What Makes Art Worth A Community’s Time?
by Caveat Magister
I first met two Burning Man living legends on the same night, when I mouthed off to one of them about art.
In 2007, legendary showman and Burning Man apostate (a man whose very name makes eyes roll at Burning Man headquarters) “Chicken John” Rinaldi was running for mayor of San Francisco. He was really running, but it was in many ways a stunt campaign – running for mayor as a work of interactive art – and so his campaign events tended towards the bizarre and outré. I was a political reporter back then, and it was the most fun I’d ever had in that job.
Since the incumbent mayor, Gavin Newsom, didn’t want to debate any of his challengers, they were left to debate each other, and the first night I ever saw Chicken John in person was at a debate, at his warehouse, against another mayoral candidate, a blogger named Josh Wolf. Since they both had animal names, the event was billed as “Chicken Vs. Wolf.” First they took questions from a moderator, and then they took questions from the audience.
They each had very simple messages. Wolf, who had spent a record breaking amount of time in jail for refusing to turn over materials to the police, was advocating for transparency: he promised that, if elected, he would wear a 24/7 webcam so that literally everything he did as mayor would be reviewable by the public. Chicken, who sometimes claims to have founded Burning Man’s Department of Public Works (he didn’t) but was an influential figure in its early days, wanted to talk about making art: weaving as many aspects of community life into making art as possible, looking to making art a first line of defense for social problems, and supporting local art and artists at every turn.
When it came time for the Q&A, I raised my hand. I was called on. I stood up. And I said words to this effect:
“Chicken, you’ve prioritized art as a solution to many problems, but it seems to me that in the decaying side-of-the-road carnival that our common culture has become, art is a warped funhouse mirror. That making art is as much as anything an excuse for narcissism and self-indulgence, rather than a real attempt to solve social problems or make a better world. That focusing on art can be an excuse not to meet your neighbors, not to engage in civic improvement, not to look beyond the self. That it prioritizes ‘how I feel’ about an issue over the issue itself, and that if anything what we really need in our culture is an anti-art movement, in which we are all told to shut up and stop making it about ourselves and to do something useful. How do you respond?”
The room was suddenly divided. Half of it was booing me, half of it was applauding. A man with a beard stood up and clapped forcefully, giving me a standing ovation: I would later learn that he was John Law, one of Burning Man’s key founders and its leading apostate. Much later, he and I would become friends.
But right now he was the leader of a cheering section in a fairly hostile room, as Chicken stared daggers at me from the stage and finally, when all the noise had subsided, said: “you’ve been waiting all night to ask that question haven’t you?”
He couldn’t have been more wrong: it was honestly what had occurred to me, listening to him talk about “art” as the solution to what I thought of as municipal policy problems. Much later, he and I would become close friends.
I’m telling you all this because I imagine the main objection that comes up to a project like We Are From Dust is more or less what I told Chicken. An eye-rolling “Is Art really worth the time?”
And I’d like to take this moment to officially apologize: I was so wrong. My question had it exactly backwards.
At the time I asked that question, I thought that “Art” was what I had been taught in schools: a mostly solitary pursuit in which each of us picks a medium and tries to be a genius, to stun people into thinking and feeling through the singular force of our vision. Art without a lone genius at its center was hardly worth doing – practically failure by definition – and to pursue it without such an inspired vision was tantamount to self-indulgence.
Art can, of course, be self-indulgent – but it is when art is the avocation of people trying to be lone visionaries, desperately trying to tell the world something important, that it is at its most likely to be narcissistic. Some lone visionaries do good work, to be sure, but they are much more likely to be the problem rather than the solution.
I learned this, over the years, by experiencing participatory art. By realizing it was changing my life. By realizing that the healthiest communities, the most fun communities, the communities that did the most for each other, had this kind of art at their center.
Far from getting us to focus on our own experiences in an isolating way, community art projects – especially interactive ones – most often get us to focus on our own experience in a relational way. They get us to imagine new ways in which our own experience impacts others; new ways of being in the world; to imagine new approaches and capacities, to envision ourselves mastering skills we’d never realized existed before. And to do it not just as solitary individuals, but as communities. To follow our own unique visions together.
The reductive term for this is “innovation,” the darling virtue of Silicon Valley and disruptive industries. And it absolutely is true that stirring the imagination the way community and participatory art does is a way of generating innovative ideas. But “innovation” is a limited term for the experience that happens when people get together and engage in art. Participate actively in art. The experience is far more personal, and connective, than “coming up with new ideas” suggests.
I don’t know how to explain this except perhaps to say, as an artist once told me about her work, that we focus too much on the physical product or the moment of performance. Such things are not the “art” itself, but a demonstration that art has happened. Community art, participatory art, is as much the process that you go through to get to that point. The moments of inspiration followed by the negotiations between inspirations bouncing off one another and then the decisions about how to make these ideas real, and then the unpredictable – even serendipitous – interactions that happen once they are. These activities change you, together, and your experiences, making them richer and deeper and more alive. The real value of the art is not the thing you see or touch, but the process that gets you there, and that people who experience it then take with them. And that can be shared with others in a way that even the object itself cannot. “Hey, let’s do something together” is a far more profound act of sharing and connection than “hey, come look at this.”
It’s astonishing how many good things come out of that. It helps you meet your neighbors, find joy in civic improvement, and look beyond the self. It’s enough to change a city. Enough to change the world.
But we need to stop appreciating it abstractly and get our hands dirty doing it.
[Caveat Magister is often mistaken for a fictional character. A long time writer about Burning Man and a member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author, most recently, of “The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities“.]