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August 14, 2006

The Cultural Significance of Webcam Girls, Part One

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I received a fun email from a visitor -- I love it when that happens! -- asking, in a friendly way, why I keep linking to inane YouTube videos featuring webcam girls. Aren't there more important cultural developments, and even more important movie developments, to be taking note of? This posting is Part One of my response to my correspondent's question. Hard though it is for me to write in straight-faced earnestness, I'm going to give it a real try.

First off: Well, sure, maybe, who knows? But since when does 2Blowhards get hung up over what's important and what's not important? Who knows which developments from 2006 the future is going to look back on and dub important anyway? Predicting the future is a mug's game, if an often enjoyable one.

Second off -- and don't let the rubes and the saps know about this, but -- despite the carryings-on of the official cultureworld, very, very few cultural developments are of real importance. Styles and trends come and go; they resonate with you or they don't. Which is great and cool ... But how many are make-it-into-the-history-books important? Let me suggest visiting your local library's archives and leafing through some of the highbrow magazines from, say, 1970 or 1940. 99.9% of what preoccupied the culture-chat set then has been forgotten. (Incidentally, some of it might well be worth taking a fresh look at too.)

My response to this fact is to wonder: So why do the culture-chat authorities carry on in such puffed-up ways? And why do the rest of us take them so seriously? Tentative answers: Many members of the culture-set are over-intellectual people desperate for gigs as professional taste-commissars. Many of us seem to want Voices from On High delivering enlightenment, and -- sadly -- we turn to these fools for our guidance. Tragic, no? Funny, no?

The notion that there are crucial "issues" in our era that artists and intellectuals need, simply need, to be "dealing with" gives me the giggles. And the idea that our culture-chat set is able to locate and nail down these issues has me on the floor cracking up. Are they really that perceptive? And are we really that un-perceptive? If the culture-chat crowd has some contributions to make, then great. But why should we let the profs, flakes, eggheads, and critics get away with bullying -- with dictating which developments and works are to be taken note of, let alone how we discuss 'em?

As to why I feature webcam girls: Let me be upfront about the "cute" factor and the "novelty" factor. Never underestimate the cheesy and exploitative character of your friendly blog-host! Anyway: What a funny world we live in, eh? Where kids in bedrooms broadcast themselves to the world. I enjoy taking the occasional peek into these goings-on, and I assume a few visitors might too.

All that said, I do have some convictions -- er, hunches -- about what really qualifies as important in today's culture-world. The two issues that strike me as worth working up a bit of a sweat about are 1) architecture, and 2) the digitization of culture.

As for 1): Architecture is perennially important because, unlike poems and songs, most acts of architecture are substantial public acts. What damage is really done if a poet writes yet another bad modernist poem? Yet bad buildings and developments don't just come and go. They can degrade shared environments, and damage the lives of thousands of people in practical and immediate ways. And they stick around.

What's bizarre about Now where architecture is concerned is the way that the (avant-garde/modernist-derived) architecture establishment is once again having its way with us. From the 1940s to circa 1980, architects, politicians, and developers imposed a lot of pain and grief on society at large. Then, for a brief stretch, it looked as though they'd been put on the defensive -- as though they had lost all credibility. Perhaps a more humane era was dawning.

But in recent years -- and with the help and collusion of the press, the intellectuals, and the politicians and developers -- the architecture crowd has come roaring back. Their glassy creations are a little more oddball and twinkly these days than they were back in the boxy '50s. But the really basic lessons still haven't been learned. And the establishment is getting away with it, because -- even in the free-for-all that is the online world -- not enough Real People protest and razz. Come on, folks: Stand up to the bastards! You're being taken advantage of!

A pause for the one of the larger implications of this state of affairs: Ain't it interesting, the way that the architecture establishment's betrayal of us parallels our political class's betrayal of us? How did this state of affairs come about? When and why did our elites give themselves license to turn on us?

Anyway: Architecture isn't, and almost never is, just a matter of "it works for me" and/or "it doesn't work for me." And the Architecture Now is a particularly bad moment. Important!

As for the digitization of culture ... Well, heavens to Betsy. As the computer tsumani has rolled through various culture-fields, it has remade them in far-reaching ways. Publishing, music, and photography haven't just become easier, peppier, cheaper, and more elegant thanks to computers. They've been transformed. How these fields operate -- who goes into them, the values they market, and the audience's expectations, tastes, and demands -- have all changed, as have the products they create.

