Well, it's that time of year again, when the teeming, crafting hordes load up the veggie-fueled caravan and make like Tom Joad in reverse, heading back to the dust bowl...
For the sake of full disclosure, I freely admit: I don't know what the fuck actually goes on at Burning Man. I mean, I've never been there. Best I can deduce (from the endless slew of Bay Area "burners" who won't shut up about it): a bunch of dirty hippies get together in the desert to take lots of drugs, have sex with strangers, display their shitty art, and not shower for a week, as they have deep discussions about the need to return to a more primal existence, before lighting some big wooden sculpture thingy on fire, which takes on religious significance as being symbolic of some kind of transcendence. What kind of transcendence? Beats fuckall out of me. How can I speculate on why people would want to spend a week stinking like hobo and shitting in scrub brush?
Burning Man would be bad enough if it simply existed somewhere far away. Like the Tea Party or pirates, an abstract I only had to encounter when I clicked on a specific link to a Yahoo story. Or if I still lived in Connecticut. But I live in the Bay Area, where Burning Man is like herpes. The shit is everywhere.
I am a grumpy old man who doesn't like fun. I know that. So feel free to keep that in mind as you read this. But I used to like drugs. Lots and lots of drugs, and even back then, you couldn't have paid me to go to Burning Man. (And considering you used to be able to pay me to do just about anything, that's saying something.)
My first encounter with Burning Man came via this guy, I think his name was Kevin, who was roommates with this girl I knew. Kevin wore lots of flannel, smoked pot non-stop, repeated the same story 80 fucking times. And had a soul patch. I guess the only vital detail of that description is the soul patch, eh? I'd just come from CT, and knew more about the GOP and finishing school than I did about Burning Man, so I tried to keep an open mind.
"Oh, man," Kevin said, "you being an artist, man, you'd dig it the most...man."
Sure, I said, lay it on me. I was an artist, and trying to open my mind was sort of a prerequisite for the grand journey of self-discovery upon which I thought I was embarking.
We sat in his filthy Bernal Heights' home, cluttered with dirty hippy crap, hardened old coffee cups, sixteen cats and giant stinky dogs, furniture that smelled like old people, the cold fog drifting in, as Kevin explained the magic of Burning Man, how a bunch of jackasses, most of whom probably also had soul patches or were dating a guy with a soul patch, or at least knew of a guy with a soul patch, climbed into a junky RV or van, where they pooled together change for the gas to drive to the desert to meet up with a bunch of other soul-patchers to partake in a spiritual awakening via a sharing of their "art." And I guess this is where he lost me. The art part. Because, like I, Kevin also considered himself an "artist." But whereas I tried painting trees that looked like trees, people who looked like people, and didn't suck, Kevin was more of a...crafter...gluing shit to paper, macaroni and bird feathers.
"Because, you and me," Kevin said, "we're the same. It doesn't matter how 'good' you are. Art is all about what what's inside your soul. Rembrandt, you, me, it's all the same, man: art."
No, Kevin, it's not all the same. Rembrandt is better than I. And I sure as fuck am better than you.
Christ, I hate all that "art is equal" bullshit, drives me nuts; it's fucking commie talk. Like anything else, art is subject to hierarchy, quality and standards. Crime and Punishment is better than Aunt Edna's self-published Homemade Jams of the South. Art is serious shit. You work at it, you don't play at it. Crafts are for Kindergartners and untalented girlfriends named "Lisa." Just because you glue twigs to milk cartons when you are feeling "expressive," it doesn't make you an "artist" any more than giving yourself a paper cut makes you a surgeon.
Of course, I wouldn't have said these things to Kevin. I would've just nodded, maybe said, "Oh," or "That sounds cool." Because at the time I was trying to shed my repressed strict Christian upbringing, and I was just a shy farm boy in the big city.
This would've been 19aught92. I've lived in the SF Bay Area for the better part of the last twenty years, and Burning Man, instead of going the way of the pet rock in the '70s or breakdancing in the '80s, goofy fads like rap/rock fusion that enjoyed far more airtime than they deserved, Burning Man has only gotten bigger. And if you live in San Francisco or any of its surrounding boroughs these days, good luck trying to escape it.
The worst part about Burning Man--I mean, besides the obvious part about the people who go there calling themselves "burners"--is how it's attained a religious-like status, is regarded as something profound; and admitting you have no interest in the process renders you an unevolved cretin.
"You've never been to Burning Man? Why haven't you gone? You have to go. You have no idea what you're missing. It's nothing like you think!"
Yeah. It is. I know exactly what's it's like because you people won't shut up about it.
And soon, the "burners" will be back, like goddamn grackles returning from pillaging sunflowers, posting their fucking pictures of guys with Dr. Seuss hats and pierced, dopey girls in pasties, standing beside some crappy junkyard sculpture, looking smug, like they've unlocked the keys to the universe just because they're not wearing pants.
Burning Man is the emperor's new clothes of new-age spirituality, an excuse for the pseudo artists, tattooed hipsters, and Ani Difranco wannabes to feel like they are doing something important with their lives because instead of fucking strangers and getting high in their rooms they are doing it in the sand.
Maybe I'm being hyper critical of something I just don't understand. So if I'm overshooting the boat here, have gotten the particulars wrong, please feel free to write and explain what it is I am missing. But that's a tall order, because when I look at videos like the ones below, I swear to God, it's enough to make me want to be a Republican again.
(* And to all my friends who are at Burning Man. I am not talking about you guys! You guys are, like, way cool! And your art is AWESOME! I'm talking about...those other people. And it's not like you're going to read this anyway. They don't have the Internet [or electricity, or running water, or working toilets] in the desert.)