Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Ethics of Destruction

Judging by comments I've started to receive from my post below, I've aligned myself with the "uncool kids" by thinking that there was something wrong with the actions of Paul Addis at Burning Man. I considered responding in depth in the comments, but given that today marks the anniversary of another event that provoked world discussion through the destruction of an iconic structure, it seems that this might be a great opportunity to discuss the ethics of destruction.

Let me state my position clearly: I think what Paul Addis did was wrong because it was an action filled with contempt for the work of others, that it was nihilist rather than artistic, and because it threatens the principle of mutual respect that makes radical community possible. This is completely separate from what I feel about Burning Man as an event (which I recognize has issues it must deal with), what I think of Larry Harvy or the Burning Man organization (with which I have had only slight interaction), or how I feel about "The Man" itself as one iconic structure among the many in the world.

Let's start by talking about The Man as an object. Though others obviously disagree, I see it as something that was created by a group of people, who invested their labor into it, and who had an intention for it. You may try to argue that it was a "craft" and not "art," and you may argue that, because it is serially reproduced year after year, it is also not art. This is all pure semantics, and has no bearing on the fact that people worked to create it, invested it with intention, and saw it, in some way, as a personal expression of what they were giving to the community. Those who created the man were acting as participants, which, supposedly, is what is most valued by all members of the Burning Man community.

This object, however, is also imbued with iconic meaning. For many, it is a negative icon, symbolizing everything that they think is wrong with Burning Man. For years people, mostly those who see themselves as part of the older, more authentic Burning Man experience, have talked about burning it early in a symbolic act of defiance. So after many years of talking about destroying this symbol, someone does it, and is instantly acclaimed "a hero" by people like Chicken John Rinaldi and others who consider themselves part of the original Burning Man experience.

Those who find this act praiseworthy seem to take the position that what Addis did was an act of radical self-expression, that the intent was to make a statement about art, about the corporate nature of Burning Man, about the loss of spontaneity at the event, etc. But all of this ignores the nature and intent of the act itself. I can do many things that are provocative and make a statement about something - I can blow up a building, paint swastikas on a church, or slash a painting in a gallery - but just because they provoke a discussion and make a statement doesn't make them ethical. The consideration of the ethical dimension of Addis' act is what has been completely left out of all these discussions, as though the intent justified the means.

It is obvious from Addis' various statements, most notably the one that appeared on Laughing Squid, that he holds all those who are not part of the original Burning Man experience in contempt, an attitude shared by many others. It is also obvious, from his action itself, that he holds the work invested in the object of The Man in contempt - it is something worthy only of being destroyed. Thus it seems to me that Addis acted out of a general contempt for the experience and work of others. In my view, this makes his action unethical.

But what about it as a prank, about it being in the spirit of the original Burning Man experience? For me, a prank is like what John Law did with The Man in 1997, the year of the Smiley Face. John Law also has taken a very critical stance toward Burning Man, and wanted to make a statement about it. His statement was to *create* something of his own that commented on Burning Man - in other words, he created art. And this is where Addis' act is completely different, in that it was only about destruction. Destruction isn't art, it's nihilism.

Finally, what did Addis' action accomplish? Judging from the commentary on this and other online forums, it has only caused even more polarization and factionalizing in the Burning Man community, a hardening of already opposing positions that will now be even more difficult to resolve; thus, instead of bringing about a synthesis, of provoking dialogue between these various factions, Addis has only succeeded in breaking apart the community even further.

When our community begins to hold someone like Paul Addis up as a "hero," I think we have truly lost our way, because it means that our heroes are nihilists who are incapable of creation, only destruction. Addis' action may be seen as an act of "radical self-expression," but it is self-expression that is completely devoid of any respect for the labor of others, their intents, and their expression. If that's our hero, then we are deep trouble, and I think that the values of our alternative community are no longer viable, because we have lost the main quality that makes community possible: mutual respect.

Last night the boyfriend pointed out to me how ironic it was that this is all taking place during the 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love, another moment in time when it seemed that the alterative community was poised to make real changes in the world. But that moment collapsed for many of the same reasons that the Burning Man community now seems to be collapsing, a victim of its own success, with in-fighting over issues of authenticity, how to manage a community that has grown well beyond its original members, how to keep its values alive when they are being disseminated on a massive scale. What has been most striking to me in all of this is how whether or not you agree with Addis' action seems to have become the mark of whether or not you are an authentic Burner, whether you are part of the despised establishment or can count yourself as a true participant, one of the heads. I think that what David Addis did was wrong because it was unethical, because it did not respect the labor and intent of others, and because it was based on a general contempt for all those not part of an in group; if that means I'm not an authentic Burner, I can live with that.

1 comment:

Kitten said...

"Don't burn other people's art." That's one of the first rules about burning man that I read when first coming to the festival almost a decade ago.

Frankly, imho the worst thing about Paul's act was the destruction of much expensive state-of-the-art solar equipment.... the night of the early burn I spent an hour or so in the Man's complex, looking up at the very beautiful, very peaceful display. There was a lot of wiring= for the light & sound art up there, all of which usually gets removed before the burn at the end of the week.

In the end I completely agree with this post... Paul wasn't creative enough to actually give birth to anything new... he could only destroy. How very lame. Burning Man is fresh for me every year because I find new projects to bring to the community that excite me. It's sad that Paul doesn't have the mojo to create something himself.