(Between you and me ... I find it hilarious when the culture-class argues about, for example, what the best book of the last ten years was. I have no doubt that many first-class books were published during the last ten years, by the way. Read some good ones myself! And why not swap reactions to and info about 'em? Fun! Useful! But can anyone really make the case that any of these books, or even all of them, compare in cultural importance to the advent of Amazon, broadband, and blogging? Well, such is my opinion anyway ... )

Responsible and historically-informed people have argued that the re-shaping of culture that we're witnessing is the most significant cultural development to happen since Gutenberg. Whether that's true or not (I certainly think it is), there's no question in my mind that we're living through a really amazing, once-every-few-centuries-style culture-time. I'm not advocating for or protesting against, btw. While it's always fun and sometimes useful to compare reactions, when you get right down to it, it's as pointless to argue about whether these developments are good or bad as it is to argue about the weather. A thunderstorm just is, after all.

I'll let the history and media profs take care of the setting-it-in-context duties. I've read them; I've even met and swapped notes with a few of them. But, living as a nobody in the midst of the culture-and-media biz, I'm a grunt myself. Perspective, analysis, and footnotes aren't my thing. I'm hoping to be able to contribute to the conversation instead by passing along some you-were-there impressions, information, and musings.

As a practical matter, the digital thang hits different culture-fields at different times because of advances in computer power and information-storage. Word processing, which isn't processor-intensive, hit writing early on. Photography, page layout, graphic design, and music -- all of them more computer-demanding than writing -- were hit a little later.

Movies and video are extremely demanding of computer power. They may be the most computer-power-hungry of all the culture/media fields, come to think of it. And, until now, the only outfits that could afford bigtime computer-muscle were the Disneys and the Pixars. As a culture observer, it has been a lot of fun to to take note of the ways that computer-usage has affected conventional/traditional filmmaking: animation, effects, digital projection, computer editing, audience reactions, etc, as well as new ways of financing the making of films.

But was that it? Dolby ... Faster cutting ... ? Publishing and music-making, after all, haven't just been snazzed-up by the computers they've installed. These fields have been (for better and/or worse) pulverized into tiny little sand-like granules and then --- well, what? Have they re-formed into stable new configurations? Or is endlessly-morphing, suit-yourself (but it's tough to make a living) instability the defining characteristic of our electronic culture-media fate?

So, for me, a big part of the computers-and-movies question for years has been: "When does the digital wave not just make us feel vague surges of alarm and delight, when does it actually come crashing down right on top of us?" My hunch is that the time has now come. The latest home computers handle high-end video editing pretty darned well. And YouTube and the many YouTube-alikes are providing solutions (if imperfect, early ones) to the "how do I get it seen?", distribution predicament. The traditional hurdles and bottlenecks haven't been just overcome; they've been nuked. Ka-boom! Smithereens, baby!

So, Part One of my attempt at a straightfaced answer to the "Why link to webcam girls?" question is that it's one way, even if a slightly giddy one, to take note of some important mayhem, er, chaos, er, developments. And, y'know, many of those webcam girls are pretty damn cute ...

More later, and best,


posted by Michael at August 14, 2006


Next in line after architecture is public sculpture, sez me.

I was wandering around Sea-Tac airport last week. The place is the usual airport architecture crafted by a firm (whose name I forget) that specializes in air terminal design -- but let that slide for now. Thanks to requirements that X percent of building costs go to "art" the place has "art."

Much of said "art" is in the form of "scupture." One example of same was of the David Smith ilk -- welded steel painted primary colors (yellow, in this case). The effect was rather bland, but safely non-controversial. By that I mean no victorious general atop a snorting steed, a vision that might serve to bunch the panties of a passing pacifist.

So I suppose the bureaucrats did their duty.

But those metallic chunks are likely to hang around for a long time, though perhaps not as long as the building itself.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on August 14, 2006 1:42 PM

Michael - Good to see that you are still wearing that middle-brow chip on your shoulder (and I say this with affection). Yeah, there are culture-chat authorities, but how is that different from the pope, an evangelical, or an ayatollah droning on about cultural decadence or the significance of MTV? Voices from on high are everywhere, and they are just part of the human circus. While recuperating from some (hopefully) minor health issues, I have been listening to sports talk radio callers and hosts pondering the great cultural shift signified by the decline of American-born heavyweight fighters, and the rising popularity of X games (and NASCAR) over traditional sports. Or who is the best athlete of the last ten years.

