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YouTube Video Essays

This thumbnail is from the smaller, adjacent video essay community on Vimeo.

Over a matte maroon placard, and then a mustard yellow one, Evan Puschak, YouTube video essayist and Forbes-approved millennial creative, exhales an introductory sigh and reads a Vincent Van Gogh quote. A twee soundtrack mumbles along in the background. The video is entitled “Van Gogh’s Ugliest Masterpiece” and the channel, which uploads biweekly, is marketed to subscribers under the moniker “The Nerdwriter,” a tag that is often accompanied by a soothing graphic of milk being slowly dribbled into black coffee. The placard is now forest green—these colors correspond to those in the contorted 1888 painting “Night Cafe.” They were carefully chosen to punish the beholder, or to give a glimpse into the psychic pain that Van Gogh endured for much of his life, says Puschak, dropping a stellar explanation of color theory and the ins and outs of Eugene Delacroix’s whole career within about 30 seconds. “The basic insight is that every color on a painting—and in the real world—is influenced by the colors around it.”

Puschak’s essays are concise, thoughtful breakdowns of songs, poems, movies, art, performances—all analyzed through the lense of rhetoric. As in: Why did Emily Dickinson capitalize that word and not another word? And what is Wes Anderson playing at, making all his movie sets look like doll houses? Does Bon Iver actually live in the woods? The essays are really, really good, and they typify the academic style of video commentary that has conquered the aisle of YouTube where the video game walkthroughs once were. From Every Frame a Painting and Channel Criswell’s delighting in aesthetic and formal film perfection, to the wonky Wendover Productions’ waxing poetic on shippings container logistics and maritime law, to the staggeringly professional and preternaturally wise Alt-Shift-X’s “Game of Thrones” recaps, YouTube Video Essays make up an industry that boasts the Library-at-Alexandria-level knowledge that internet was always promised to hold. Indeed, the genre is starting to boom at a rate as fast as the race to explain the entirety of the human artistic endeavor.

Hopefully this soft, scrollable online Enlightenment does not suffer the same fate as the Libraries at Alexandria, burning under the unpredictable and opaque YouTube algorithm in time. But as is standard procedure in video essays, let us now move to consider a pair of self-serious quotes. First up is this one from mid-century abstract painter Willem de Kooning: “Content is the glimpse of something, an encounter like a flash. It’s very tiny—very tiny, content.” Presumably he was talking about Twitter, but the quote is just as applicable to YouTube. He’s basically arguing that with art, there is not really a whole lot to unpack. You encounter the art, you feel something, then you move on. Next, we have Canadian intellectual John Ralston Saul, polemicist behind the anti-reason non-fiction book Voltaire’s Bastards from which the following quote comes: “The secret, then, is that we must alter our civilization from one of answers to one which feels satisfaction, not anxiety, when doubt is established.” I wager that this is also pertinent to pretentious video essays on the ‘Tube. When video essays are done right, they ought to make me want to learn more about the subject, not less. I worry my takeaway from the Nerdwriter’s arch explanation of “Night Cafe” will be that I am now, at last, an expert on color theory and “Simultaneous Contrast” and “Optical Mixing” and Post-Impressionism. Not only am I not, but according to de Kooning, maybe I should not not even bother becoming one.

So are video essayists reducing works of art by explaining—or over-explaining—them? Maybe the answer depends on whether you are a consumer or a producer of art: consumers focus on spirituality and transcendence in art, while producers drill down on craft. Or do I have that backwards? In the age of TikTok and Instagram, aren’t we all inevitably both producers and consumers of this stuff? The success of video essay channels like Polyphonic, which specialize in connecting music to its historical and cultural roots (See: “How the Vietnam War Shaped Classic Rock”), makes a reasonably solid case for over-explaining as a critical, if not sociological and political, necessity. And in the Nerdwriter’s take on Fleetwood Mac’s pristinely messy album Rumours, his meticulous cataloguing of the vibraphones and organs and conga drums mixed into the background on tracks like “Dreams” helps you appreciate the tapestry of sounds as if you are hearing it anew. Says Puschak, “Those are ... touches that you can barely hear and certainly don’t think about much when you listen, but your brain registers the accents.” That answer is good enough for me.

Barrett is a Government and Economics Senior.

Photo Credit: Vimeo/Jeremy Ratzlaff.

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