Critical Dialogue: YouTube
In 2009, Whitney curator Chrissie Iles opened her Artforum best-films-of-the-year list with an unexpected choice: “If YouTube is our collective online cinema, then the best film of the year was posted there: Veteran performance artist John Kelly’s video rendition of ‘Blue' (excerpted from Paved Paradise Redux, his drag tribute to Joni Mitchell).” It was a selection geared to raise some questions (not to mention a few eyebrows). First, there’s the old ontological quandary of whether an online video clip ought to be considered a film like any other. Then there’s the particular stigma surrounding YouTube itself: you don't have to be stuck in an ivory tower clinging to Romantic notions of artistic genius to find the platform’s wide-open, limitlessly democratic attitude towards creative authorship (which fails to distinguish as clearly as one might like between, say, The Passion of Joan of Arc and Funny cat trys to jump over baby gate!) a little unnerving. If YouTube is our collective online cinema, just what kind of cinema is it?
John Kelly performing “Blue”
In his piece on YouTube for the July/August issue of FILM COMMENT, Howard Hampton invokes a key precursor to the site’s democratic, everyone’s-a-star ethos. “Warhol would have adored the concept of YouTube: ‘The Pop idea…was that anybody could do anything,” and YouTube offers a platform to anybody with a video camera and an Internet connection.” Has YouTube lived up to Warhol’s vision of a world where everyone could turn his or her private life into the stuff of public art?
Not yet, Hampton decides, but a firm conclusion is not exactly his point. His article digs into the contrasts between Warhol’s era, in which “the clear demarcation between the straight media and the tabloids and the arty fringes was just starting to unravel,” and ours, which seems to allow anyone to “create a brand (if not a career as such) out of thin air and a smattering of personality.” It was, Hampton suggests, the tension between those not-yet-fully-dissolved distinctions—arty and mainstream, high and low—that gave Warhol’s art its tense, nervous energy. YouTube, by contrast, looks relatively slack, cushioned, and frictionless: “The most dispiriting thing about it is the air of complacency: ridicule becomes another form of airhead preening, built into the equation like criticism-insulating foam.”
Andy Warhol Eats a Hamburger
How far does this contrast take us? Hampton makes passing reference to the great art critic Robert Hughes, whose 1983 takedown of Warhol for The New York Review of Books features the following stinging passage:
[Warhol's] camera (when he made his films) deputized for him, collecting hour upon hour of tantrum, misery, sexual spasm, campery, and nose-picking trivia. It too was an instrument of power—not over the audience, for which Warhol’s films were usually boring and alienating, but over the actors. In this way the Factory resembled a sect, a parody of Catholicism enacted (not accidentally) by people who were or had been Catholic, from Warhol and Gerard Malanga on down. In it, the rituals of dandyism could speed up to gibberish and show what they had become—a hunger for approval and forgiveness. These came in a familiar form, perhaps the only form American capitalism knows how to offer: publicity.
In Hughes’s evaluation, the Factory—and with it Warhol’s whole vision for art-making—revolved around the image of Warhol himself as a kind of high priest, doling out 15 minutes of fame apiece to his desperate, submissive “stars.” Hampton is implicitly responding (and half-assenting) to this conception when he writes that “‘Andy Warhol’ wasn’t really just an individual artist or an artistic brand—he was a conduit through which people could re-create themselves so that he might get to watch.” Hughes might reply that it wasn’t so much Edie, Billy et al. “remaking themselves” as it was Warhol remaking them.
Ali Haghgoo's entry to an Edie Sedgwick screen test re-creation contest
Hughes and Hampton both suggest, albeit by different means, that the thing most integral to Warhol’s star-making system is also the one thing YouTube lacks: Warhol. Without that singular, central figure in place to bestow fame and withhold it, control inflow and outflow, and give the final products a seal of approval (however meaningless), YouTube might suffer as a venue for art-making and performance. But it might in the process become something else, something Warhol might not have anticipated: in Hampton’s words, “a sprawling, chthonic library—a repository of historic moments and indelibly splintered ephemera.”
This is the image of YouTube we get from, for instance, Leah Churner’s “Video World” column for SundanceNOW, a series of dispatches on curiosities including, but not limited to, home-shopping clips, surreal employee education films, spangly televangelistic Christmas specials, and (thankfully) inaccurate visions of the future propagated by AT&T ads circa 1993; from Tom McCormack’s deadpan Moving Image Source articles on the historical lineages of cat videos (from medieval bestiaries to Chris Marker and “I Can Has Cheezburger?” memes) and supercuts (Moby-Dick to Histoire(s) du Cinéma to “Nicolas Cage Losing His Shit”); or from the brief “YouTube essay” on Roosevelt, New Jersey compiled last year for The New Inquiry by novelist Jonathan Lethem.
AT&T's Vision of the Future
These pieces suggest that whatever the average YouTube clip lacks in isolation, it gains by association with the clips around it; that if patterns of meaning are to be found in this “dizzying, bewildering, sometimes demoralizing work-in-progress” (per Hampton), they’ll be found in the gaps and relations and unexpected correspondences between the videos themselves. If YouTube isn’t yet our collective cinema, it’s at least our collective archive: the closest thing we have to Borges’s total library, which contains, for any volume of even semi-coherence, thousands of total gibberish. That might render the site deeply frustrating as an object of criticism. But it makes it, I think, all the richer to explore.