Some years ago a woman I was dating fretted over how we could enjoy ourselves watching a play while people were starving all over the world, and important issues were being neglected. I couldn’t bother with coming up with an answer, so it was easier after a while to just stop seeing her.

By the way, I don’t fret much about architecture or the digitization of culture, and shrug off any amateur commissar who attempts to tell me that I need to worry about this.

The notion that there are intellectuals, the press, and politicians on one side and Real People on the other is a nice rhetorical feint, but easy to parry. And how, exactly, do we distinguish the clump of the Real People with their presumed common sense wisdom from the feckless, empty-headed Herd, which you have written about before?

I’ve noted before that a streak of anti-authoritarianism seems to be a part of the American character (part of the atmosphere, really, since it is readily absorbed by most immigrants as well as natives), with links in part to the Protestant tradition. But tickle someone reacting to authority and you sometimes find someone just itching to be the new authority. Or as Milton wrote, “New Presbyter is but Old Priest writ Large.”

When I was growing up, there were Real People who tried to tell me that all popular music was bad (as opposed to studying the Bible and singing hymns), other Real People to tell me that Jazz was bad (as opposed to Rock n Roll), still other Real People to tell me that classical music was bad and pretentious (as opposed to heavy guitar rock), and --- perennially --- Real People to tell me that any contemporary popular music is bad (as opposed to whatever was popular when they were teens). And my all time favorite: the Real People who insisted that reading too many books (aside from the Bible) was absolutely unnecessary, dangerous and elitist (none of these were close family and friends, but part of the environment), because all you needed was Jesus and common sense.

My reply to all this? As the Stones once sang,

Yeah, all your sickness
I can suck it up
Throw it all at me
I can shrug it off
There’s one thing baby
That I don’t understand
You keep on telling me
I ain’t your kind of man

Oh, yes: three cheers for webcam girls.

No guru, no method, no teacher. But lots of books.

Posted by: Alec on August 14, 2006 2:22 PM

"When does the digital wave not just make us feel vague surges of alarm and delight, when does it actually come crashing down right on top of us?"

Hey, hey! Here I am! Over here in the rubble -- can you hear me tapping desperately on this blowpipe? I'm tapping as hard as I can!

All my life I assumed and was assured that if I learned to type, could handle language, and had something interesting to say, I could earn a living by writing. Didn't Colette do it? Didn't George Sand?

Now I'm typing like a windmill, cutting curlicues (caracols?) with words, all about Indians, dog-catching, cowboy art, etc. and can I make a living? No.

And you know why? Because no one is reading. They're all at their keyboards writing, hoping to make some money. Or else they're in their bedroom voguing in from of a webcam. Anyway, I have no interest in teenyboppers -- where are the interesting old men who have something to say to a person face-to-face? (You're not old enough, Michael.) They can keep their clothes on.

Prairie Mary
(from the rubble)

Posted by: Mary Scriver on August 14, 2006 2:31 PM

More later,

Hopefully, with an overwhelmingly large number of cheesy and exploitative examples.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on August 14, 2006 3:01 PM

I believe the children are our future. Whether they are revitalizing old genres or boldly exploring new and promising forms, it's encouraging to see them behaving with taste and intelligence.

Posted by: Brian on August 14, 2006 3:44 PM

I think its all pretty cool and funny. My only question is, how do you pull people out of this funhouse in order to get some real business done, like putting the heat on the politicos on immigration reform, for example (as you posted on today)? Also, how can the old classics which really are important compete with this stuff? How can we get people interested in them (if at all), and is that better or worse? Because you know the old classic stuff is less about entertainment than about communication, and communication of something important.

Posted by: s on August 14, 2006 5:33 PM

Donald -- What's become of public sculpture is one of the great topics. I sort of like heroes on horseback myself ...

Alec -- That's one eloquent rant. I'm feeling completely jazzed-up by it, but a little flummoxed by it too. Is there a way to boil your point down to one or two sentences even a Blowhard can wrestle with?

P. Mary -- You were misled! God knows that making a living as a writer was never easy, but it does seem an even more absurd field today, doesn't it?

Scott -- You can count on me for links galore.

Brian -- Dude, don't spoil my next installment by giving it all away now ...

