There was a time in European history where value and art had a clear causal correlation. Art was a laborious artisinal practice based around creating sumptuous works to exhibit the wealth of the owner, meaning that art from the time was inherently conceived of as expensive. Moreover, at this (indeterminate) point in history, the wealthy enjoyed not only a monopoly of the ownership of art but also the attributes associated with the enjoyment of art, such as “taste” and “refinement”, thanks to class divisions that designated such things as “not for commoners”. In this the rich endeavored to be not only the only possible owners of art, but also the only possible appreciators. This summary is of course far from rigorous, but is only mentioned in passing to establish the causes of the Western fine art tradition as being accessible only to the wealthy, which remains more or less the same today in terms of ownership in spite of dramatic changes in the arts as a whole.
Since the early 20th century there has been a marked transition away from the old artisinal standards of creating manifestly beautiful (or finely crafted and therefore expensive) objects towards a pursuance of more intangible and not necessarily sumptuous qualities. As those qualitative standards have broadened, the range of permissible objects has likewise expanded through the readymade, abstraction, conceptual art, etc., up to the point where it now seems permissible to say that there are now no longer any defined limits to what can be considered artwork. Likewise, the spaces where art can be encountered are no longer confined to the museum/gallery, most obviously and radically through the internet. For instance, Instagram can be considered an enormous photography exhibition or, better yet, an art documentation website where everything pictured is the document of an artwork. Whereas Duchamp’s urinal consisted crucially in designating an ordinary object as an artwork by its inclusion into the rarified space of art, the space of art, no longer rarified, can now be embodied in a urinal in a bathroom, which is documented on Instagram. What remain consistent alongside the deconstruction of all these barriers are the persistence of a thing’s intangible qualities, such as, but not limited to, the aesthetic or the conceptual, that designate a thing as art because of our perception of that thing as something of value, qualitatively. That value is managed in the art world by the only viable means we have under capitalism, that is, assigning it a high quantitative/monetary value, hence art still remaining in the hands of the rich. As it stands, then, the only way that art is defined is by its reflexive possession of qualities that are artistic, and therefore of value. These qualities are, in theory, abstract and seemingly boundless. To put it another way, in the wake of the internet, everything is now art, so the designation of art/non-art is abolished. In practice, however, little has actually changed because with the elimination of the definitional binary of art/non-art there still remains a qualitative binary between good art/bad art. For instance, the average iPhone picture of a sunset is not good art. One could say a sunset is good art, i.e. a qualitatively valuable experience, but a picture of it is simply a document of the experience of that sunset, and more or less indistinguishable from the millions of other pictures of sunsets. As a work of photography it is oversaturated and tired. To hazard a blunt definition, “good art” can be defined as containing something “new” in it. Newness is not a quality of pure invention, which of course does not exist, but simply something that emerges from the conditions of the present. Likewise, the distinction of the word “new” can be misleading in that it can imply a technological or historical relationship to quality, but of course a 3D printer is no better than a paintbrush. Rather, what is “new” is in fact always the same, renewed in the work of art. A good painting of a tree makes us see the tree anew. Even two different paintings of the same tree will renew it twice, as with Cézanne. In this way the world is an inexhaustible source of material. What becomes “old” is the means of approaching that material. A prime example of this would be the current state of Hollywood. Movie studios have become so averse to “risk” (i.e. something new) that sequels, remakes, and spinoffs have become the norm, to the degree that the industry is suffering financially because of it. The mistaken preconception that leads to this is that the studios “know what the people want“ because something was popular in the past. These repackagings of previous successes, rather than renewing cinematic quality, only stretch out the initial success, thinning it out until the imitations of the original idea are so exhausted that the franchise becomes unprofitable and is discarded, at which point the cycle starts again with something else. This pattern of diminishing returns with franchises has led to a wider decline in Hollywood itself as the prospect of producing movies that are not fundamentally imitative becomes increasingly dim. This is not to say that adaptations are inherently bad; cinema has always relied on literary adaptations for material, often succesfully. The distinction lies in the ability of the successful adaptation to transpose the content of the original into a new context, such taking a literary work and addressing its core concerns in a cinematic context which is fundamentally different, like Kurosawa’s Ran is to King Lear, or to utilize a book’s general structure towards its own ends, as in Kubrick’s The Shining. The poor adaptation often consists of little more than mimicry the original, often through literal copying. It is as though Scarlett Johansson jumping off a building in the exact same way as in the original Ghost In The Shell is expected to be adequate entertainment to justify the remake itself. In reality the only relevant experience the viewer has of the scene is a recognition of the reference to an iconic image, which actually does nothing to elevate the scene itself. Otherwise the scene is obliged to stand on its own merit, which is a question that seems to have been given little to no thought in the case of these remakes. Hence the problem with Hollywood, their obstinate insistence that a copy of an idea is a sufficient substitute for an actual idea.
