It’s like a dream. Imagine, in the empty desert, you come upon a huge wheel
ringed in skeletons, and someone invites you to come pull
a series of heavy ropes at its base, so you walk to one side,
where a team is waiting, and you all throw your backs into it, and you pull in turn, and eventually, the wheel roars to life, lights begin to flicker,
and the audience cheers, and you’ve just activated
Peter Hudson’s “Charon,” one of the world’s largest zoetropes. This is the farthest thing
from marketable art. (Laughter) It’s huge, it’s dangerous, it takes a dozen people to run,
and it doesn’t go with the sofa. (Laughter) It’s beautifully crafted
and completely useless, and it’s wonderful. You’re unlikely to see works like “Charon”
in the art-world headlines. These days, the buying
and selling of artwork often gets more attention
than the works themselves. In the last year, a Jean-Michel Basquiat
sold for 110 million dollars, the highest price ever achieved
for the work of an American artist, and a painting by Leonardo da Vinci
sold for 450 million, setting a new auction record. Still, these are big, important artists, but still, when you look at these works
and you look at the headlines, you have to ask yourself, “Do I care about these
because they move me, or do I care about them
because they’re expensive and I think they’re supposed to?” In our contemporary world, it can be hard
to separate those two things. But what if we tried? What if we redefined art’s value — not by its price tag, but by the emotional connection it creates
between the artist and the audience, or the benefits it gives our society, or the fulfillment it gives
the artists themselves? This is Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, about as far as you can get
from the galleries of New York and London and Hong Kong. And here, for just about
30 years, at Burning Man, a movement has been forming
that does exactly that. Since its early anarchist years,
Burning Man has grown up. Today, it’s more of an experiment
in collective dreaming. It’s a year-round community,
and every August, for a single week, 70,000 people power down their technology
and pilgrimage out into the desert to build an anti-consumerist society outside the bounds
of their everyday lives. The conditions are brutal. Strangers will hug you, and every year, you will swear
it was better the last, but it’s still ridiculous
and freeing and alive, and the art is one thing
that thrives here. So this is me
on the desert playa last year with my brother, obviously hard at work. (Laughter) I’d been studying the art
of Burning Man for several years, for an exhibition I curated
at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery, and what fascinates me the most
isn’t the quality of the work here, which is actually rather high, it’s why people come out here
into the desert again and again to get their hands dirty and make
in our increasingly digital age. Because it seems like this gets
to something that’s essentially human. Really, the entire
encampment of Burning Man could be thought of as one giant
interactive art installation driven by the participation
of everyone in it. One thing that sets this work aside
from the commercial art world is that anyone who makes work can show it. These days, around 300 art installations
and countless artistic gestures go to the playa. None of them are sold there. At the end of the week,
if the works aren’t burned, artists have to cart them
back out and store them. It’s a tremendous labor of love. Though there is certainly
a Burning Man aesthetic, pioneered by artists like
Kate Raudenbush and Michael Christian, much of the distinctive
character of the work here comes from the desert itself. For a work to succeed, it has to be portable enough
to make the journey, rugged enough to withstand
the wind and weather and participants, stimulating in daylight and darkness, and engaging without interpretation. Encounters with monumental
and intimate works here feel surreal. Scale has a tendency to fool the eyes. What looked enormous in an artist’s studio
could get lost on the playa, but there are virtually no spatial limits, so artists can dream
as big as they can build. Some pieces bowl you over by their grace and others by the sheer audacity
it took to bring them here. Burning Man’s irreverent humor
comes out in pieces like Rebekah Waites’ “Church Trap,” a tiny country chapel set precariously
on a wooden beam, like a mousetrap, that lured participants in
to find religion — it was built and burned in 2013 … while other works,
like Christopher Schardt’s “Firmament,” aim for the sublime. Here, under a canopy of dancing lights
set to classical music, participants could escape
the thumping rave beats and chaos all around. At night, the city swarms
with mutant vehicles, the only cars allowed to roam the playa. And if necessity
is the mother of invention, here, absurdity is its father. (Laughter) They zigzag from artwork to artwork like some bizarre, random
public transportation system, pulsing with light and sound. When artists stop worrying
about critics and collectors and start making work for themselves, these are the kinds
of marvelous toys they create. And what’s amazing is that, by and large,
when people first come to Burning Man, they don’t know how to make this stuff. It’s the active collaborative
maker community there that makes this possible. Collectives like Five Ton Crane
come together to share skills and take on complex projects
a single artist would never even attempt, from a Gothic rocket ship that appears
ready to take off at any moment to a fairytale home inside a giant boot complete with shelves
full of artist-made books, a blackbird pie in the oven and a climbable beanstalk. Skilled or unskilled, all are welcome. In fact, part of the charm
and the innovation of the work here is that so many makers
aren’t artists at all, but scientists or engineers or welders or garbage collectors, and their works cross
disciplinary boundaries, from a grove of origami mushrooms that developed
out of the design for a yurt to a tree that responds
to the voices and biorhythms of all those around it through 175,000 LEDs
embedded in its leaves. In museums, a typical visitor spends
less than 30 seconds with a work of art, and I often watch people wander
from label to label, searching for information, as though the entire story
of a work of art could be contained
in that one 80-word text. But in the desert,
there are no gatekeepers and no placards explaining the art,
just natural curiosity. You see a work on the horizon,
and you ride towards it. When you arrive, you walk all around it, you touch it, you test it. Is it sturdy enough to climb on?
Will I be impaled by it? (Laughter) Art becomes a place
for extended interaction, and although the display
might be short-lived, the experience stays with you. Nowhere is that truer at Burning Man
than at the Temple. In 2000, David Best and Jack Haye
built the first Temple, and after a member of their team
was killed tragically in an accident shortly before the event, the building became a makeshift memorial. By itself, it’s a magnificent
piece of architecture, but the structure is only a shell
until it disappears under a thick blanket of messages. “I miss you.” “Please forgive me.” “Even a broken crayon still colors.” Intimate testaments to the most
universal of human experiences, the experience of loss. The collective emotion in this place
is overpowering and indescribable, before it’s set afire
on the last night of the event. Every year, something compels people
from all different walks of life, from all over the world, to go out into the desert and make art when there is no money in it. The work’s not always refined, it’s not always viable, it’s not even always good, but it’s authentic and optimistic
in a way we rarely see anywhere else. In these cynical times, it’s comforting to know that we’re still
capable of great feats of imagination, and that when we search for connection, we come together and build
cathedrals in the dust. Forget the price tags. Forget the big names. What is art for in our contemporary
world if not this? Thank you. (Applause)