Burning Man and the perilous quest for authenticity

10 September 2018 Consulting.us 4 min. read
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According to an insight article from management consultancy Korn Ferry, some long-time Burning Man festival goers worry that rising costs and the conspicuous consumption of wealthy elites at the ‘back-to-nature’ art and community festival are sapping it of its purpose and authenticity. 

“Depending on whom you ask, the Burning Man arts festival...is either a communal event dedicated to inclusiveness, non-commercialism, collaboration, social responsibility and purpose, or an environmentally-destructive playground for white billionaires with no authenticity,” says a Korn Ferry insight on the popular art and community festival Burning Man. The annual event is based on tenets like ‘radical inclusion,’ a gifting economy, and decommodification.

According to the article, the festival has grown from a few thousand participants paying $50 each to camp out in the Nevada Desert to more than 70,000 people spending a minimum of $425 to attend this year (the festival was held from August 26 to September 3). According to Money magazine, the average cost to attend the festival, after transportation, food, camp fees, and gifts, is $2,348.

Many festival participants have been critical of the ‘gentrification’ of Burning Man, with billionaires and celebrities flocking to the festival by private jet, sleeping in luxury RVs, and throwing lavish parties. One billionaire venture capitalist reportedly threw a $16,500-per-head party at his camp at Burning Man. Traditional festival-goers, or ‘burners,’ say this kind of behaviour goes against the event’s principles of civic responsibility, radical self-reliance, and communal effort. Still, barring Silicon Valley billionaires would go against Burning Man’s tenet of ‘radical inclusion.’Burning Man and the perilous quest for authenticityWhat’s being lost, according to those critics, is the purpose or ‘authenticity’ of the event. But was it ever really authentic? And isn’t the whole concept of authenticity bogus anyway?

Author and political commentator Andrew Potter thinks so. According to his book The Authenticity Hoax, that search for the ‘authentic’ and many of the facets it takes on – like locally sourced food, yoga, or attending Burning Man – is another form of exclusionary status-seeking. It’s a hoax, a “dopey nostalgia for a non-existent past, a one-sided suspicion of the modern world, and stagnant and reactionary politics masquerading as something personally meaningful and socially progressive,” according to Potter.

Eating organic, wearing $450 dollar hand woven jeans, ecotourism, the fetishization of anything non-Western or traditional – from homeopathy to quinoa - it’s just like old-fashioned status-seeking done by previous generations. However, keeping up with the Joneses now means shelling out on Burning Man instead of putting that cash towards a boat-sized Cadillac. It’s conspicuous authenticity.

Going to Burning Man and bartering for a weekend and ‘decommodifying’ is packaged as an effort to be ‘real,’ but is actually an avenue to be different and one-up the rest of one’s friend group (and the world). And that’s why billionaire hedge fund managers throwing exclusive parties fits in so well with the event – it only makes it more apparent what Burning Man is actually about. And perhaps that’s what makes ‘burners’ so uncomfortable about it.

Trying to be your ‘true self,’ according to Potter, will probably just throw you into a loop of expensive status-seeking, decrying the modern world that simultaneously affords the very foundation on which to pursue one’s countercultural interests. And heck, with 70,000 attendees, you may as well call it a mainstream interest. Ditto for the organic food you can now buy at Wal-Mart.

Out of the Burning Man into the Fyre

Last year, the infamous Fyre Festival organized by Billy McFarland and Ja Rule provided amusement in the form of its spectacular implosion. The event was billed as an exclusive music festival on a private island, with $12,000 VIP tickets that were said to include meals from celebrity chefs and accommodation in eco-friendly 'geodesic domes.' The event was promoted by social media influencers like Kendall Jenner and actress Emily Ratajkowski. It was to be an eminently Instagrammable event for the young and the rich and the beautiful.

Unfortunately, concert-goers were greeted with disaster relief tents and processed cheese sandwiches. The organizers are currently the subject of eight lawsuits seeking more than $100 million in damages. One of the organizers, McFarland, has since pleaded guilty to wire fraud.

But at least they were honest about what the whole thing was about – showing people that you’re better than them.