Michael Goetzman

Burning Man - Art History & Styles


Burning Man Art traces its origins to the mid-1980s where it began like a whimsical move by Larry Harvey, Jerry James and several of their friends in marking a relationship breakup (Sherry & Kozinets, 2007). The whimsical launch consisted the burning of an approximately eight-foot effigy of man on Baker Beach in San Francesco by Larry Harvey and his group of friends (Sherry & Kozinets, 2007). However as larger crowds began gathering and participating, there arose the need to find a larger, safer place to carry larger numbers of people at one given time. The Baker Beach was overwhelmed by the increasing crowds attracted to each event hence the relocation to Black Rock Desert (Sherry & Kozinets, 2007; Raiser, 2016).

Larry Harvey- the Founder of Burning Man Art

In the year 1986, a single father sought to engage his young son in an activity they both would enjoy. The project involved the construction of a sculpture of man from wood, stylized by father and son. To celebrate the summer solstice, both went to the Baker Beach where Larry doused the sculpture in gasoline and set it on fire. This attracted significant attention of the crowd at the beach, Larry viewed the project as modestly successful. The single father was Larry Harvey and Tristan was his young son (Raiser, 2016).

In subsequent years, under motivation and encouragement from his friends, Larry built and burned more effigies of man at the Baker Beach until it became an annual ritual attracting overwhelming numbers of crowds who no longer stood to watch, but also participated in the events. During its third year anniversary, Larry Harvey compromised with the police, prompting the move to Black Rock Desert in Nevada where the ritual endeavor could thrive under the harsh desert conditions (Raiser, 2016). Larry Harvey later came up with the “Ten Principles of Burning Man” in the year 2004 that act as the terms and conditions guiding participant conducts and behaviors at Burning Man Art Festivals (Krecker, 2014).  These principles are focused on aspects of respect, community and spirit, and are a series of self-regulation procedures and guidelines for all community members. Community in this context refers to all persons ascribing to Burning Man Art. Burning Man Art is all-inclusive and has tolerance and acceptance for all (Krecker, 2014)

Black Rock Desert

Black Rock Desert is located in Nevada and plays host to the Black Rocky City in which Burning Man is held annually. Black Rock City (BRC) exists temporarily during the seven-day long Burning Man annual festival that attracts over 300 large-scale art installations (Krecker, 2014). BRC is a vast expanse of land under management of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), with a proper fence all round it. In describing BRC, Sherry and Kozinets (2007) term it as a “pastiche of painting.” The large space offered at BRC with no constraints and unrivaled freedom of artists has enables the creation of the highest forms of expressive art.

At BRC, the value is often on creativity rather than money. The core defining component of BRC is in its permissiveness. It is viewed as permission engine allowing artists as well as other participants to the one-week long adventure to wholly engage their most creative brains in producing highly expressive forms of art. People have the permission to create practically anything they wish to create and are surrounded by an eager community ready to offer services in creation of such art and even celebrate with the artist (Raiser, 2016).

BRC’s community consistently upholds a sub-culturally diverse mix of members who range from anarchists, campers, raver, to artists, digerati and spiritual seekers among others (Sherry & Kozinets, 2007). The members of BRC seek to fulfill diverse purposes such as healing, spirituality and even the need to express themselves through participation in the creation of various arts (Sherry & Kozinets, 2007). Heightened sense of human communication is expressed through diverse forms of art in burning man art, and no one specific genre has been established of the art experienced at BRC.

Burning Man

The Burning Man "festival" is a seven-day long adventurous mission of participants who express high levels of self-expression and self-reliance (Raiser, 2016). This period is marked with purposeful intensive work and play as members engage and participate in various large-scale art installations. At the festival, art is meant to be touched, pictures taken of it amidst celebrations, then it is to be torched and forgotten (Sherry & Kozinets, 2007). Each year, artists are required to make their art creations based on annual themes.

The Burning Man Festival occurs a week prior to Labor Day celebrations. Over the years, the initial eight-foot effigy of man grew bigger and larger, and was constantly augmented by other art-installations. The destiny of the effigy of man and all contributing materials in its construction was destruction by fire. This aspect guides members on the need to make careful choice of environment-friendly material that left no traces behind after the fire went out (Kozinets & Sherry, 2004). Various aspects of performance art grew over the years to surround the installation of The Man (Sherry & Kozinets, 2007).

According to most persons subscribing to Burning Man Art, viewing the art independent of its creation process is quite impossible (Raiser, 2016). This is because the creation process resembles a melting pot in which diverse ingredients, efforts, and skills are churned to produce very high quality art, most of which is temporal as the destination for most of the art is destruction by fire. Whatever survives the fire is carefully disassembled and stored for future use, whereby it may be duplicated just as it was, or it may be distorted to create something new altogether. Burning Man Art allows its members and participants to hybridized both ancient and newer technologies and techniques in creating art (Kozinets & Sherry, 2004).

Moreover, Burning Man Art seeks to achieve the revival of the connective function and culture-bearing of art. This is achieved through effectively soliciting for a form of collaborative response from an artist’s audience, inviting spectators to participate in the creation process. As a result, Burning Man Art enables people to appreciate the work put in the creation of art, and not just the art in isolation. People begin to understand why the art is valuable to the artist on the basis of the fulfillment that they get during the creation of the art (Atkinson, 2018).

There is deliberate blurring of distinctions between an artist and their audience as they collaboratively piece together art installations. Distinguishing an amateur from a professional, a participator from a spectator is blurred as everyone actively participates in some activity in creating Black Rock City during the seven-day long festival (Raiser, 2016; Sherry & Kozinets, 2007). The festival gathers collective endeavors and galvanizes a much larger community in creation of art that thrills and elicits deep emotions from both the audience and the artists (Raiser, 2016).

Burning Man Art offers some of the most thrilling sights of art that under normal circumstances should never exist in the first place. People engage and participate in creation of art that is sometimes too absurd to be true, too big or too tall, and breathtakingly capturing one’s attention and sense of self, prompting high levels of self-expression through art which have been elevated to civic duty (Raiser, 2016).

Before the Burn

Urgency and immediacy marked labored efforts in creation of Black Rock City during the seven days of the festival. Members of BRC are often under guidance of project directors who produce designs of the geomantic infrastructure to last the entire festival. More often than not, the presence of nomad volunteers exceeds 30,000 (Sherry & Kozinets, 2007). The buzzing life and activity at BRC allows for no spectating as one is often under s form of unexplainable compulsion and excitement to actively participate rather than merely observing the happenings at the festival. BRC can be likened to a luminous city of art in the middle of the harsh desert conditions.

The ecstatic creation of community at BRC is often marked by highly radical inversions of socially acceptable norms. Here, nudity beckons and is not condemned, but embraced as embodiment celebrations are urged amongst participants. The buzz of activities and events are deeply intertwined with DIY (Do It Yourself) participative ethos which rather than repel participation, highly encourages participation amongst members of the BRC community (Kozinets & Sherry, 2004).

Effigy of Man at Burning Man

The effigy of man is constructed using diverse materials such as wood, ground, nature, and trees, in combination with high levels of technological contraptions. These contraptions aid in harnessing fire for the burn and electronics used in the creation of The Man, incorporating two brilliant colors of neon tubing (Kozinets & Sherry, 2004). The Man is constructed with careful blending of past and future and incorporates both primal and high technological artistry. The effigy of man stands fifty-foot tall on the playa. It is set on a multistory pedestal amidst a wide variety of mega art installations (Sherry & Kozinets, 2007)

Before subjecting The Man to fiery destruction, The Man raises his hands skyward as if in surrender, exhorting the crowds. This gesture has been interpreted as processing motion for the crowds to act. It has also been vivified by ritualists and thus has become a ritual that is duplicated each year. Enacting a wild spectacle among participants happens before the burn. The stage is filled in a rushed forward thrust by fire twirlers. Amidst the incomprehensible noises of the festival in BRC glowing decorations abound alongside finery desert-wear (Kozinets & Sherry, 2004).

