From LOL cats and pratfall videos to dark satire and fine art, art historian Professor Richard Clay explores the popularity and meaning of internet memes
‘Where is the art in a meme, anyway?’, I found myself asking while researching and filming my BBC4 documentary How to Go Viral: the Art of the Meme. I guess the answer depends on whether, for you, the word ‘meme’ evokes ‘Internet’. If it does, perhaps your mind is throwing up visions of the kinds of image-macros (funny text over the top of a photo) that get shared via social media. Maybe you’re thinking of similarly succinct online snippets of text or short videos. You know, the stuff that goes ‘viral’ by being rapidly re-shared thousands or even millions of times in the course of a day. If so, you might conclude that there is an ‘art’ to getting an internet meme to go viral but categorising it as ‘fine art’ is a bit of stretch. And yet there is plenty of fine art blossoming among the mass of memes online.
As I sought to get something to ‘go viral’ during the production of my film on the topic, the crew developed and distributed a short (and amusingly informative) video. With the support of the world’s third biggest Internet content provider, Manchester-based LADbible, it reached a pretty large audience of millennials. The film opened with a somewhat tongue-in-cheek assertion by the eminent evolutionary scientist, Professor Richard Dawkins, who coined the word ‘meme’ in 1976. Looking straight to camera, he says, ‘Nobody knows what the f*ck a meme is anymore!’ Richard’s point was that any element of culture that passes from one person to another is a meme. The wheel is a meme. Lighting a fire is a meme. The Bible is made of up memes. And in the same way, fine art has always produced memes – even before Tumblr lent a helping hand to artists who use it to build online and real-world careers.
Back in the 1960s, Andy Warhol and his assistants were taking popular photos and screen-printing vivid multiples of ‘iconic’ figures in his studio, the Factory. During the 1968 uprisings in Paris, Atelier Populaire artists churned out striking – but pointedly anonymous – posters printed on paper donated to them by printers who were on strike. Duchamp turned a urinal on its side, signed it ‘R. Mutt’, and called it ‘Fountain’ back in 1917. He also added a mustache to a mass-produced poster of the Mona Lisa, along with the letters ‘L. H. O. O. Q.’ – a French acronym for ‘elle a chaud au cul’, which means ‘she’s got a hot arse’ and allegedly explains her self-satisfied smile. Such works of art challenged the notion of the solo artist working in isolation from mass culture and producing entirely novel, unique, and one-off works of genius. Artists were embracing the products and the tools of mass production into their own creative practices, borrowing from and reshaping the labours of others. They were becoming ever more powerful ‘meme fountains’, to borrow a phrase from Richard Dawkins, and reaching wider and wider audiences.
Not that any of this was all that new. Back in the eighteenth-century, when mass-produced prints had runs of less that 5000 copies and cost the equivalent of an average worker’s weekly wage, artists were still involved in the transmission of memes that spread widely, albeit rather slowly. A statue of the Virgin Mary purported to be involved in miraculous cures would have prints made of it. Then a copy of the statue would be installed elsewhere, perhaps inspired by seeing a print, leading to more miracles, more prints, and more statues. There are plenty of examples of works of art that have gone slowly, and sometimes internationally, viral over the centuries. And of course there are outstanding, thought-provoking, moving, and disturbing works of fine art among the mass of memes online today. The difference is that the fine art end of Internet ‘memes’ can reach and shape our cultures far more rapidly than has ever been possible in human history. We live in a world with vastly more fine art and more fine artists than ever before and some of their work is outstanding, if you can find it among all the funny viral image macros and derisive short films online.
How to Go Viral: the art of the meme is available to watch now on BBC iPlayer
Images courtesy of Pete Allibone