This conjunction of quality with newness is what has historically kept art making in the hands of the artists. Even if the new is a repetition in the present, coming to an understanding of the present generally requires education. Just as you can’t just pick up a paintbrush and be Sandro Botticelli, you can’t pick up some rocks and be Robert Smithson, or speak in front of a crowd and be Andrea Fraser. Early Renaissance Painting, Conceptual Art, and Institutional Critique each required an understanding of the cultural conditions that wrought those movements to work within them, not to mention learned technical skills. To have new ideas they needed to participate in the new ways of making art, otherwise they would be doomed to copying old ideas. As it stands now, however, that knowledge is no longer necessary (although it is not useless) because the artistic space is no longer rarified. This then begs a question: What makes artists artists? If the criterion for art is now abolished, why not take that a step further and abolish the rarification of the artist? If art is now not necessarily an artisinal practice and does not necessarily produce luxury goods, and therefore only continues to be assigned a high market value for weakly justified reasons, is not the opinion that “serious” art can only be made by educated artists sustained for similarly weak reasons? To come, finally, to the point, can we consider dashcam videos on YouTube as cinema?
The content of dashcam videos already recalls the work of many experimental directors who have used the mundane reality of transportation, scenes or entire films that deal directly with unfiltered durations of time spent in transit, a subject in contradistinction to the nature of conventional montage. To name only a few: James Benning, Wang Bing, Chantal Akerman, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièlle Huillet, and Jean-Luc Godard. In addition, Apichatpong Werrasethakul and Abbas Kiarostami have incorporated driving as a recurrent theme in their films, though they integrate them more fluidly into conventional narratives. What was once a bold directorial choice in the 1970s, a confrontational or meditative (or confrontationally meditative) challenge to a movie’s audience now constitutes its own sort of micro-cinema on YouTube, by “directors” who almost certainly give no thought of their work in relation to filmmaking. How can it be, though, that these videos constitute themselves as cinema without any cinematic intention? First, video technology has become so cheap and accessible that now, for the first time, videos can be made with essentially no forethought or sense of investment in a concrete goal. Even home movies required an investment and intent towards documenting the present to be revisited in the future, but the apparent ends of dashcam videos are often arbitrary, strange, or nonexistent. Second, all cinematographic recording is fundamentally cinema. In narrative fiction there is a sort of binary between the “real”, generally taking place within a currently or historically existent setting, and “virtual”, within an invented, nonexistent or fantastic setting. This dynamic itself is complex, but within the context of novels, for instance, it is relatively uncomplicated by external factors because the entirety of the story is created by written language, which is itself a virtual. With cinema the binary is doubled by the actual reality of the actors and places in the film, the real reality, versus the fiction of the film itself that is either more “realistic” or more “virtual”. The complexity emerges because it is impossible for either binary to stand entirely at one end without some implication of the other. This statement is clear enough when applied to fiction: Star Wars has some bearing on reality, every docudrama involves some degree of invention, every actor on screen is simultaneously their character and their actual self, etc. Less obviously, even ostensible nonfiction involves narrativizing and editing, as with the news “story” that necessarily articulates a limited perspective, and still again with raw footage, where the parameters of a camera and microphone are limitations that fundamentally distinguish a recording from experience. Bluntly, watching a dashcam video is a different experience from being in a car, and this difference is the inescapable distance between reality and a recording of reality, which is what we call cinema.