The Burn

In a frenzy, fire dancers and twirlers parade around the fifty-foot tall effigy of man. Under careful instructions of rangers who are in close proximity to the ring where the effigy of man has been erected on the playa, ceremonial dancing happens as a ritualistic etiquette in rushing the burn. As the pyrotechnics used in the construction begin to explode, the earliest flames ignited begin licking the pedestal. The Man raises arms or one arm indicating touchdown before collapsing onto the ground.

As the effigy of man collapses, the crowd watching the burn rushes the process of the enormous bonfire in the middle of the desert. Raining from the sky is a hail of burning debris as artists and other participants hurl artifacts into the flames, most of which were created during the seven-day purposeful intense art creation at BRC. In the midst of it all, the crowd circle is kept in formation dancing to music in free-form until the fire eventually dies down.  (Sherry & Kozinets, 2007)

Disoriented by the loss of The Man, the crowd eventually abandon the dance and find other things to do in response to the experienced loss.

Styles of Art at Burning Man

There exist no specific style of art at Burning Man. The permissive nature of BRC encourages artists and non-artists to create practically anything they imagine. The fact that there exist no restrictions on what specific forms of art to create makes it hard to describe the genre of Burning Man Art. It is more often than not whimsical with no limits. However, the style of art used in burning man may be broadly categorized under the short sub-headings discussed below.

Expressive Art

A majority of Burning Man Art is highly expressive. This is attributed to the permissiveness to create practically anything one imagines during the seven-day long festival at BRC. Because of this, most forms of art are spontaneous and express a sense of immediacy and urgency on the part of the artist and the nomad volunteers on pilgrimage to the Burning Man festivities (Lazzari & Schlesier, 2015). Art installations often express a heightened sense of emotion between the artist and their audience. Moreover, the art appears to be very absurd and bold, expressing certain humanistic behaviors such as defiance, only that the defiance expressed by the art is defiance to laws of gravity, expectation or reason (Raiser, 2016).

Additionally, expressive art is necessitated by the arousal of emotive connections between an artist and their audience as they resonate with common, yet diverse perceptions of the art installations (Atkinson, 2018). Creation of art encompasses ancient forms and technology while engaging participant’s mechanical and creatively inventive minds. Expressive art forms are motivated by the need for practicality in terms of purposes, widely diverse discussions that intrusively permeate some of the most uncomfortable contemporary debates on gendered-rotated hobbies and dreams (Kozinets & Sherry, 2004)

Abstracted Art

A good example of this style of art is the effigy of man that is central to the Burning Man Art. Abstracted styles of art in Burning Man Art involve deriving concepts from reality and making changes that either enlarge, destruct or distort the original meaning of such natural realities (Lazzari & Schlesier 2015; Kozinets & Sherry, 2004). The effigy of man originates from the concept of the real man and is augmented with other mega art installations around its axis mundi, ending up with a fifty-foot tall statue. Another good example of an abstracted art at Burning Man is the ‘Church Trap’ by Rebekkah Waites.

Abstracted art involves making little to look like a lot more than one initially imagined, and encourages the enlargement of the vision of an artist. It is the presentation of an ever-larger art that constantly challenges the imagination of an artist to strive towards accomplishing more with little.

Surreal Art

This style of art involves a bizarre arrangement of art pieces (Lazzari & Schlesier, 2015). It is evidenced in Burning Man Art by the fantastic arrangements of various components of art installations at the Burning Man Art Festivals and in how the effigy of man is constructed. Putting together the mega art installations on the playa requires engagement of the inventive mind in making bizarre arrangements of art displayed in the Burning Man Art Festival.

