Are Internet Memes Art?

Hadoukening. Grumpy Cat. The Harlem Shake. These images crowd our facebook threads, twitter feeds, and even the most dignified blogs as an occasional "mental health break." While it can be difficult to take them seriously, the institute of the internet meme has been conspicuously on the rise over the past decade, escalating as viewers get more involved with the process. Although the topics of interest change rapidly, the responses to each multiply more and more, resulting in an enormous library of recycled and re-imagined ideas. With so much of this kind of visual communication circling the globe, the art community has no choice but to ask itself: are memes art?

"Y U No" meme. Click the image to learn more about The Swarm.

Some memes are fairly high quality and boast a strong production value, but most are rehashed from images acquired through a simple Google-image search, and then a minimal amount of work goes into adding new text. While videos take a bit more effort, they generally seem to come from a smart phone and have the something-to-do-when-there's-nothing-to-do kind of feel. It isn't difficult to make a meme and there are plenty of generators around. Compared to the agonizing life of the fine artist who takes their daily practice as seriously as a surgeon, is it an insult to put their efforts next to these cut and paste quickies? 

One Does Not Simply Answer Yes Or No

Whether yes or no, LOLcat can has Cheezburger was probably not on Richard Dawkins's mind when he coined the phrase "meme" in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Coming from the Ancient Greek to imitate, or, in imitation, the sociobiologist was specifically referring to the spreading of ideas within a culture, in comparison to the way cellular information replicates and spreads within an organic being. It is this process, Dawkins argued, that allows for both physical and intellectual evolution. 
 
"Philosoraptor" meme: a velociraptor that philosophizes.

This has been a point of interest even before the first dancing babies went viral in the 90s, and it's easy to see how Dawkins's idea translates. While the initial image/video/idea may be somewhat compelling, or at least amusing enough to get passed around the web, it's the large body of responses that really start to make things interesting and truly turns something into a "meme," as Dawkins envisioned it. Looking over a body of memes, theme and variation couldn't be more present, representing an incredible cross section of global thought process where entertainment intertwines with social and political commentary in a rapid evolution from one piece to the next. Given the quality of most memes, the content is practically irrelevant compared to the overall effect of the chain of reactions.  

What If I Told You A Meme Was A Collective Art Project

From an anthropological point of view, the art and objects that a culture leaves behind gives us clues as to what was happening with the world at the time, from early civilization deity worship to the artist as political surveyor. Likewise, memes provide clear evidence of the globalization that has come from the technological connectivity of our generation, as well as the details of individual response to the happenings of our societies; a fusion of micro and macro experiences. This element – the personal opinion combined with the collective experience – is somewhat unusual in the history of art. But without an individual artist to trace the idea back to, how can this anomaly be considered an intentional statement? Does a body of work need to be intentional to be considered art?

"Art student owl" meme: an advice animal with a smug, humorous take on art student stereotypes.

There are plenty of artists today that look to memes as inspiration for their work. Lauren Kaelin adapts memes like Texts From Hilary Clinton into oil paintings, but leaves off the text, which results in the viewer taking a personal trip through their own memory of the versions they've seen. Illustrator Sam​ Spratt creates creepy, realistic versions of meme cartoons.

While these artists are creating physical work, this points to a great divide between the institute of the meme and the commentary on the institute itself. A meme lives as a collective body of work, and given the immediacy of the internet, it makes sense that they are almost exclusively digital at this point. Works like Kaelin's and Spratt's, given their physical nature and traditional execution, are much easier to define as art but are not memes as such – rather a nod to the notion of the meme and it's place in our daily lives.

Meme Can Has Future?

The nature of memes involves rapid change, making disposability a primary characteristic of these trends. However, the archives are readily and immediately available to those who look for them, and new threads are always popping up. In some ways, these series are much more accessible to the greater public than the masterpieces found in museums and galleries, filtering into our daily routines whether they're welcome or not, but in either case are remembered. By asking if memes are art, we are really asking ourselves to redefine art, a difficult but necessary question that comes up every couple of generations or so. By redefining art, we are redefining ourselves, our world, and our place within it. How seriously we take these arguments and the methods we use to explore them will provide the answers in the long run.

"Futurama Fry" meme: our thoughts exactly.

Will gallerists find a way to consider memes within the scope of the art community? Will they find a reason to do so? Will MoMA present a retrospective on the life of memes?  Is it even necessary to extricate the meme system from it's digital realm in order to find it a place in our history, or will the online forum be a strong enough platform to stand parallel against the physical one? Will future generations look back on the art of this one and consider memes as a valuable subject for study? Time, y u no hurry up and tell us!

Article by Meredith Caraher