What makes the experience of a dashcam video different from driving? The difference is the same as with any work of cinema, namely the experience of distance between the viewer and the footage. Most obvious with dashcams is the experience of movement. Lying on your bed and watching YouTube is a completely different bodily experience from being in a car. Combined with this is the static view of the camera, which together make the experience of viewing rather pictorial instead of experiential, a “moving picture” where the view is stationary but the scenery changes instead of physically moving somewhere. This distancing, aided by the difference between a camera, which records indiscriminately, and the eye, which focuses attention on certain points in a view, abstracts the landscape into a material to be processed by a distanced viewer. This abstraction is the cinematic quality of the video, which brings with it a few interesting further connotations. The first is that, at least in my experience, a dashcam video better approximates the experience of an idyllic drive through the country because it allows for a more leisurely contemplation of the scenery. Compared to a car where the view feels as though is always rushing by, a dashcam video, especially a long one, gives the sense of an overabundance of oblique visual information, which is another way of saying that these videos are boring. However, in this boredom there is a space that opens towards the potential of a compelling cinematic experience. Ironically, an edited dashcam video is generally less cinematic in direct proportion to the amount of pseudo-cinematic editing applied to it. This is because it only serves to cast into stark relief the gulf between homemade and professional film work. An added soundtrack of fast driving music only makes it clear how devoid of excitement a dashcam video really is, whereas an action movie synchronizes the soundtrack to the montage to convey a sense of cinematic speed. By contrast, an unedited dashcam video can in fact resemble an amplification of a traditional long shot rather than a weak imitation, because those shots are the point where cinema comes to most closely resemble reality. A long shot, rather than using cinematic techniques to create a verisimilitude of story and movement, instead consists of a slowing down to real time, displaying real space. There are of course many kinds of long shot, but the obvious analog to dashcam videos is a landscape shot, such as in a Tarkovsky film. In Stalker, for instance, the deserted ruins of hydroelectric power plants are utilized as a setting for the fictional “Zone”, but in a long shot of the landscape the content of the shot is not within the narrative or the fictional setting, but that of the land itself and the things that are inside of it in reality. Dashcams work similarly, as a semi-static extended “tracking” shot of the place that the car is driving in. This is what is shown and processed in the video: a mapping of the landscape. The content of the footage, rather than an exposition of a fictional space within a story, is a record of the infinitely more complicated geography of real space.
However, regardless of anything I may say, the fact remains that these videos are obtuse viewing experiences. Showing any of them in a theater alongside traditional movies would border on sadism. This is the last point, that these movies are not in a theater, on TV or Netflix, etc., and therefore operate in a completely different context that makes them potentially enjoyable rather than cruel experiments in boredom. A viewer on YouTube is at their own liberty to treat the material they are watching in whatever way they want; they can watch as much or as little as they like, set it to their own soundtrack, put it on in the background while reading a book, etc. The creators of these videos often impose little to no authorial voice to their work, so the watching experience is far more determined by the viewer than in the regular cinematic situation where the nature of the experience is dictated by the intentions of filmmakers. Crucially, the structure of YouTube itself invites exploration of similar videos so that none of them exist on their own. Rather they inhabit a web of algorithmically connected works that turn watching a video into a curatorial movement across the lines of a nigh-infinitely complex web. This becomes an intuitive and abstract curation that can lead to totally unexpected dimensions of viewing experience, which stands in contrast to movie watching, not only for the viewer’s control of the situation but also the element of chance that is difficult to introduce when watching movies. The act of watching becomes more of a quasi-creative activity, where the line between viewer and creator becomes blurred to the point where it comes to stand apart from our existing conceptions of art, into a new field that as of yet has no name.