Dr. YouTube, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying (About Failure) and Love My Viral Video

Screen Shot 2014-01-10 at 3.36.21 PM

Anish Kapoor and Friends, “Gangnam for Freedom” (video still), 2012.

Lately, I have been contemplating the perceived crisis in the current global art scene and its relationship to contemporary cultural production. Clearly, there are straightforward explanations for this crisis, given the ongoing economic situation, and we may choose to leave it at that. But what is an economic downturn other than the failure of will that sustains the illusion of an economic basis to life? What is failing here is the illusion of a life defined by money that counts, that is, by money circulating in fiscal routes considered respectable by law-abiding middle-class citizens. Yet life goes on despite economic downturns and so do myriad economies beyond the threshold of respectable money. In a sense, it could be argued that the downturn and its attendant effects on the art scene are nothing but a failure of our imaginations to encompass the economically unthinkable: informal, Asian, Third World, and Islamic economies, to name a few. But first of all is the failure to imagine the life forms that make such economies possible in continuum with the middle-class consensus on cultural respectability.

Thinking along such lines, I have been fascinated by the phenomenon of YouTube viral videos. What might these videos tell us about the current sense of failure in the art world that is now broadly debated? Despite the visibility of their success, there remains something informal, underground, and even piratical about these videos. In searching to define their subliminal quality, we might consider their formal similarity to the sense of mystery elicited by flash mobs: a mysteriously active public, a babbling silent majority, revealed to be residing in our midst.

But beyond the mystery of human expression emerging from unknown basements around the world, the general content of successfully viral videos marks them with a sense of contraband, albeit in a cultural sense. On the whole, their success depends on a strong sense of parody, the uncanny, and slapstick. These terms each evoke a sense of an imperfect and unreliable double—a travesty or failure, even—of a somber and respectable reality. One of the most viral of all such videos is a 56-second absurdist clip called Charlie bit my finger—again! To date, it’s been viewed an astonishing 635,734,587 times. It features a little boy bemoaning having had his finger bitten by his baby brother, despite having placed his finger in his brother’s mouth as part of their game; as we know, such games rarely end well. Contributing to the viral nature of this video is a celebration of the banal transformed into the extraordinary, right up the point of failure.

What does this have to do with thinking about failure in the context of the contemporary art scene? Inasmuch as slapstick points towards the absurdist underpinnings of life, there is undoubtedly a subversive mocking of the aesthetic frameworks of taste that mark middle-class respectability in art and entertainment. One would miss the point if one did not detect a rebuff of the respectable, the respectability that underpins the institution of Art, which contributes substantially to the viral success of the videos. If we presume that the publics responsible for YouTube uploads becoming viral are substantially the same publics that contemporary art seeks to reach, then the viral scale of such uploads is troublesome news for the latter. No wonder Art, with its mind-bending intellectual pyrotechnics of the avant-garde, or the misery-evoking textures of politically correct art, is failing. It is proving to be too exclusive and high-minded for a world defined in the main by people who just want to have a silly laugh at the end of a hard working day. The very informality of the YouTube viral video threatens to upend the formality of contemporary art.

One of the possible reasons why the tenets of contemporary art might seem to be at cross-purposes with the aesthetics of the absurdist viral video is that the dry rationalism underlying contemporary art might too readily remind today’s publics of the dry rationalism of a surveillance-ridden life. Both require sensory alertness on our part to live within their parameters. In short, the surveillance superego that haunts people in today’s workplaces is perhaps not so distinct from the intellectual superego that pervades contemporary art. Mocking the respectable can address both art and labor at once. Contemporary art might do well to take this into account when considering its perceived failure in times of unprecedented global prosperity.