YouTubers of Art History

May 12 2021

Video: Neil Jeffares

Posted by Adam Busiakiewicz:

The latest art historian to branch out into the world of YouTube is the independent art historian and author of the Dictionary of Pastellists before 1800 Neil Jeffares. As you will see above, Jeffares has been able to create a modest but intensely informative thirty-four-minute video on the French eighteenth century pastel artist Maurice Quentin de La Tour, a portraitist who Jeffares himself describes as 'unfashionable'.

I have long been convinced that there is space out there for a (or many) YouTuber(s) of Art History. It never ceases to amaze me how many niche subjects are now catered for by passionate individuals making free online content that can be accessed anywhere on earth. With recording equipment increasing in quality and accessibility, practically anyone can capture a reasonable segment of video on any painting, object or artist (no matter how 'unfashionable' or obscure) of their choosing.

It is also becoming increasingly clear that the world of traditional television is in decline. This is particularly the case for arts documentaries, with Sky Arts being the last exception to this rule. Although the recent axing of original content for BBC4, the major arts channel in the UK, has been pointed out as being a particularly sad event, might it be possible to reinterpret this loss as a new opportunity for knowledgeable and passionate scholars?

Of course, there are many pitfalls with YouTube. Ensuring quality and accuracy are perhaps the most difficult factors to contend with. However, we all know of examples where programming for major television channels (or blogs for that matter!) have fallen into the similar traps. Furthermore, the highly bureaucratic and increasingly political nature of production companies and television commissioning too can water down programmes so much so that they end up being rather aimless and confused. 

Museums and Art Galleries have shown what is possible in regard to creating fascinating original and free content. In many respects they have led the way in these spheres, a fashion which auction houses and dealers are exploiting with greater enthusiasm than ever before. Yet, as anyone working with marketing departments in such institutions will know, these processes too can be dogged down by internal politics and 'branding'.

Can the economics work? Well, many YouTubers have shown that it is possible to make a living from the monetization of their videos. The increasingly accessible recording technology too allows for a 'stripped back' approach which can keep costs down.

The brief expression of these views are just a starting point of many related strands regarding the futures of technology and the history of art. As ever, any comments from readers are always welcome.

Although I accept that we do not live in the eighteenth century, I've always found that Reynolds's advice imparted from his 5th Discourse in 1772 still carries some grain of truth about the difficult balancing act of fame and creation:

There is another caution which I wish to give you. Be as selective in those whom you endeavour to please, as in those whom you endeavour to imitate. Without the love of fame you can never do anything excellent; but by an excessive and undistinguishing thirst after it, you will come to have vulgar views; you will degrade your style; and your taste will be entirely corrupted. It is certain that the lowest style will be the most popular, as it falls within the compass of ignorance itself; and the Vulgar will always be pleased with what is natural, in the confined and misunderstood sense of the word.

Update - Looking back, one of the closest YouTubers I've seen dedicated to subjects relating to art history and the art market is Marina Viatkina, who has produced some rather interesting videos in the past few years relating to judging the quality of pictures etc.

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