But I’m still going to believe that it was the one decade of the 20th century when the popular culture took the irreversible trends towards anonymity and aestheticism and forged out of them a culture that was bursting with style, and was founded upon expressive communities of strangers, who marched together, and who improbably gathered in parks for “be-ins.” If the theme of this blog has been, and probably will continue to be, the costs of alienation, and the consumption of art as a parody of art — well, I’m hoping Burning Man stands all that on its head, and turns the very same conditions into conditions of promise.

Yeah, I’ve seen Gimme Shelter, and I’ve read all sorts of things about how when you reach a certain age, you listen to the Beatles less often, and how the country-folk sound of Workingman’s Dead reflected a sense of the failed ideals of the blah blah blah.

But I’ll be out there in the desert like H.I. McDonnough, running from the law, running from the American psychosis of the biker (and Altamont), running from the equal and opposite psychosis of Nathan Arizona and his chain of furniture stores. Didn’t the Coen brothers tell you? That kidnapped baby is our destiny, still unmanifest.