The Art of The Internet Meme

Memes are art.

Yeah, I said it.

When you first think of ‘memes,’ your mind was probably drawn to an image like this:

[photo credit: knowyourmeme.com]
A classic meme. Photo: www.knowyourmeme.com
They are widely considered an internet phenomenon, a joke for the kids, something not understood by your parents/people who are too cool so spend hours staring at the internet.

For anyone unsure, a meme refers to a popular image, normally of an animal or a person’s face. There is normally a certain personality attributed to this face, i.e. Scumbag Steve, or Lazy College Senior demonstrated above. This image, which gains notoriety along the internet grapevine, then has relevant text juxtaposed upon it which readers relate to. Everyone laughs, “aha that is so me,” shares the image, and a meme is born.

The popularity of a meme stems from the fact that another image has been copied and repurposed: just like Pop Art. Like the Pop Art movement, the meme is not really respected outside its hallowed halls (the internet), nor is it recognised as a piece of art in itself rather than a copy. It is easy to argue that a meme is nothing original; it is someone else’s image which has been changed a bit.

This is very similar to the foundations of Pop Art: the taking of a well-known image and changing it a bit. Whilst the big names like Warhol and Lichtenstein were criticised for just being copycats, they created an art that ordinary people could understand, they created images that people could relate to, and ultimately they helped to remove art from its high pedestal, making it accessible for the mass consumer.

In turn, this is what a meme is doing. Originally, Dawkins defined the meme as a “unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation and replication.” Whilst he coined this term in relation to evolutionary concepts, the definition remains relevant; a meme will typify a certain element of culture, and it exists as a template for sharing and repurposing.

It is the act of replication that cements the meme’s popularity as more than a piece of art but an ongoing exhibition, supported by collaborations. Whilst the internet initially opened the doors for sharing, it is now supporting the act of creation. People can download templates of memes and add their own text to make it even more witty/relevant to their subculture.

This is Pop Art on a new, personalised level. This is art that anyone and everyone can repurpose to make relevant to them; something that they (and their peers) just ‘get.’ One of my personal favourite memes is one in which I believe was inspired by a party I was at, found on QMUL’s own meme page:

 [photo credit: https://www.facebook.com/pages/QMUL-MEMES/511170912267051?id=511170912267051&sk=info]
QM getting involved. Photo: www.facebook.com/pages/QMUL-MEMES/511170912267051?id=511170912267051&sk=info
I liked it not for the image of a man in a suit, but in the message behind the words: I was at a party so loud and fun, someone was angry enough to make a meme about it. Only me and a finite amount of people will get the joke in this context, whereas numerous others can interpret it differently. This meme is like a portal to a memory, it evokes feeling, which is precisely what a work of art should do.

Although the internet receives a lot of criticism from the art world (mostly about ‘lowering the bar’), I think we should embrace the opening of the virtual gallery doors. Whilst the government is hacking away at arts funding for museums and schools, we should be celebrating any method that gets all sorts of people creating and interacting with their surroundings.

We should be promoting the celebration of images just because they make us smile or snicker. We should embrace the meme as a medium of art, for the way it unites people who fear “Culture,” and just makes the web a little bit happier. And we should definitely live by the motto “if it doesn’t inspire a meme, it’s not worth doing.”

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