S -- You mean there's more to life than just cruising around the funhouse? I'm going to have to think about that one...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 14, 2006 6:56 PM

Just a quick note about public art/sculpture. Virtually all Percent for Art programs have an open submission policy paired with a selection committee. That committee usually includes one or two art professionals of some type or another, but also representatives from the organization that will use the building, the local community and the builder/architect.This is not the same as a private corporation where the CEO or some interested upper managment type buys (or leases) what they want without other input. In short, the selection procedure is consensus oriented and not particularly elitist. So ... if you don't like it, don't blame elitist art snobs.

Posted by: Chris White on August 14, 2006 9:14 PM

while recently cruising the streets in Washington, DC, accompanied by two merry guides, Vlad and Chris, I was charmed by their narrative: "after passing this dude on a horse we're going to get to Dupont' Circle. Then you'll see another dude on a different horse, and finally, an apotheosis - yet another dude on -guess!- a horse!"

After a while, horses and their heroic riders can get as faceless (sorry) as metal concoctions in yellow, you know...

Posted by: Tat on August 14, 2006 9:36 PM

I notice an increasing disconnect between the art snobs and "middle brow" people -- the latter, as Michael shows, are no longer even interested in what the former are doing. If you look at art/design geared toward non-lunatics, it's actually quite good. For instance, if you want to re-do the interior of your house, or just one room, even the pricey stuff looks warm and inviting. No more black leather, chrome, and glass dentist office decor. I don't think it's just dressed up High Modernism either, as you say is the case with architecture -- interior design folks really do care about comfort, human scale, ergonomics, sensuous appeal, irreverence, etc. The same goes for clothing, not just the obscenely expensive stuff either.

As for the public sphere, though, the only middle brow domain (off the top of my head) is landscape architecture / garden design. Again, note the lack of pretentious posing. Gimme a nice public garden over a broken obelisk any day! Steve's essay on golf course architecture is a good example. I have to add another example of inexusable public design -- the DC metrorail system. It's like a robot puked in five directions.

The evolutionary aesthetics research has at least taken off the ground. Once it gets enough attention, some of the less snooty architects will run with it. Flaky though it is, there's currently a huge obsession with all things "natural" and "organic" among the affluent -- there's an anti-High Modernist timebomb waiting to go off.

Posted by: Agnostic on August 14, 2006 11:44 PM

A point of perpetual confusion as regards art and architecture discussions on 2blowhards is that Modernism as the dominant "elitist" &/or "Official Art World" aesthetic was tossed out somewhere around 1970. We've been in the Post-Modernist era for over thirty years. It is true that some of the buildings &/or art that seems to burn middle-brow butts may still be Modernist or Modernist inspired, but a lot of them are most definitely PoMo. While it may be reasonable for purposes of discussion to mislabel a particular building or sculpture "Modernist" and then critique it, consistently misusing the term makes overall discussions somewhat difficult and unproductive.

That said, Michael's original point is well taken; the digital revolution is far more significant socially, culturally (and probably politically) than what is going on in any "traditional" art or media except architecture which physically changes our environment for decades or centuries.

Architecture is such a blending of aesthetics, engineering, materials and economics that simply dumping on architects is not very useful. Absent, for example, readily available materials (inexpensive quarried stone) and labor (skilled stone carvers) it is tough to design a building with the kinds of facades we might all appreciate from the late 19th C. The time and cost associated with mortared brick is also a factor vis a vis the inexpensive ease with which large glass panels can be installed to skin a building. Then there is the issue of interior use and practicality vs. how a building looks from the outside. The client and primary users for buildings ars almost always more concerned with the inside and functionality rather than outside aesthetic of the structure. Gehry buildings, for example, tend to have very happy clients in terms of how well the interior of his buildings work; having the exterior perceived as a tourist attraction is often a bonus as many of his clients are theaters and museums. And let us not forget that Gehry's convoluted metal skins would not be possible without the computer, another example of the effects of digital design.

[An aside to Prairie Mary In my imagination at least the digital revolution means you should be able to write something and self "publish" by making it available as a PDF download for very modest fee via Paypal or similar means. This is the revolution taking over the music industry's distribution system. The change moves us from object to content oriented commerce.]

Posted by: Chris White on August 15, 2006 11:44 AM

I just had to point out that V. Morrison's song "No guru, no method, no teacher" is about Jesus.

Are there any cam girls left other than Ana Voog? Jennicam/Jennifer Ringley, Puce, and ee all signed off ages ago.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on August 15, 2006 2:12 PM

Chris -- Public art these days often does have that real civic-committee feel, tks for the info. An artist friend tells me that art schools have specific courses and programs that teach young artists how to plug into that whole network and play that whole game. Imagine wanting to spend your life doing that!

Tat -- But the pedestals change!

Agnostic -- Let's hope! And I agree that a lot of run-of-the-mill stuff these days is really pretty good. Gap and Banana Republic and Pottery Barn peddle tons of better-than-decent wares. Nice, isn't it? I wonder if many people remember how badly run-of-the-mill America was often dressed during the many years prior to the success of places like the Gap...

Chris -- Those are nice points about architecture (though I've heard differently about some of those Gehry buildings -- he seems to specialize in leaky roofs). It's perpetually fascinating -- money, power, egos, law, critical discussion, etc. What a great spectacle. I probably get out of following architecture what a lot of people seem to get out of following politics. As for your modernism/po-mo/etc point, well, of course you're right in an Art History 101 kind of way if you accept the art world's self-evaluation and its own story about itself. I don't. Decon and po-mo, etc, are in my view just further experiments taking place down the modernist path. This isn't an unusual take, btw: here's one of the opening sentences from an online encyclopedia's entry on modernism:

"Some divide the 20th century into modern and postmodern periods, whereas others see them as two parts of the same larger period."

You're the "some" and I'm the "others," I guess.

Yahmdallah -- Videoblogging is huge on YouTube. I should probably avoid the term "camgirl" for the current teens who use their webcams to horse around, videoblog, and do karaoke, and shake their booties. It's probably historically confusing. But I don't know ... These are girls ... using webcams ... Hmm. What do you think? Reserve "camgirl" for the Jennicam set alone and use another term (but what?) for the new generation? Or just say, the hell with it, it's all webcamming?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 15, 2006 5:32 PM

Michael – the short version. The opposition of pompous culture snobs and the “real people” comes naturally to you and resonates with a lot of people, but it is not always accurate or helpful. Lots of folks up and down the cultural spectrum pretend to be authorities, even when their opinions are rigid, uninformed, and based on little more than what makes them comfortable.

So I say make your best case for architecture or webcam girls. Don’t hide behind an empty appeal to the supposed common man.

Yahmdallah: “No guru, No teacher, No method,” is an album, not a song. And even though Van the Man explicitly sings in one song that “we felt the presence of the Christ,” elsewhere he notes of his love,

"[w]e've been together before / In a different incarnation / And we loved each other then as well."

His work is as much suffused with Blake, Ray Charles and pagan Celtic allusions as it is with Jesus, always seeking some direct, if mystical, expression of what he elsewhere calls the inarticulate speech of the heart.

Posted by: Alec on August 16, 2006 3:52 PM

Alec, all true.

However, the song where he invokes the phrase is called "In the Garden" (as I'm sure you know), and the specific lyrics are:
And I turned to you and I said
No guru, no method, no teacher
Just you and I and nature
And the father in the garden

No guru, no method, no teacher
Just you and I and nature
And the father and the
Son and the holy ghost
In the garden wet with rain
No guru, no method, no teacher
Just you and I and nature and the holy ghost
In the garden, in the garden, wet with rain
No guru, no method, no teacher
Just you and I and nature
And the father in the garden

I think that's pretty straightforward.

And my interpretation of "[w]e've been together before / In a different incarnation" is the Christian belief that we were all with God in heaven before we were put on earth, especially since the phrases "We stopped in the church of Ireland / And prayed to our father" appear earlier in song "Tir Na Nog."

Posted by: Yahmdallah on August 16, 2006 5:32 PM

Alec -- I'm completely puzzled by your admonition. I'm not reviewing webcam girls, after all, I'm trying to yak about their significance as a cultural development. Where architecture goes, I'm not reviewing individual buildings, I'm trying to sketch out some of today's architecture dramas and stories. That themes like the-gatekeepers-vs-the-digital-hordes or the-academic-elite-vs-popular-taste emerge from these discussions isn't me ringing a populist bell, it's me passing along how I've found things to be as I wander through culture-ville. (Believe me, if I were having my way these wouldn't be today's big stories.) When I do write postings that are more or less reviews, I make a huuuuuuge point of avoiding the judgment-from-on-high stance and presenting them as personal reactions instead. Actually, I'd have thought that I overdo that bit ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 16, 2006 8:52 PM

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