‘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 on-line snippets of text or short videos. You know, the stuff that goes ‘viral’ by being rapidly re-shared thousands if not millions of times in the course of a day. If so, you might have to conclude that there could be an ‘art’ to getting an internet meme to go viral but feel that ‘fine art’ is a somewhat different matter. Yet, plenty of fine art is blossoming among the mass of memes online.
One of the great pleasures of my job is advising Newcastle University undergraduates as they prepare their final year dissertations in the UK’s most highly ranked School of Fine Art. Every year, more of them focus on the myriad and mutating relationships between fine art and the Internet. These are gifted young practitioners who are genuinely digitally native; I don’t think they know what a phone box is actually meant to do. Yeah they can draw and paint, model and carve, but many of them prefer to work with digital tools. Often their studio practice involves cutting, pasting, manipulating, transforming, recombining, deliberately glitching, or just tweaking materials they’ve found online. They are champions of Tumblr art and of online spaces where international groups of artists share, re-share, discuss, exhibit and sell their work. Their outputs often critique the long-evident relationships between art and the (un)conscious biases of artists, patrons, critics and audiences about gender, sexuality, ethnicity, race, and class. Many such artists are now achieving significant global followings and, increasingly, they are being asked to exhibit in the galleries of the physical world. Do they think of their online art works as being memes? That’d depend on whether they appreciate that ‘memes’ existed off-line long before the Internet.
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 – https://www.instagram.com/p/Bnnp73aAFO7/?hl=en&taken-by=ladbible. 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. 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. Oil painting and watercolour are memes. So, hasn’t fine art always been about producing memes – even before Tumblr lent a helping hand?
Back in the 1960s, Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault declared the author to be dead. What they meant was that, no artist (whatever their art form) authors their work alone. They draw upon the ideas they’ve encountered during their lives, finding inspiration in other works of art, in literature, journalism, gossip, and they integrate it all using practices of artistic production that they have learned. In other words, artists could be said to combine and recombine memes as they generate new memes. When their work is displayed, its audience members make their own meanings out of the piece, continuing its (dare I say) evolution and potentially using it to generate their own novel memes. And so on and so on until we get Internet art.
Barthes and Foucault’s ‘Death of the Author’ intervention was certainly timely, helping make sense of the artistic world past, present, and future. 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, the Atelier Populaire artists were churning out striking, but pointedly anonymous, posters printed on paper donated to them by printers who were on strike. Duchamp had long since turned a urinal on its side, signed it ‘R. Mutt’, and called it ‘Fountain’. He’d added a moustache to a mass produced poster of the Mona Lisa and the letters ‘L. H. O. O. Q.’ (in French, ‘Elle a chaud au cul’, in English ‘She’s got a hot arse’ – which allegedly explained 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. They were becoming ever more powerful ‘meme fountains’ to borrow a phrase from Richard Dawkins.
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 the print, leading to more miracles, more prints, and more statues. There are plenty of examples of works of art that, if conceived of as memes, have gone slowly, but 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 Internet art ‘memes’ can reach and shape our cultures far more rapidly than has been possible at any previous point in human history. We live in a world with more fine art and more fine artists than ever 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.