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Burning Man

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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Burning Man

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"

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.)

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At August 30, 2011 at 8:38 AM , Blogger Georgianna said...

Be grateful for Burning Man because for one week each year the Bay Area is free of at least some of its self-indulgent, crafty, hipster types - however, is your defense as an artist really "I tried painting trees that looked like trees, people who looked like people"? Are you equating abstraction (which dates back to the late 19th century) with stinky hippies? Come on now....

At August 30, 2011 at 9:28 AM , Blogger Justine said...

Amen Joe. For years I thought it was kind of cool, but as I have grown up seen the world and honestly done much more cool stuff I've started to really think it's just lame. It amuses me endlessly how people think it's so transcendental but it's really just an excuse to do drugs and sleep with strangers. If you want a transcendental spiritual experience save your money and go on a pilgrimage to india or something. If you wanna sleep with strangers and do drugs go to Ibiza or Vegas for that matter.
Also if it is such a freeing experience wouldn't it be free not 300-400 bucks.
Finally how can hippies who care about the world around them support something that does such devastating damage to the desert ecosystem.

At August 30, 2011 at 10:20 AM , Blogger Sean said...

Welcome back to the Republican party, Joe!

I totally agree with you on the "all art is not equal" assertion.

In my opinion, art is not "good art" until it's a photo of Robert Mapplethorpe's wang dipped in a glass of orange juice hanging in some high end SoHo studio.
Or perhaps an entire wing of the Guggenheim splattered with crappy Jackson Pollocks.
(man, what a scam he had going, huh?)

Now that's art!

Wait...Maybe all art is crappy.
Even books. Even mine. Even yours.

Shit, Joe, after reading this post and watching those videos all I want to do is rip my shirt off and bungee-joust you in the face! Thanks for ruining my "dreamcatcher and drum-circle" image of you. And thanks for dashing my hopes of ever becoming a glue-gun-toting milk carton artiste. (I added the "e" for flare and artistic emphasis, please read it that way, you Neanderthal.)

Just kidding of course. Great and witty post, my amigo.

At August 30, 2011 at 12:40 PM , Blogger DVK said...

You're my hero.

At August 30, 2011 at 2:19 PM , Blogger Joe Clifford said...

@Georgianna: OF COURSE NOT! I wasn't trying to imply that the only valid painting movement is realism. I was merely trying to discredit the assertion that art can't be judged. I believe it can be. In fact, it HAS to be. So that the true geniuses, like many in the abstract movement, receive their just due. So no, the only think I equate "dirty hippies" with is Phish Tour, patchouli, and not knowing what a razor is (or how to use one). Thanks for reading (and for commenting)!

At August 30, 2011 at 2:22 PM , Blogger Joe Clifford said...

@Sean, Yeah, can't say I'm a big Pollack fan. Picasso, I love. But I never bought into the whole Jackson Pollack aura...

@DVK: I am not a hero. More than a man? Yes. Maybe a hero. But certainly not a god. So more than a man, and somewhere between a hero and a god. Perhaps a demi-god?

Thanks for reading!

At August 30, 2011 at 2:40 PM , Blogger SnapandPrint said...

So agree. Great post.

I have been told so many times that as an artist, I should go to Burning Man. I feel like you do.

I just cannot imagine enjoying being around dirty, smelly, naked, having sex with random people, drugged up hippy/burner types. Add spending many days in a hot desert without easy access to water? Oh hell no.

I miss the art part of that and the people who go see it as a religious experience baffle me. It seems more like a third world/end of the world encampment to me.I would rather not be in such a situation if possible.

I may be liberal but I am not that "out there" to want to spend days at a time around people like this.

Thanks so much for writing this post and breaking the Burning Man dislike silence.

At August 30, 2011 at 2:50 PM , Blogger Joe Clifford said...

SnapandPrint: No, thank YOU for an awesome comment! You managed to nail what I was after in about 1/10th the amount of words.

Re: your comment. I actually do agree about the art part, and in theory about much of what Burning Man probably started out as. (I joke about going back to being a Republican [I grew up one]. I am a rapid liberal [maybe even more of a radical]). The idea of a place where real artists could go and get together, far from modern trappings SHOULD be a good thing. Instead, it appears to have been taken over by jackasses more into a "scene" than they are into making legitimate artistic contributions. I don't know any artists whom I respect who would be caught dead out there.

Thanks for reading!

At August 30, 2011 at 6:40 PM , Blogger mob of angry chickens said...

I know somebody who went ALL out at Burning Man, passed out in the desert, and got a horrible sunburn on his naked ass along with sun poisoning.

