Michelangelo and the Meme
by Jules Travis
The debate of what does or does not qualify as art has been disputed for millennia, and most youth might not consider it relevant to them at all, save for those few actively pursuing visual art. Art, in the simplest terms, is “the expression or application of human skills and imagination, typically in a visual form… producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” The most prevalent form of art consumed at large comes at us through all types of media, attacking from every side to infiltrate the psyche and ultimately affect mainstream culture as a whole. The type of media I’m referring to is the meme.
Richard Dawkins, noted ethologist, evolutionary biologist, and public intellectual, originally defined a meme as “an element of a culture or system of behavior that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another by non-genetic means, especially imitation.” The term “meme” had a life before becoming popularized as slang in the 2000s with the rise of the internet. Memes are, in their modern forms, usually funny pictures, captions of 280 characters or less, or internet trends. They have become a cultural phenomenon that encapsulates masses under a doctrine of relatable or subjective comedy and have become a major part of millennial humor.
With this, and by the definitions addressed earlier, memes serve as art. They are often based in aesthetic and act as a visual supplement to imagination, creativity, or something as simple as conveying an idea. These ideas can range from a pivotal, hard-hitting political statement to a relatable experience that people can identify with. However, it’s possible to dig deeper. By rights, by basic meaning, maybe it’s art. Beyond that, memes seem to have developed in waves, trends, and individual movements that reflect a number of prevalent nineteenth and twentieth century fine art movements. It’s possible that memes could even be considered a culmination of those past trends, another extension of postmodernism, or an entirely new movement within itself.
To be clear, I’m discussing specific categories of memes: not every trend makes the cut as anything that might be dubbed “deep.” Some things should be left in their proper place on the fourth page of a Google search. More notable memes, though, (while still sporting a shelf life in a meme’s truest form) are worth digging through in order to identify their places in a movement.
The philosophical concept of Absurdism revolves around the fact that while humans frequently seek meaning in life, they rarely (if ever) find it. The Absurdism in art and literature surfaced under the ideas of Kierkegaard and Camus. The widespread use of such concepts asserted to a larger population that “the confrontation between man’s desire for significance, meaning and clarity … and the silent, cold universe” creates only two choices for the self-aware: suicide or recognition of the deep meaninglessness of their own life.
In contemporary culture, Absurdism exists outside of morbid, pessimistic thought— it collides most often with Nihilism, a consolidated (and generally depressing) form of the Absurd. Think the “I want to die,” “lol, nothing matters” attitude conveyed through a huge number of memes, tweets, and captions. It collides with Surrealism, another art movement of the twentieth century, as well. Surrealist humor is rooted in the Absurd in that there truly is no meaning to be found in related content. This type of humor is most popularly expressed through memes, like in mock news sites like Clickhole and The Onion. The range of acknowledged Surrealist humor spans from classic Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland to adult cartoons like Ren & Stimpy, basically exhibiting content with no inherent meaning. They are comprised of nonsense, juxtaposition and illogical unpredictability. Simply stated, it makes no sense—and that is fundamentally funny.
Surrealism thrived in the arts and became a foundation to an array of movements that followed. Dadaism, among them, sparked up in Switzerland during World War I as people began concentrating their anti-war agenda into artful expression. They did this through a rejection of the prevailing standards in art that were largely unchallenged for centuries, and in doing so creating: “anti-art” art. Essentially, people were motivated by poor economic and political conditions to react artistically and to create cheeky, anti-establishment works. These works unified those around them in their dissatisfaction in the conditions around them. Can’t the same be said for today’s meme culture?
Memes are capable of moving beyond a simple distraction from what seems to be looming existential dread in those who create them. They act as a form of communication to express pain, as referenced in their connection to Surrealism, Nihilism, Dadaism and general Existentialist themes, but also serve (in a more optimistic perspective) as simple facts of life and even positivity or joy. The infamous @justgirlythings Instagram account is proof of this. It existed solely to communicate sentiments familiar to many women and girls as if to say “this is part of my life, and I like it.” It was soon corrupted by internet “trolls” in the earliest stages of modern online culture, but it had a profound impact on the esteem of many girls that followed it. Memes can employ surrealist principles to engage the imagination and channel deep-rooted memories (i.e. “Only 90s kids remember!”) while still remaining capable of exhibiting Romantic ideals on glorifying and raising aspects of everyday life to the extraordinary.
Maybe that’s not enough incentive to give memes a title as high as “art.” One major deterrent is a meme’s unavoidable expiration date: pictures, references and slang that flow through the web go out of style before you can say “on fleek.” The trends that catch on with a larger population, those that ebb out to the capitalist market (I’m talking about those sassy tank tops that Wine Moms wear that reference 2013 memes and mainstream Vines) lose whatever charm they might’ve had—and God forbid it’s featured on Ellen. Consider how many memes from that past ten years you can remember that are now . Rage comics. Bad luck Brian. Grumpy cat. Kanye tweets. Any Vine reference. No matter how much you remember, there are almost certainly more memes that have obtained dreaded mainstream appeal.
An unfortunate contrast is the average teenager’s recognition of the most popular memes in popular culture compared to the most highly regarded fine arts, those hung in museums and stared at by old men holding wine glasses and tiny hor d'oeuvres. This isn’t to argue which art form is more equipped to be hung in a museum, as we all know the answer. Instead, it points out the major differences in consumption and with it, accessibility and impact. Not everyone can visit their local art museum for every new installation, and not everyone can comprehend what an art piece tries to communicate. Most people, however, have access to the internet. With the domination of social media in popular culture, memes are simply more capable to gain mass exposure, ultimately affecting more people, and are accumulating a wider culture as a whole.
Of course, most of the time, memes are entirely meaningless. Something void of meaning opposes art. However, that same meaninglessness reflects recognized art movements of the past two hundred years, illustrating that truly, they’ve “unwittingly been adopted by our nation’s youth,” perhaps evoking a more positive perspective on the seemingly time-wasting medium enveloping the internet.