Internet trash or a legitimate form of art? We debate the role of memes in the the world of modern art.
Can I haz cheez burger? Srsly? What if Conspiracy Keanu is a Conspiracy? All great questions of our time. Great, not because of their depth, but because of their reach. The internet meme today, exceeds the dreams of Young British, Pop and Dada artists in the immediacy with which it speaks to all of us, and the voice it gives to everyone. It articulates the life of a generation in ways a Realist painter could never imagine, because it lets us narrate ourselves. I get as confused as Fry, I get as socially awkward as that penguin, and I’ve met more Privileged Denying Dudes than I care to mention. It’s the language of the age.
The clarity and insight of the meme even allows the densest and most current political and academic theory to be distilled, and spread far and wide. As memes evolve, we stand to learn from them. Every time we make a joke at the expense of what we study we learn something about it, every time we make a joke about something we believe we come to know it better.
Are memes ugly? Crude? I could speak for hours about the formal qualities of Bachelor Frog or Insanity Wolf, the ascetic limits of the palette, the tension derived from the photographic cut, the balance of the planar facets in the background plane evoking and corrupting the modernist grid and its pretensions to originary meaning into a phantasmagoria of creativity. But I won’t. Art isn’t limited by aesthetic taste, and it isn’t dependent on the jargon of an elite. Memes democratise art and expression, they take what they want and give an infinite amount back. The world is remixed by the meme, which takes all of culture as its material and discriminates against no opinion or impulse – but they also allow for resistance, critique, debate. They don’t die in a dusty gallery, they live in the refresh of a screen.
Still don’t think memes count as ‘serious art’? Well I’m afraid memes have beaten you to it – emblazoning that opinion below a thousand cartoon animals, and its converse on a thousand more. Even as you type, a meme can make art of your very denial of its claims to art – in a beautiful, meaningful, conceptually adept and responsive way.
Text art, found art, the ground has been established for the meme. Art is not art because of its grandeur – art is art because of its relevance. Good art is expressive, impassioned, self-aware – and the internet meme is all of these things. What, I ask, could be a more honest art than the satirical and political clutter of our Facebook feeds?
When I think of the word ‘meme’, what springs to mind is at best, a photo of a cat accompanied by a caption of debatable comedy value – at worst, a mildly offensive image that mocks the disabled or the very ugly. It turns out this is what most of the world make of internet memes too, judging by the search results that came up when I typed ‘meme’ into google images. So when I was asked to write a piece arguing that an internet meme is not art, I was surprised that there was even a debate. Are there people, who, when the inevitable and incorrigible ‘I can haz cheeseburger?’ meme pops up on their facebook news-feeds, think of them as artworks?
It is reductive to argue that a meme is not art just because if they were they would be bad art – bad art is allowed to exist and still be classified as art. Marcel Duchamp, the artist who famously signed a urinal and deemed it an artwork, said “there is no such thing as art, only artists.” If this follows, then anyone who creates a meme and calls it art has made it so; the trouble is, I don’t think anyone who makes memes is purporting to be an artist. They are not made for the purpose of being sold or shown in a gallery, but are part of a growing trend of internet phenomena that catch on and are passed from person to person rapidly, which is the original meaning of the word ‘meme’: an element of culture that is passed quickly from one individual to another.
Surely, you say, art does not have to be sold to become art, and definitely does not have to be shown in a gallery either. This is certainly true, but as soon as one takes a meme out of its context as a product of the internet, to be viewed either in a virtual form in the same way as say, a Julian Opie piece, or alternatively, printed off and shown in an art gallery, the meme would become art but cease to exist as a meme, because by definition memes spread rapidly from person to person via the internet. Once taken offline, the meme is an image with text that can be viewed as art, but it is no longer functioning as a ‘meme’; it would be static, not to be passed around by others.
One could argue that whether a meme can be seen as art then boils down to whether we take a traditional understanding of what art is at face value; one could expand the definition to include cultural internet phenomena, and we would learn to accept this over time. But there has been no desire to categorise memes as art as of yet; those who would like to must make a claim and hope it becomes established. I for one, hope it never is. Memes can be witty and amusing, but they are hardly ever considered creative pieces.
Let’s allow memes to do what they do best: not take themselves too seriously and make essay crises and procrastination an eighth more amusing.
Sadie Levy Gale