If you're in the mood for snippets of Jon Stewart, bootleg episodes of South Park, or home movies of sleepy kittens and skateboarding dogs, YouTube has what you're looking for and plenty of it. But video art—ambitious works by acclaimed contemporary artists such as Matthew Barney or Ann Hamilton—is remarkably hard to come by online. The new video-streaming services offer artists a potential audience of millions, but few have opted to post their own pieces, and some have actively lobbied to keep their videos off the Web. Museums and galleries have been equally wary of online exhibition: Though the Museum of Modern Art recently launched a YouTube channel where it posts brief teasers for upcoming exhibitions, the museum says it has no plans to present its stellar collection of contemporary video art on the Web.
Where artists and institutions have demurred, enthusiastic art lovers have taken things into their own hands. What video art you can find on YouTube consists of clips that museum-goers have captured on cell phones or digital cameras and uploaded to the Web—without the artist's permission. MoMA, which allows visitors to photograph freely in its galleries, is particularly prone to this kind of piracy: Here's an excerpt from MoMA's installation of Pipolotti Rist's Ever Is Over All, in which the artist strolls down a city street, joyously smashing car windshields with a gigantic flower; here's a brief clip from a hand-drawn, animated film by the great South African artist William Kentridge. Unfortunately, these DIY clips offer only faint reflections of what the artists had in mind when they created these large-scale works. Watching them is like looking at a snapshot of the Sistine Chapel ceiling: It may work as an aide-mémoire, but unless you've seen the work firsthand, you don't know what you're missing. These discrepancies of scale help explain why many video artists refuse to post their own work on the Web. Even when viewed on an oversized monitor, Web video can't approximate the engulfing grandeur of a floor-to-ceiling video installation flickering on the walls of a darkened gallery. Though we tend to think of video art as an offshoot of film and photography, in practice it's a lot closer to sculpture and installation art. Most video artists give precise specifications regarding the number, size, and make of the monitors or projectors, their placement in the space, the sound levels, the amount of ambient light—all of which would be lost in the translation to a small-format, single-channel medium like YouTube. For example, Nam June Paik's The More the Better (1998) is a three-channel work (meaning it involves three different streams of video images) composed of 1,003 monitors stacked in a 56-foot-high tower. You can see a picture of it here, but it would be impossible to the view the work on the Web in any meaningful way.
Then, of course, there are the financial considerations. Like prints, photographs, and other easily reproducible media, video art is generally sold in small, limited editions (an artist will promise to produce no more than, say, three or five copies of a given work). In this way, artists and their dealers try to ensure that supply will never exceed demand; this artificial scarcity means that the collectors who buy the work can reasonably expect it to hold its value. (Works by established video artists like Bill Viola sell in the high six figures; video works by younger artists can fetch tens of thousands.) While compressed video files posted on the Web may not have the quality of the original editioned work of art, the proliferation of unauthorized copies can dilute the work's value—and hence diminish the artist's livelihood.
Finally, there's the question of cultural context. So much of what we see in a work of contemporary art depends on how and where we see it. A stack of newspapers on the floor of a Chelsea gallery (like this work by Robert Gober) has a very different set of meanings from a pile of recycling in your hallway at home. For this reason, artists are understandably reluctant to display their work within the honky-tonk, lowest-common-denominator context of YouTube. Love it or hate it, most video art is slow, ponderous, even excessively long. (Consider, for example, Douglas Gordon's 24 Hour Psycho, which slows the Hitchcock film to a glacial pace, or Stan Douglas'Rashomon- style, avant-garde Western, Klatsassin, which runs continuously for 69 hours.) The marathon-length attention span these works demand may be possible in the quiet enclave of a darkened gallery, but on your office computer? Staring at a laptop in Starbucks? Forget it. Bring on the skateboarding dogs!