Visual Culture

What Memes Owe to Art History

Alice Bucknell
May 30, 2017 9:44PM

Memes are the democratizing medium of our collective digital present. Easy to make, easy to share; instantly recognizable and a little nonsensical; a hilarious and at times sickly-sweet jab at the world’s blunders, scandals, protests, and hypocrisies. From pop culture to politics, memes bubble up across our Facebook feeds, first roasting a tone-deaf Pepsi ad and then manifesting as hand-scrawled signs at anti-Trump rallies. In the post-internet world, nothing escapes the meme’s comic gaze, and the form is being recognized as an artistic medium for this interconnected online moment. High-art purists eschew the argument, but the aesthetic and social sway of contemporary meme culture has roots deep in the pre-digital art-historical canon.

“Memes are essentially 100 years of text art boiled down into your feed,” said professor Darren Wershler, research chair at Concordia University, who argues that memes are a type of “everyday Conceptualism.” Through an ironic and playful treatment of a fragmented subject, memes break down high and low culture, disrupting ideas of authenticity and originality. Wershler argues that memes should be understood as the digital descendants of artists such as Man Ray, Walker Evans, and Andy Warhol—all vanguards whose practices largely concerned informational and social disruptions.

For a cultural phenomenon with an attitude and aesthetic that feels so relentlessly contemporary, the knee-jerk response to the idea there is a 50-or-more-year history of “memecraft” that is not all LOLs and JKs is a hard “no.” Yet, that skepticism—and the way memes subvert it—reveals how the artistic lineage of memes is spun out of some of 20th-century art’s most revolutionary ideas. Today’s meme culture adopts the techniques of postmodernist movements like Pop, performance, and conceptual art to buck their precedents in order to subvert the status quo.

Exhibition poster for  “What Do You Meme?”


Memes resist today’s norm-culture in the same way the performative turn of the 1960s disrupted Modernism. Like performance art of the ’60s, memes are hardwired with an unpredictability and a “hackable” interface or template that can be easily appropriated and overwritten—anyone can make a meme. Performance brought art into the street and public spaces, leveling the gap between artist and audience. Similarly, memes offer a highly accessible and interactive platform of production that is ripe for challenge and dissent, with disagreements and controversy only fueling the fire of a successful meme truly going viral. Other memes crash and burn. So what? The ephemeral, low-stakes economy of memes re-brands the form as a type of performance rather than a purely visual object.

Marrying graphic design and memes with this performative mentality is at the heart of Action to Surface, a new publication by The Rodina, an Amsterdam-based design collective. In it, the duo lays out the political urgency of surface-led visual culture, wherein, like performance art of the ’60s, memes resist today’s norm-culture. Tereza Ruller, The Rodina co-founder, described the concept of the “democratized surface,” in which design becomes an interactive, two-way mirror held up to society at large. Through humor, memes incite a collective reaction to everyday life as well as reveling in it, in a format no less playful than it is political, decoding the murky structural screw-ups, paradoxes, and hypocrisies of our current political climate.

Courtesy of The Rodina.

Courtesy of The Rodina.

In a recent project titled “The Voice of the Netherlands,” The Rodina created an “anti-campaign” against the far-right Party for Freedom (PVV) led by Geert Wilders. In order to ridicule its bombastic rhetoric and expose the hatred and xenophobia driving its anti-immigrant manifesto, the collective made a series of spoof campaign posters (rolled out as GIFs) that appropriated the language and graphic identity of the PVV’s campaign. Accompanied by a roster of like-minded memes spilling over social media under the hashtag #stopwilders, the parody flew under the radar but bolstered resistance for those in the know, no doubt contributing to PVV’s crushing defeat in the Dutch general election on March 15th.

But Wershler noted the limits of political memes in isolation. “Narratives matter.…Pictures don’t speak for themselves,” he said, arguing that memes are not just jokes, but rather have the potential to be more sinister than what meets the eye. “Memes aren’t an innocent process—they carry serious political weight, and not always of the activist variety,” Wershler said, citing the website 4chan’s politics board and other alt-right cyber-communes where hate speech has festered in the form of memes.

Like The Rodina, curator and digital connoisseur Maisie Post sees the authorless enterprise of memes and its prioritization of narrative over material perfection as inherited characteristics from art movements of yesteryear. Post points to similarities between memes and the folk and pop art movements: All were quick to circulate, and quicker to slip out of the spotlight. All share local, low-brow production materials, as well as collective ownership. “Like modern art…our internet age moves fast, BT Infinity fast, and people are always looking for the next big thing and the next laugh. Jokes get old,” Post said.

Last summer, Post curated the iconic exhibition “What do you Meme?” hosted by London’s insurgent art hive Copeland Park. In explaining her selections for the exhibition—all female artists, a mix of Instagram meme queens and IRL practitioners—Post spoke about the subversive and sub-cultural power of memes in undercutting the role of the artist, as was the case with folk art as much as postmodernism. Discussing two of the included artists, Pantyhoe$ and Meme Gold, Post said the pair “took memes offline, bringing the URL IRL; neither of them identified as artists—there was no role for the artist to follow and no regulations,” arguing this is a nod toward the subversive freedom of art icons like Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Beuys, Sherrie Levine, and Jenny Holzer.

What memes expose today matches the guerrilla-style insurrection of their delivery. From the surprise attack delivery of the iconic Rickroll a decade ago, to curators tapping today’s online activists to put on the next ground-breaking exhibition, meme culture has its own (accelerated) history. But what memes owe to 20th-century art and its discontents can’t be overlooked. It isn’t so much about visuals, but instead digs deep into the cultural architecture of memes and their political power as a networked critical resistance, where their abilities to incite and inspire, to problematize and be problematic in equal turn, offer a mirror image of our volatile present as much as their avant-garde heritage.

Alice Bucknell