Participatory Art

Here, the engagement of viewers is activated though activities such as helping artists in the creation of the diverse art installations at BRC. This art style is extensively used in burning man art where the steady flow or ready volunteers chip in the works of creating art through making contributions in terms of finances, labor, skills and choice in making art work production complete. Participatory art is facilitated by the immediacy of the festivities, creating the urgency power that influences participation (Kozinets & Sherry, 2004).

Unfinished Art

In this style of art, artists display works in progress and invite participation of their audience in the creation process so that they can be enlightened on the amount of work it takes to produce a given work of art. This art style in Burning Man Art encourages the collaborative response from the audience, urging them to help through participation (Raiser, 2016).

What Differentiates Styles of Art in Burning Man Art

It is quite difficult to differentiate the styles of art used in Burning Man Art. No specific genre has been identified with the art making it quite hard to make a distinction between the styles of art employed in creation of the same. The incorporation of input by participants tends to blur the lines on the art style as each person brings a unique spontaneous addition to collaboratively complete the stuff at Burning Man (Atkinson, 2018).

Moreover, most people on their first pilgrimage to Burning Man possess no prior knowledge on how to make art (Atkinson, 2018). Through active participation and collaboration, they learn as they share skills while working on complex projects, which when viewed from an individualistic approach, no single artist would ever imagine attempting to work on. Natural curiosity drives the search for information and meaning as a person moves from one art to the next (Atkinson, 2018).

Nonetheless, expressive art styles dominate the scene at Burning Man Art. It is the widely used art style as both audiences and artists express themselves through actively participating in the creation of art. Playa artwork is often collapsed


Burning Man Art offers what most contemporary forms of art do not offer many artists and their audiences in terms of freedom in terms of space and expression to create practically anything without fear of judgements or unwarranted harsh critiques on their art. Extended interaction among audiences and artists is enhanced at Burning Man. Despite the fact that the displays are often short-lived – only available for a seven-day long period or even shorter annually- the experience lasts long enough to leave behind remarkable impact on one’s life.

The art is often very beautiful, highly inimitable as more often than not is created through massive collaborations by people from diverse backgrounds, and of rather high quality. However, all this can be seen to be completely useless as the ultimate destination is the fire. Burning Man Art continues to permeate normal art scenes as more and more subtle forms of it are reproduced in art pieces, though not too absurd nor too big or too tall as in Black Rock City. Higher levels of self-expression in Burning Man Art can also not be underrated as this self-expression beyond constraints and criticism forms the basis for the creation of some of the world’s most exquisite, and rare arts. As more and more people begin to appreciate Burning Man Art and enroll for the annual festivals, expressive art styles remain the most dominantly used art style in combination with styles such as surrealism and abstraction.


Atkinson, N. (2018). Why Art Thrives at Burning Man [Video]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/nora_atkinson_why_art_thrives_at_burning_man?language=en

Kozinets, Robert V. and John F. Sherry, Jr. (2004), Dancing on Common Ground: Exploring the Sacred at Burning Man, in Rave culture and religion, Graham St. John, ed., London; Routledge, 287-303.

Krecker, L. S. (2014). Art Installations in The Desert: A Participant Observation Study of the Art of Real Life Burning Man and Second Life Burn2. Arizona State University.

Lazzari, M., & Schlesier, D. (2015). Exploring art: A global, thematic approach. Cengage Learning.

Raiser, J. (2016). Burning Man: Art on Fire: Revised and Updated. Race Point Publishing.

Sherry, J.F. and Kozinets, R.V. (2007), "Comedy of the Commons: Nomadic Spirituality and the Burning Man Festival", Belk, R.W. and Sherry, J.F. (Ed.) Consumer Culture Theory (Research in Consumer Behavior, Vol. 11), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 119-147. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0885-2111(06)11006-6

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