The best way I've found to explain Burning Man is to say that when purchasing a ticket to this event you aren't purchasing the right to experience any particular scheduled entertainment, rather that you're purchasing a conditional right to be a citizen of something called Black Rock City. Although this "Black Rock City" shares many of the same characteristics of an ordinary city, such as orderly street signs, maps, an airport, radio stations, newspapers, emergency services, ingress and egress traffic control, street lights, sanitation (in the form of porta-potties), and public art, it differs from any other city in the following significant ways:
- It's temporary. Indeed, only a short period of time after Burning Man ends there will be absolutely no sign Black Rock City ever existed, in accordance with a strict "leave no trace" standard. A useful analogy might be a Tibetan Buddhist sand mandala, which likewise exists only temporarily and is then completely wiped away.
- All ordinary city functions are performed by volunteers. The functions of the non-profit organization which formally hosts Burning Man (most significantly ticket distribution, declaring and explaining each year's artistic theme, securing the necessary Bureau of Land Management permits, representing the event in any fee or regulation disputes with local and county government, and negotiating the porta-potty contracts) are largely over by the time Black Rock City finally opens. Over time the different groups of volunteers (as I understand it beginning with the lamp lighters) have developed their own unique cultures, and genuinely care about the quality of their work.
- Commerce absolutely does not exist, neither as buying/selling anything for any form of currency nor as any form of barter. In the place of commerce is a unique environment in which people actively look for ways to improve the experience of other attendees without the expectation of direct reciprocity, which they don't experience as unfair because they're constantly benefiting from the actions of others. The ways people find to improve the experience of other attendees range from creating an enormous interactive sculpture for everyone to enjoy, to volunteering for an essential city function, to hosting a unique camp area, to dispensing advice, to creating a unique "mutant vehicle" and using it to provide transportation for other attendees, to offering to clean the dust from some random person's goggles. They're limited only by the bounds of imagination and real-world legality, and the level of imagination is shockingly high.
- Social status is gained through artistic creativity, skilled craftsmanship, or productive volunteerism, rather than through real-world wealth. Put in another way, it's unlikely you'll ever be asked what you do for a living.
Obviously each year Black Rock City hosts some absolutely jaw-dropping large-scale public art, and obviously the sight of this city at night, as illuminated by all of its unique artworks and vehicles, is legendary. But in trying to explain Burning Man that's not what I usually choose to emphasize, since I believe more significant than what is there is why it's there: everything you see, no matter how huge or amazing it may be, was created not for personal profit but rather simply for the joy of creating it and sharing it with others.