MEMES: WHAT ARE THEY?

This issue, Ellie Dyson investigates the origin of memes, and if they can be considered a form of art.

Meme miːm/

noun noun: meme; plural noun: memes

1. An element of a culture or system of behaviour passed from one individual to another by imitation or other non-genetic means.

2. An image, video, piece of text, etc., typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by Internet users, often with slight variations.

The word ‘meme’ originates from the Greek word ‘mimema’, meaning ‘that which is imitated’. The word was coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his book, ‘The Selfish Gene’. In one chapter, he wanted to give an example showing that evolution could be present elsewhere to genes, theorising that it could be present within culture. He goes on to explain his theory in his Oxford Union talk on ‘memes’, describing a form of natural selection that happens when a catchy tune is more likely to be passed onto other people than an uninteresting one, with someone hearing the tune being whistled, and copying it, passing it around the town. He explained that “the meme is the unit of cultural inheritance. It’s anything that behaves likes a gene in human culture.” (Richard Dawkins – Oxford Union Talk on Memes.) To acknowledge the similarities between the two, Dawkins shortened the original ‘mimema’ to meme, rhyming it with gene.

“What a gene is to biology, a meme is to ideology… Madonna is a meme, Catholicism is a meme, Marxism is a meme, yellow sweaters are a meme… rainbow-colored dreadlocks are a meme. Launch your meme boldly and see if it will replicate — just like genes replicate, and infect, and move into the organism of society. And, believing as I do that society operates on a kind of biological economy, then I believe these memes are the key to societal evolution”

Terrance McKenna, 1996 (two years before the first internet meme)

Many of us today know memes as a source of absurdist humour plastered all over the internet, becoming more nonsensical by the day. But because of the high engagement and visual nature of this trend, does this mean that Dawkins’ ‘meme’ is the latest art form?

Now, to be more specific, an internet meme is a concept or piece of media that spreads via the internet. It could be anything – a video, hashtag or image. The piece of media is often adapted and then re-shared, taking it further into the ‘evolution’ that Dawkins mentioned. They could be formed from a social interaction, pop culture, or political view.

The power that a meme has in terms of sharing a political view was revealed in the case of cartoon character Pepe the Frog. Appropriated from the comic series ‘Boy’s Club’ by the alt-right, it ultimately became a symbol of racism until its creator, Matt Furie, killed the character off.

So how could something like that be considered art? If we look at previous art movements Dadaism and Surrealism, we may find some answers.

Dadaism was an artistic movement which began in Zurich, Germany. It arose as a rebellious reaction to the First World War, and the Nationalism that many had thought had led to war. Its aesthetic mocked materialistic attitudes, and its influence reached artists in Berlin, Paris and New York. The movement began to fade after Surrealism began to emerge. For the first time, artists rejected aestheticism and reason, instead tackling questions about society and the purpose of art.

Surrealism began in Paris in 1924 and was created by Andre Breton. He was inspired by founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud and his book The Interpretation of Dreams, in which he stated his belief that there was a layer of the human mind where memories and basic instincts were stored, called the Unconscious Mind.

Breton believed that the concept of desire was central to the surrealist vision of poetry and freedom, and it was also the key to understanding human beings. Surrealist artists liked to put objects which weren’t normally associated with each other together to make something that was both playful and disturbing at the same time. They believed it stimulated the Unconscious Mind. Unlike with Dadaism, Surrealists intended to reinvent world order instead of deconstruct it.

But how can this be related to a dank meme?

