Personally, I think the best way for someone who will never actually attend it to come close to understanding Burning Man is to think of it, not as an arts festival, but as an attempt to create a real working city with the following three unique elements:
- Rather than paying for things you want, or even bartering for them, your duty as one of the city's citizens is to match up what you're good at with what would make the city better and its other citizens happier or more intellectually enriched. Although for many citizens this amounts to creating a work of art, providing a fantastical vehicle, offering a class, or hosting a theme camp, no less important are the infrastructure roles, such as running the city's airport. Since everyone else is doing the same thing, all on a volunteer basis, you get the dream-like experience of life suddenly being more wonderful than it has ever been even in the complete absence of money, and instead seemingly spontaneously arising everywhere at once from the simple joy of creating.
- Quality of craftsmanship, creativity, effort, and thought are the means by which respect is gained in this city, rather than through power or wealth.
- The city exists only temporarily, even though it covers 4.5 square miles and at its peak has 50,000 citizens, and by several weeks after its zenith there is no physical trace to suggest it ever existed.
Having said this, there are a few ways one could read the above and still miss the mark. For example:
- You might assume the volunteer efforts are token efforts, and that the city merely has the appearance of infrastructure, in much the same way as a Renaissance faire merely has the facade of ancient times. In reality the radio station is a real radio station, the airport is a real airport, and taking pride in one's real contribution is a cornerstone of the event's culture. Perhaps the most striking example of this ethos is the fact that the "Man" the festival is named after is assembled and crafted with far greater painstaking attention to the principles of fine carpentry and detail than could possibly be seen from the ground by any of the city's citizens, even though this "Man" is destined to be spectacularly and completely destroyed.
- You might not appreciate the magnitude of the result. Fifty thousand people may not sound like a lot, and 4.5 square miles may not sound like a lot. It helps to see a photograph of the city from the air. It helps even more to stand next to the Man at night and see the neon lights and pyrotechnic creations of all these citizens completely surrounding you in the distance, with all the color and vibrancy, but much more beauty, than Las Vegas at night.
But put bluntly, until I attended Burning Man I absolutely could not have believed anything of this magnitude and beauty could have been strictly out of the joy of creating, with no money whatsoever as incentive to anyone for their role in its shared creation. Of course, I had encountered situations where a "joy of creation" motivation produces something comparable to a commercially-motivated offering (Linux and Wikipedia being two key examples), but better than any conceivable commercial offering which seeks to produce the same result?
Realizing that no amount of money could have produced this event without destroying its essential character was the point at which this event started to improve my personal opinion of our entire species.