03 March 2014

Some Thoughts on Burning Man; or, What Is Good Art?; or, Some Thoughts on Tsnius

A friend once announced that she was looking for people to put together a Burning Man theme camp with her. I looked up Burning Man, decided I wasn't interested, and promptly forgot all about it.

This week, the name surfaced under piles of rubble in my mind, and I looked it up again. What is “Burning Man”?

Burning Man is a hippie utopia. For one week each year, tens of thousands of people encamp in the Nevada desert to engage in “radical self-expression”. No commerce is permitted: it is a gift-based economy. People bring their own food; they bring enough to share; some operate free restaurants. Burning Man is also a no-holds-barred arts festival. No cars are permitted to budge, unless they have been transformed into something other than a car – say, a flame-throwing octopus. There are a great many extraordinary art installations on the blank canvas of the desert floor – but they Leave No Trace. It isn't back-to-the-land-y, though: people bring generators and there is a great deal of electric and electronic display and racket, 24/7. The festival culminates in the burning of an enormous effigy of a man, for no particular reason; but the burning of the man has come to serve in the minds of many “burners” as a symbol of 'carpe diem, live intensely and immediately, because everything is exquisitely fragile'. Then they all pack up or burn their art and pick up every last fleck of glitter and get back in their cars and go back to what they call “the default world,” which is usually the Bay Area, or perhaps dear darling PDX.

Burning Man attracts a lot of spiritual seekers, artists, troubled souls, wandering Jews, and people who have completely lost their moorings and want to be loud about it.

I don't remember why I wasn't interested in Burning Man the first time I heard about it. This time I find the idea very interesting, but I won't be attending; one, because I have a low noise threshold (that includes trance music); and two, because when you invite people to a place with no rules, you get not only good art and catharsis but a great deal of cheap behavior. It doesn't sound as if cheap is exactly vanishingly rare at Burning Man.

Cheap is the pitfall of “radical self-expression” untempered by tsnius. (How shall I translate tsnius? It is sort of the anti-cheap, but a positive concept.)

Tsnius, save when it inheres in the self being radically expressed, is not one of Burning Man's Ten Principles. Cheap, like noise, is, at Burning Man, OK. And I don't think I would benefit from a week of it. So as much as I would kind of like, in some alternate universe, to open the one-woman Burning Man Community Kollel, I don't see it happening.

But there is quite a lot about Burning Man that I like the sound of – I have a thing for idealistic, creative people forming groups devoted to some end – and I was chewing over its principles, and as I got sleepier and sleepier the many other elements of it that I find attractive started to sound to me more and more like... lehavdil elef havdalos...

...well, it's Adar.
In two weeks there will be a day when the Jews dress up in costumes. And go about all day giving each other presents. And nichnas yayin yotzei sod, men will be dancing and singing in the streets and round each others' tables. And one of the themes of the day is not to be inhibited by self-imposed, artificial limitations. And it is all pretty crazy. My Purim is such that I can plan its details for weeks, but on Purim itself, I just wake up and say, Let's give food to everyone we know! And everyone we don't know! And it doesn't essentially matter what!

But the story of Purim is not one of straight “radical self-expression” – on the contrary, the joy of Purim comes out of it being a day of tsnius. Esther didn't reveal who she was. The old minhag of costume was to dress up, not like your inner martian, but like the enemies of the Jewish people – because things aren't what they appear to be. The megilla itself is about the Divine working invisibly – so much so that the name of G-d does not appear in the megilla. Cheap, on Purim, is not OK. The rules are not suspended: things get artistic, generous, and crazy, but the world of Purim is complex enough – through its being so very tsnius – to be truly exquisite. Intense. Immediate. Those things that people go to Burning Man to find.

 In two weeks, I will have that right here on my block. In my house. With an entire community of similarly Purimmy people.

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