Dadaism, Surrealism and memes are all connected by the fact that they are an idea which spreads. The two art movements had to spread to other artists around the world, in the same way that a meme is sent from person to person over the internet, allowing it to evolve. The PBS Idea Channel released a video entitled ‘Are LOL Cats and Internet Memes Art?’, in which the presenter, referencing memes, stated that “people are creating images and sharing them with strangers for the purpose of communicating their personal experiences? That…is art, plain and simple.”  Having read Dawkins’ definition, one could even say that any form of art movement is a meme, rather than fight for memes being a form of art themselves. The Oxford Dictionary defines a movement as being ‘a group of people working together to advance their shared political, social, or artistic ideas.’ One can’t deny that memes allow a user to share their political and social views with like-minded people, even if these views are sometimes offensive or racist, like in the case of the hijacking and manipulation of Pepe the Frog’s once innocent caricature.

Not all memes are offensive, however, and they are able to move from person to person on the internet in positive ways. Whilst members of the Dada movement held meetings and talks to further the group, there are internet-based activities which everyone can be a part of. Reddit Place was a collaborative canvas made up of 16 million pixels, in a similar format to Microsoft Paint. Over one million Reddit users could paint one ‘tile’ every five minutes, and the slow speed of the game meant that the users had to work together to create images on the canvas.

R/Place was an April Fool’s experiment, but it made a point that an impact made over the internet (in the form of a meme, for the context of this article) is not an individual’s work, but rather the work of many. By creating more adapted content, one can make the meme ‘movement’ louder and stronger. The sheer amount of people involved is what makes meme culture stand out.   The movements and memes are connected in other ways. Dadaists didn’t view themselves as artists, they saw themselves as just going against normal societal views. The same can be said of the modern humourists of today, who don’t call themselves artists when they draw their absurd pictures. They, too, are going against what is normal, and making things which are humorous but also make the viewer feel slightly uncomfortable. The unnerving aspect of memes is also found in the work of surrealists, who were trying to stimulate the Unconscious Mind.

Dadaism emerged from the pain of the First World War, when the artists were disenchanted by societal attitudes. Many current memes are in relation to America, where Millennials are frustrated with unemployment, unaffordable college tuition fees with no promise of a job afterwards, threats of terrorism and a controversial President. People are displeased with the government but can’t do anything about it apart from make satire from it.

Even if there is disagreement on memes’ place as an art form, there are still instances where memes and art have had successful collaborations. Several art exhibitions have been curated, including an exhibit in 2016 called ‘What Do You Meme’, where memes were gathered into the context of a gallery. There was also an exhibition where thirty artists worked to create Grumpy Cat-themed art work. Artist Lauren Kaelin has a painting project inspired by the internet. She has painted subjects such as Sneezing Panda, Grumpy Cat, and Sloth Photo Bomb, and her work, entitled ‘Benjamemes’, is based on the theories of Walter Benjamin. In his 1936 essay, “The work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, he addressed how art can now be easily reproduced. He questioned the value of the original art piece, and theorised that the original possessed an aura which made viewing it a unique experience, compared to viewing a reproduction. Kaelin aimed to create an aura with her paintings, even though there is no ‘original’ when it comes to memes.

Further into the ‘Are LOL Cats and Internet Memes Art?’ video mentioned earlier, the presenter states that “Philosophers Immanuel Kant and David Hume might say that internet memes don’t count as art because they’re not beautiful.” However, Dadaism didn’t focus on aestheticism either, but is widely accepted as an art form. Beauty is subjective to the viewer, so according to Kant and Hume, the Mona Lisa itself would be discredited as art if a viewer doesn’t find it aesthetically pleasing.

So, what have we learned from this? There are many similarities between art movements Dadaism and Surrealism, and the marvel of a meme. These similarities could contribute to memes being accepted as an art form, especially with their explosive popularity in today’s internet servers. Memes fulfil a movement’s definition of people working together to progress their views. However, it is also a conceivable conclusion that art could instead be considered a type of meme, being a cultural concept, which is passed from artist to artist, from generation to generation, like the evolution of a gene. Perhaps this whole article has destroyed the essence of what a meme is, something not meant to be understood, and when thought about for more than a couple of seconds, killed by the sense of lost irony.

You can see more of Ellie’s work on Instagram @elliejdyson or on her website at https://bit.ly/2MNxE8T 

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