American Dream analysis with Larry Harvey

The annual Burning Man buzz has started again in San Francisco, which is home to most of the event’s best artists. The event’s Borg, Black Rock City LLC, is about to announce its art grants for this year and many of the artists I’m close to – such as Peter Hudson and the Flaming Lotus Girls – have already started to hear whether their projects will be fully funded (information that I must keep to myself right now…lo siento, my readers).
But one thing we all know is that workspaces in The City and the East Bay, from the Box Shop to the Shipyard, will soon transform into buzzing hives of colorful and creative activity, sculpting artworks that fit directly or very loosely under the banner of this year’s controversial American Dream art theme.
As I mentioned in my last post, I received sat down with BM head honcho Larry Harvey in his art-filled, rent-controlled apartment overlooking Alamo Square to talk about his “reprehensible theme,” the state of the country, and the prospects for the fundamental political changes that he, I, and those like us are seeking.
“It struck a chord,” Harvey said of his theme, for which he’s been widely lambasted, even by those close to him (someone came to the BM holiday party sporting a T-shirt that read, “American Dream? Larry, Larry, what were you thinking?”). But Harvey said he was going for provocation: “I know why I wanted to do it.”
“There was a cascade of denunciation and maybe that wasn’t a bad thing. It pricked people where they should be stimulated,” Harvey said.
Right now, when so many people are viewing the United States with such scorn – particularly among the counterculture that is attracted to Burning Man – Harvey said it’s important to rediscover the country’s positive attributes (such as the Bill of Rights, which Harvey placed on this year’s tickets) and work to recommit our fellow citizens to a positive path that we’ve lost, particularly during these imperial years of Bush II.
“America has lost its way,” Harvey said. “But to do this theme, I had to find things that I wanted to be proud of with America.”
For Harvey, that was how the U.S. behaved in the wake of World War II, when we rebuilt Europe under the Marshall Plan and essentially forgave and helped to restore Germany and Japan, our bitter enemies in that terrible war. He suggested that people need to find something about this country to believe in if we are to restore ourselves in the eyes of the rest of the world.
“Americans need to find our pride again. We can’t face our shame unless we find our pride,” he told me.
Personally, I’m as wary of the world pride as I am of the word patriotism, both of which imply a kind of elitism and egocentrism that have been our worst enemies as a country. But I do understand what Larry is getting at, particularly because he doesn’t gloss over the need for Americans to decide whether we want to rejoin the world or play out the endgame of a careening empire in decline, blinded to its fate by hubris.
“Now, the time has come and a real decision has to be made by everyone,” he said.
Do we embrace the moment’s potential for transformative change, which Barack Obama has made a centerpiece of his campaign, or we will be scared back into the politics of the past that both Hillary Clinton and John McCain seem to embody? Harvey is wary of flying the partisan flag, but it’s safe to say he’s for the former, something he’s been driving at with his last three themes – Hope and Fear, Green Man, and now American Dream – the only three in the event’s long history that have been overtly sociopolitical.
“Next year, I plan to take it another round, but I can’t tell you what it is,” Harvey told me, hinting only that it “straddles psychology.”
Harvey said that he’s done with themes like Floating World that could just as easily be high school prom themes, and he has not use for those who complain that they want escapism from their Burning Man experience.
“Burning Man doesn’t mean anything unless it affects the way we live our lives back home,” he said, citing his favorite pair of signs that mark the arrival at Black Rock City: “What happens in Vegas stay in Vegas. What happens in Black Rock City goes everywhere.”
Through offshoot groups like Black Rock Arts Foundation, Burners Without Borders, and Black Rock Solar, Harvey said burners are actively applying their social networks and ethos to important projects in the real world. And he said that is happening in countless other ways that will manifest in the coming years.
“That city is connecting to itself faster than anyone knows. And if they can do that, they can connect to the world. That’s why for the last three years I’ve done these sociopolitical themes, so they know they can apply it. Because if it’s just a vacation,” Larry said, his voice trailing off as his mind moved to his main point. “Well, we’ve been on vacation long enough.”

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