As someone who's a bit of a misanthrope, I'm curious about Burning Man, but I just don't think I could last a whole week out there. I'd eventually wanna crawl under a shady rock and hide from the creepy hugs and attention whores. However, I attended Firefly this year, which is a small-scale east coast version of Burning Man, only it's in the middle of the woods, and has a touch of New England aloofness to it that was actually somewhat comforting. My friend and I were pretty low-key about it: arriving two days late, eating actual food, and y'know, sleeping at night. I have no doubt that we missed a lot because of that, but we had a GREAT time, so I could really care less.

I used to party harder back in the day, but now I'm just grateful to be alive, and besides, I like my brain the way it is thank-you-very-much!

Anyway, great post! This made me laugh out loud.

At August 30, 2011 at 6:56 PM , Blogger Joe Clifford said...

Thanks, mob! I am from New England, as well, and I think I could handle an East Coast version a little better. It's this "we're a super cool club" angle that I find so deplorable, and nobody does cooler-than-cool better than the Left Coast. If you go to Burning Man's Facebook page (where we posted this blog post, which went over about as well as you'd think), you see all their stupid secret language. "Have a cool burn, man." It's like Fuck you. Get a job. Pay your taxes. And take off that goofy hat. (But, seriously, if you want a laugh, check out their FB page. It's funny shit.)

At August 31, 2011 at 6:27 AM , Blogger Lynne Barrett said...

I treasure my copy of Aunt Edna's Homemade Jams of the South. A small masterpiece.

At September 1, 2011 at 11:39 AM , Blogger Petronius said...

Interesting. I'll bite again.

Looks like an opportunity for corporate sponsorship. "Burning Man" t-shirts, logos - in the words of someone I read about who went to Haight Ashbury in 1967- "All I needed was a dollar from each hippie to make a fortune."

And you could make money selling bottled water, condoms, crystals, essential oils, cold beer, chilled wine and moist towelettes to this group - you just need to know your target - how much would someone pay just for a cup of water? This may not be a well off group but there are lots of people here and as long as you got some security goons for protection from the types who would want to 'liberate' your goods you would make some money.

At September 1, 2011 at 4:23 PM , Blogger Joe Clifford said...

This is a cash racket, without a doubt.

At September 2, 2011 at 10:24 PM , Blogger Jennifer said...

Joe, the sentence with "grackles" in it has just become my favorite sentence of the year. It's like Nabokov, or something, man. Just beautiful.

At September 2, 2011 at 10:58 PM , Blogger Joe Clifford said...

Thanks, Jennifer! I try. (And it seems so few people appreciate syntax these days. Very cool...)

At September 4, 2011 at 7:55 PM , Blogger andyk869 said...

To posters above:

Please, don't ever come to Burning Man, ever.


At September 4, 2011 at 8:24 PM , Blogger Joe Clifford said...

I don't think you have anything to worry about, Andy ;) Thanks for reading!

At October 28, 2011 at 7:07 PM , OpenID said...

Thanks for saying it so I didn't have to touch it, though it's been on my mind.

Recently when a girl I know who is sober, like myself, said she went to Burning Man and spent 5 days in a funk wandering around, trying to find kindred spirits, then described an after party where there were piles of coke, ecstasy and K, I just looked at her and said, "K? Really? Still?" She just shook her head and looked at the ground.

Burning Man, though I've never been either, reminds me of when I was a little vagabond teenager and I stumbled onto a few Rainbow Gatherings. They kept the alcoholics and the alcohol up in what they called "A Camp" and there was breaking things and thrashing shit and all sorts of craziness going on up there.

Down in the forest, where the alcohol wasn't allowed, I thought I might find peace.

Instead, I found lots of old men trying to get into my pants, copious amounts of LSD and giardia. I found people singing, "Jeremiah Was A Bullfrog" with dreadlocks and drum circles and faraway glossy eyes. I managed to obtain a full tie dye one-piece outfit. It makes me shudder to remember that outfit. How did I end up in that outfit?

I found a couple of skeptical hostile people who were like myself, and we fled to "A Camp," had a blast, and eventually, after trying out the gutter punks and all sorts of other subcultural groups, I think I decided (though I'm not certain, I still look) that there is no cultural hub or zen group or "my people" in large numbers.

Mostly, I see the cars with the dirt all over them at certain times of year, with bicycles and costumed people, look at my husband and say, "There they go again." And he gives me a look like he's constipated and wants to vomit at the same time.

At October 28, 2011 at 11:24 PM , Blogger Joe Clifford said...

That was the single best response I may have ever gotten. I love good writing.


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