“Is the 747 Art?” Is a Great Question, but It Might Not Be the Right One

The best thing about the 747, in my opinion, is the way it has caused large groups of people to spontaneously ask one another “but is it Art?”

“But is it Art?” is a conversation that is HORRIBLE to have when someone is making you have it – especially at a party or (I would guess) when you’re trying to dig the wheels of a giant plane out of soft ground.  But when it’s a conversation that people are having because they want to have it, when they actually care about the answer … well, to me, that suggests we are doing something very right.

It’s an awesome conversation when you mean it.

So I’m actually really happy about it, but I’d like to suggest, as my contribution to this conversation, that “is it Art” is the wrong question for us to ask.

Back to Basics

For a lot of people “is it Art?” is a question they’re asking because they want to establish:  “is all the hassle and trouble the 747 has caused (to Gerlach, to Burning Man’s press clippings, to everyone behind it on the highway) really worth it?  Is it actually enough of a Burning Man activity that we have to stand behind this nonsense?”

But of course, the Principle that they debate this under – “Radical Self-Expression” – never actually mentions “art” at all.  It isn’t “Radical Art,” it’s “self-expression.”

And there is no question to my mind, none, that the 747 is an act of self-expression.  They’re doing it because they want to see it in the world, for no reason other than for its own sake.  We can discuss and debate what they’re expressing, and whether we like it, and what it achieves – but it’s definitely an act of group self-expression.

We tend to get “art” confused with “self-expression” because we think – rightly – that art is often the most potent, most interesting, most developed, most useful, and most engaging form of self-expression.  Art does amazing things, it is self-expression taken to a whole new level. So of course, the better we get at all this, the more the straw of our self-expression will be spun, Rumpelstiltskin style, into art.

But all “self-expression” isn’t “art,” and all self-expression that is valuable isn’t art.  The ability to simply reach out to other human beings, to tell difficult truths, to confess, to tell your story, to say what you want in this world even if it makes no sense to anybody else … these are all profoundly powerful moments whenever and however they happen, and they are all acts of Radical Self-Expression.  They count.

In fact, the one time the 10 Principles do mention “art” – the one time the word is used – is not in “Radical Self-Expression” at all, but “Communal Effort.”  Where it reads:

Communal Effort
Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction.

And – once again – it seems pretty clear to me that the 747 is a product of massive Communal Effort;  that whatever else it is, it is a whole lot of people banding together and cooperating to do something weird and maybe impossible.

“Is it Art?”  Well, maybe, maybe not – but it is definitely Radical Self-Expression, and it is definitely Communal Effort.  So I’m rooting for it.

Okay, but really:  is it Art?

Here’s the thing:  ever since the Enlightenment, Western culture has used “Art” and aesthetics as a kind of substitute for “God” and meaning.  Art is supposed to provide access to eternal truth, be therapeutic, provide comfort, initiate revolutions, satirize the powerful, question assumptions, preserve the past, give us visions of the future, make us more compassionate, make us angry, and exist totally for its own sake with no other utility.

How is that supposed to work?  Is art really up to the challenge?

I’m going to leave that as an open discussion question, but I think that what it suggests is that the question “is it Art?” is actually the wrong question most of the time, because even if we can answer that question, the answer doesn’t say anything useful.

I mean, if “Art” as a category includes Raphael’s “Transfiguration,” the Pyramids of Giza, Duchamp’s “Fountain,” modern dance, Spalding Gray monologues, and street graffiti … then even if you can agree that something is “art,” what the hell can you usefully say about it?

Which doesn’t mean we should abandon our inquiry, just that we might need better questions.

“What kind of art is it?” for example.  That question allows us to actually describe what we’re talking about in a possibly useful way.  “Art” is hard to wrap your brain around. “Painting” is a lot simpler; “religious painting” is even easier.  Asking “what kind of art is it?” also lets you put it in a relevant tradition, and usefully compare it to other examples.

Likewise “what effect does it have?” and “what experience do people have of it?” seem like good questions.  They lead you to an important discussion about the way people are engaging with the art piece, which is something we probably care more about than the way it gets classified.

“What is it trying to accomplish?” and “in what ways does it succeed or not?” can also be helpful when judiciously applied.  Often what we mean when we say something “isn’t art” is that it has failed in achieving its goals, or that its goals aren’t really artistic at all (as in the case of advertising and propaganda).

For what little it’s worth, that’s where the 747 ends up for me.  It’s definitely Radical Self-Expression, and Communal Effort, and I think it’s a kind of art.  But I want it to be a different kind of art.  Once it’s on the playa, I want it to be doing something different than they did with it, and for people to have a different kind of experience of it.

Which is totally fine and maybe even worthy of a discussion.  But of course this is Burning Man, so I can quite reasonably be asked:  “would you like to help? This is a do-ocracy, so, if you want input, why don’t you volunteer?”

Or even “well, why don’t you go get your own 747, and bring it to the playa, and then do it the way you think it should be done?”

I mean, how hard can that be, right?


Cover image by Dustin Mosher

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *