The lost art and history documentaries of YouTube

The lost art and history documentaries of YouTube

Forget Netflix, YouTube has some incredible vintage documentaries about art and history. Made during the days of  analogue, these docos may seem pixellated and blurry by today’s standards. Yet if you persevere, you’ll be rewarded with terrific storytelling, great production values and enigmatic and fascinating subject matter.


Here for you are some great documentaries about material culture/ancient art (The Sutton Hoo treasure), contemporary art (Tracy Emin) and an iconoclastic musician (Bjork) who have shaped our world. 

The Southbank Show: Tracy Emin (2001)

A compelling look at contemporary artist Tracy Emin. Her work is interesting (to me at least) because she’s so earnest and her work is devoid of irony. Instead it’s full of sentimentality, raw sexuality and emotion. This short doco features Tracy in her earlier years after recently winning the Turner Prize.

I don’t know why I love her so much, actually I think it’s because I can relate to being immersed in that troubling and painful early 20’s period. It’s this time of being young, confused and also feeling like you’re constantly being slut-shamed by society for being a sexual person.

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Tracy is unbelievably gutsy for displaying her entire internal (sexual, physical and emotional)  geography in galleries for the world to see.

She’s also a genius because she’s managed to harness and manifest all of that tormented inner landscape and turn taboo ”things we don’t discuss” as women: sex, abortions, one night stands, using drugs and drinking alcohol into decades of compelling, unique art. I’ve noticed that all of the Tracy Emin haters tend to be men and that’s telling. Certain weak and insecure types of men find women who own their sexuality like Tracy, inherently terrifying. Great documentary.

Masterpieces of the British Museum: The Sutton Hoo Helmet

One of the most important Anglo Saxon finds of all time. It was buried in the grave of a warrior chieftain and thought to be connected to the poem Beowulf.

Found in a mound on a prestigious property in East Anglia just before the outbreak of WWII, this Anglo-Saxon treasure included a vast array of weaponry, jewelry, coins and armour enshrined in the boughs of a mammoth ancient 27 metre long boat.

The poem Beowulf was written at around the 9th Century A.D, at a similar time to the Sutton Hoo treasure, it’s thought that the treasure may relate to Anglo-Saxon King Redwald.  Sutton Hoo was a spectacular jewel and gold encrusted treasure trove with jewels and artistic influences which indicated a complex trade network with sophisticated gifts often exchanged among the highest tiers of society.

There’s a clear Scandanavian influence with this helmet and whoever made it used Pagan Nordic motifs in it, including feirce looking animal heads. The helmet renders the wearers voice deeper and louder than it really is – the sight on the battle field of a king wearing this helmet would have been truly terrifying.

Find part 2 here.

The Southbank Show: Björk (1997)

Charts the early Pre-Sugar Cubes and childhood years of Icelandic Ingenue Bjork to the (then) present time after releasing second album Post and before the release of Homogenic.

Bad Art for Bad People

This documentary is unsettling. Almost sick and yet its thought-provoking and compelling because it’s traversing that other taboo subject – gratuitous, grotesque ultra-violence. Do serial killers find such content enjoyable? The idea that someone could watch or consume this sort of art and find it beautiful or enjoyable is deeply scary. That begs the question, does art need to be beautiful or be enjoyable to be called art? I would go and see it in a gallery because it’s a sensory experience, repulsive and deeply strange though it is. What does that say about me, am I going along because it’s like a Disney ride or something? This documentary opened up a squirming can of worms for me.

Follow these channels VHS Pile, and Art Documentaries for more free curated documentaries – while they may be dodgy in image/sound quality, the story telling and productions are timeless.

Read more about Tracy Emin and other neon artists: About Neon Art and Loneliness, more art shenanigans about why Renaissance art and modern rap music are one and the same, and strange street scapes in a Tokyo without ads..  


Published by Content Catnip

Content Catnip is a quirky internet wunderkammer written by an Intergalactic Space Māori named Content Catnip. Join me as I meander through the quirky and curious aspects of history, indigenous spirituality, the natural world, animals, art, storytelling, books, philosophy, travel, Māori culture and loads more.

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