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But Is It Art?

Two billion videos are viewed daily on YouTube. Is any of it art? And does it matter?

What is this hunger to exhibit ourselves, to publicize our creativity, to share our vision? YouTube demonstrates that these activities are clearly not just within the domain of practising artists.

Two billion videos are viewed every day on YouTube (YouTube fact sheet). Twenty-four hours of video are uploaded every minute. But is any of it art? And does it matter today whether or not we can distinguish between art and non-art?

Let's start with that very loaded word “art”.

Organized marks of carbon and other oxides, on a rock wall. Lascaux cave painting.

I define art as magic taken to its highest level. Artists transform basic materials and manipulate them in such a way that on viewing one no longer sees the materials for themselves but instead perceives an image resonant with meaning. Not resonant for everyone, granted, as there’s rarely a consensus. But for enough people the work has lingering value from generation to generation.

The experience is like looking into a flat pool of water. Where we expect to see simply a two dimensional surface, we are suddenly struck by appearances both reflected from, and beneath, the water’s surface. But art is much more than just a manufactured apparition. It hooks us in and holds our imagination as we seek to make meaning of the image; and the more meaning we find in it, the more we’re drawn in and held.

Organized marks of gall ink on cotton paper.

Rembrandt van Rijn, A Woman Sleeping. (Screen shot from www.rembrandtpainting.net)

Artists are skilled magicians. They are trained to manipulate ordinary materials to the point where we no longer see the raw elements beneath the fabricated image. Granted artists exhibit a variety of skill levels, and some works will be more profound for us than others, but regardless all artists are trained to make the kerchief disappear so that we suddenly see a coin.

Where magicians use balls and rabbits, artists may create stories (which tap into our thoughts and memories); they may juxtapose incongruous images, play on our expectations, tease us, fool us, surprise us - all to tug us out of ourselves and bring us to a point of insight beyond what we can reach on our own.

Organized movement of light and dark (via exposed silver) on celluloid, in sync with recorded sound and presented over time.

Still image from the film Eight 1/2by Federico Fellini.

Images that randomly stimulate the senses are not art. In fact, they fatigue our sensory organs and numb us. They drown out any meaningful experiences that may then present themselves.

Of the two billion videos viewed daily on YouTube, many are simply a less or more organized array of sensory experience. Or they reach beyond that but their message is meaningful to only a very few (usually close friends or family of the creator).

Aesthetic - this is a word we need in order to press further. For a long time I struggled to grasp the concept. The short animation RSA Animate - Ken Robinson: The Changing Paradigms nailed the meaning for me. First think anaesthetic, something any of us who’ve experienced the dentist’s chair or surgery will know well; numbed out, as it were. Then think the opposite, waking the senses, coming alive.

Organized movement of digital pixels in sync with organized movement of digital sound, presented over time. A still from the short film Narciso by Oscar Munoz

For most of us, our day-to-day lives allow for a small range of sensory experiences. In an effort to escape this routine flatness, we seek out music, television, movies, video games, whatever makes us feel at a more extraordinary level and thereby gives us relief from the mundane.

Art is more than just an aesthetic experience though. As its very best, art stimulates our senses at the same time that it wakens our minds, bringing us to an “Aha” moment where we suddenly experience extraordinary clarity and new insights into what it is to be alive, to be human. 

Is any of the avalanche of moving imagery on YouTube truly art? Yes, a small amount of it is. Does it matter that art screens on YouTube? It's not significant where art screens so long as people have access to it.

The more important question to be asked, though, is does it matter if we can distinguish between the art and the non-art on YouTube? I believe it absolutely does. Because on first glance they can look alike. We can suffuse our vision with sensation in the same way that we can stuff ourselves with junk food. But just as junk food will leave our bodies starving for nutrients, so artless imagery will stuff our eyes but leave us starving for resonant meaning.

But don't just take my word for it. I'm emailing a number of thoughtful people to ask their opinion. If there's anyone you think should be included, let me know and I'll email them as well. I'm hoping to publish the responses as soon as the majority come in and will update as new ones arrive.

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