Burning Man Is Not What You Think It Is

By Matt Gibson,

The Burning Man Festival is one of the biggest, best known, most-loved, and worst understood festivals in the world. Ever since the founder, Larry Harvey, and a group of friends first burned an effigy of a man in 1986, the festival has grown into more than a party, music festival, or art show. It’s become a movement, spawning spin-off regional events around the United States and in dozens of countries around the world.


Burning Man FestivalPhoto by Matt Gibson

Burning Man is so poorly understood because it is so much more complex and culturally powerful than the common idea of a simple festival conveys. The term festival itself — although the best word we have to describe it — is problematic because it does not communicate the true depth of the event and the effect that it has on participants.

Here are some of the most common misconceptions about what Burning Man is — mainly arising from standard ideas of what festivals are — and why you would probably enjoy it a lot more than you expect.

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Things Burning Man Is Not
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Burning Man FestivalPhoto by Matt Gibson

Burning Man Is Not Just For Young People
This is patently untrue. In fact, I’m surprised to have seen as many young people as I have there. Burning Man is a prohibitively expensive event that requires months of planning and — for most people — thousands of dollars to attend. The vast majority of attendees are in their late twenties or older, which is one of the aspects of the event that gives it an atmosphere so different from other festivals.


Burning Man festivalPhoto by Matt Gibson

Burning Man Is Not Just For Partiers On Drugs
Yes, there are hippies and raves at Burning Man. But Black Rock City — the temporary city of 50,000+ inhabitants in the Nevada desert where the festival is held — is enormous and includes a broad variety of people including families,
health-oriented people, and many others. Drugs are part of the Burning Man society, like any society, but they are not the focus and are certainly not ubiquitous.


Burning Man festivalPhoto by Matt Gibson

Burning Man Is Not Just For Any One Type of Person At All
Burning Man espouses a unique culture founded on Ten Principles, one of which is Radical Inclusion, which means that exclusion of any person is culturally unacceptable. Everyone is welcome.
Also, Burning Man is a non-profit festival that is more-or-less built by the participants — some of whom invest tens (and sometimes even hundreds) of thousands of dollars into art installations and art cars simply because they want
to contribute to the community. There is a full-sized pirate ship art car with a full DJ sound system on it that drives around the playa all week that somebody designed and paid to build it — just for Burning Man. In fact, there are many intelligent and ingenuitive people in attendance.

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Three Things Burning Man Is
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Burning Man Is The Most Creative Large-Scale Art Project In The World
Burning Man contains every form of art in the extreme, from enormous dance clubs, to fifty-foot tall sculptures, to attendees dressed in every type of costume imaginable, to large-scale performance art, all on a flat desert bed that is
regularly engulfed in dust storms. Returning to my point that not everyone at Burning Man is on drugs; part of the reason is that one need not take drugs to have a hallucinatory experience.


Burning Man Festival Photo by Matt Gibson

Burning Man Is Many Of The Things You Dislike About Society Reversed
When you arrive at Burning Man greeters tell you (as they do everyone) welcome home. You never feel quite at home anywhere as at Burning Man. Money is not accepted. Burning Man runs on a gift economy. All goods are gifted to others and many attendees spend a great deal of time and effort preparing their contributions. Attendees go to Burning Man with the intention of contributing to — not receiving from — the festival, which may sound improbable, but is in fact gloriously real and wonderful to experience.


Burning Man Festival Photo by Matt Gibson

Burning Man Is A Spiritual Event
Burning Man is a tiny, temporary society that many people feel deeply attached to. Many burners (repeat Burning Man attendees) feel that Burning Man is ‘home’ and that the ‘default world’ (what the outside world is referred to at the festival) is a flawed place that could be improved upon greatly if more people followed the principles of Burning Man. It is also spiritual in a more obvious sense that highlights the impermanence of being. Every year the largest art structures are burned at the end of the festival, which could be thought to symbolize the constant change and temporary nature of life. The man effigy is burned on the second to last night, before the biggest
party. The final night, however, is more solemn. Each year an enormous ornate temple is built in the desert and during the week it is open to all attendees to hold ceremonies. Many people place tributes to lost loved ones inside and engage in rituals of personal healing. On the final night, after a long artistic procession that is at once artistic, ornate, and religious — while based on no particular religion — the temple is burned.


Burning Man Festival  Photo by Matt Gibson

It is as moving an event as I’ve ever attended.
Many people feel that Burning Man is an annual cleansing of the soul of the ails of modern society. For those people, Burning Man is not about art or music or debauchery. For those people Burning Man is an annual pilgrimage to a world better than the one that that they normally inhabit, which — during the joyous exuberance of that blissful week — feels as though it is on the verge of exploding beyond its temporary 7-day-a-year existence on a remote alkali plain in Nevada and spreading throughout society in a revolution of humanity, community, and giving.