YouTube videos: Sure, they’re popular. But are they art?

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For millions of people who use YouTube as a five-minute online distraction, it may be hard to view those quick, cheap and often out-of-control videos as art.

But the Guggenheim thinks they can be.

Starting Monday, the contemporary art museum is displaying a selection of 125 YouTube videos, including the one above, at kiosk installations at four of the Guggenheim Museums. You can also watch them on YouTube.


Among the museums’ collection of cubist, modernist and Bauhaus art, visitors also will be able to see a ‘short-list’ of videos culled from a pool of 23,000 submissions. Of those, 20 will be chosen by a diverse jury including Darren Aronofsky and Takashi Murakami to be on large screen displays in the New York Guggenheim from Oct. 21 through Oct. 24. (The smaller kiosks, equipped with touch screen computers, will remain at all four museums until Jan. 5.)

What makes them art? We posed the question to Nancy Spector, deputy director and chief curator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, which runs all the Guggenheim Museums.

‘Since the 1970s, video has been an established medium,’ Spector pointed out. ‘We have an in-depth collection of video at the Guggenheim. What we’re doing with this is looking at the online dimensions of video.’

There’s a host of subjective criteria used by curators and critics to judge art. Spector gives five:

1) Inner cohesion. ‘The piece stands alone as a work,’ Spector said. The submissions ranged from 25 seconds to 9 minutes, 21 seconds.

2) Originality. ‘Most of us have a sense about things that look too derivative, meaning things that are so clearly influenced by something else,’ Spector explained. Unless the references to other work are deliberate, Spector looks for videos that are fresh, either in the concept or the aesthetic.


3) Meaning and resonance. ‘We’re looking for things with a message,’ Spector said. ‘It can be political or social. There are also videos with personal statements, which is equally valid.’

4) Videos that represent the unique nature of the medium. ‘The videos we saw really look at the DNA of the medium,’ she said. ‘The sheer abundance of online video and use of it by both the art community and everybody else makes it different. You don’t have to take it seriously, because it’s not all good. But it’s relevant.’

5) Aesthetics. ‘We look for things that are both poetic, universal and personalizable,’ Spector said. ‘I’m not going to say something is art or not art. We can say whether it’s good or not.’

What’s good? Check out the video below, which is an animation of an interview recorded in 1969 with John Lennon.

‘The animation technique was excellent,’ Spector said of the video. ‘It’s very intricately done and aesthetically very sophisticated.’

The video, which won an Emmy in 2009 for new approaches, also satisfied another criteria, resonance. ‘It’s about world peace,’ Spector said. ‘And what they were talking about is absolutely relevant today.’

So next time you find yourself rifling through the videos on YouTube and feeling vaguely guilty about it, just think of it as going to an art museum.


-- Alex Pham

Twitter: @AlexPham