Are memes a form of art?
Do internet memes belong in a gallery? Are memes really part of a rich artistic tradition dating back to the Renaissance? Or are they merely a shallow symptom of late-stage capitalism?
‘Memes as a physical art form will become accepted as worthy of space on a gallery or museum wall.’ That’s a direct quote from meme artist Ka5sh, in an interview with Artzealous magazine. But then, a meme artist would say that wouldn’t they? The interview was literally plugging their show.
Nevertheless, this debate around whether or not memes – those fun, throwaway jokes we like to swap online through the medium of images and GIFS – qualify as ‘proper art’ is interesting, and often heated.
Anyway, how are we to decide what constitutes art?
WTF IS ART ANYWAY?
So there’s this old-fashioned platonic idea that art should, on some level ‘imitate life.’ So the Mona Lisa is definitely art, in that it is a decent representation of a moody-looking woman. Do memes qualify?
So that meme where the boyfriend is looking around at a passing babe, upsetting his girl, is universally recognisable. It imitates life.
An alternative definition of art suggests that any artwork – be it a piece of music, painting, sculpture or whatever – must evoke a mood in the audience.
In this way, I’d argue, memes are very much a form of art. Even the stupidest meme is at least trying to make you laugh. Or cry, generally feel emotional, or overcome with awe the sheer wholesomeness of it all.
ART AND AUTHORSHIP
If any idiot can just slap a dumb caption on an existing image macro, the argument goes, can it really be considered art?
And if you think about how we talk about art – for instance in that paragraph earlier when I just pretentiously lobbed a bunch of names at you – then this criticism is sound. I know a bit about art, and sure, I feel good about the fact I know names and era and movements that most people don’t.
But my gatekeeping ass should be kept well away from these discussions. That’s what Andy Warhol was getting at with his tins of Campbells soup, and psychadelic collages of major celebrities.
Nobody seriously argues Warhol isn’t art. The fact Warhol picked on trashy mainstream iconography is the whole point of his art.
MEMES AND SYMBOLISM
Art has always evolved to fit with whatever the prevailing medium is. So way back in the day, cave paintings were the hottest property in the ‘art world’, mostly because that’s where our ancestors were hanging out.
Later, Renaissance art – freighted with symbolism, in exactly the same way modern memes use widely-understood symbols as visual shorthand to represent ideas – looked the way it does because of its context. The available technology – oil paint! Vanishing points! – and the customers, wealthy Italianate doges and assorted popes.
Today, the context most of us consume art is the smartphone screen. Our own private gallery, for enjoying our very own kind of art.
‘I see memes as a type of folk art, made for the people by the people, the difference in the tools used, such as Photoshop and pixels over wood or clay.’
AI MEME ART
Would it still be art if an AI made the meme? Eh, no. But that attitude will likely change.
And to anybody who argues that memes can’t possibly be art, because when you say ‘meme’ they immediately think of Minion memes, consider this:
The classic art we know of today – your Turners, your Holbeins – are but a tiny fraction of the art that was being made back then. We only know about ‘the greats’ because their work survived, where lesser artists didn’t.
Where Leonardo and Michelangelo are revered as immortal cultural gods, lesser artists from the past – the contemporary equivalent of those pesky Minion-makers – are lying anonymously at the bottom of some forgotten plague pit.
Exactly where they belong.