In a recent essay for the AFC art blog, Will Brand lambasted the recent dot work of Damien Hirst with a memorable line:
These spots reflect nothing about how we live, see, or think, they’re just some weird meme for the impossibly rich that nobody knows how to stop.
The idea of an art meme feels counterintuitive: art is supposed to reflect deep issues about society and self, or at least be technically complex, while memes are quick hacks about cats, shit people say and dancing Obamas.
But this past year, the internet has been seeing a ton of new memes that involve the arts.
Most recently, after the now famous Lt. Pike pepper sprayed a line of students at UC Davis, his image began appearing in the annals of art history, from Seurat to Banksy. The absurdity of the “casually pepper spraying everything cop” meandering through classical paintings reflected the absurdity of the pepper spraying itself, and it launched a meme that played a major role in launching a reported five investigations at the northern California school.
The pepper spraying cop meme is largely political, with a bizarrely artistic twist. But what about other memes that are just about art? Consider the following:
Ugly Renaissance Babies
When I wandered the halls of the Metropolitan Museum and the National Gallery of Art, I always marveled at how, well, awkward the babies were. They were often inhumanly large, or at least adult-like. It must have been hard in those days to get a baby to pose for you for very long.
Why it took so long, I don’t know, but a meme has finally arisen. Ugly Renaissance Babies, a popular group Tumblr, follows in the great tradition of Awkward Family Photos, with user-submitted images of babies in classical paintings that don’t quite inspire our love of cute.
Consider the memetic response to Domenichino’s The Assumption of Mary Magdalene into Heaven: “Oh my god, birds looked really weird during the Renaissance.”
But lest we think LOLBabies are a product of the 21st century, we need simply look back to this 1950s Lovers Lane collection of baby photos.
Shepard Fairy’s Obey and Hope
Shepard Fairey’s iconic Obey graphic was plastered across Los Angeles and soon the rest of the United States. The simple, ubiquitous image may not be the first street art meme, but it was certainly the most prominent. Fairey himself riffed off the theme with Marilyn Monroe and Che Guevara variants, while artists have created Sloth, Oy Vey and Ballet versions. Similarly, his famous Hope poster has spawned a host of memes and even a web site that lets you easily create an “Obamicon.”
Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but Fairey, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to agree. When Austin artist Baxter Orr remixed the image with a SARS mask, Fairey and his legal team sued.
Ai Weiwei and Marina Abramović
Ai and Abramovic, the two most recognizable names in the contemporary art world at the moment, have naturally become memes themselves. Witness the continuing response to Abramovic’s The Artist Is Present, with a recent video game by Pippin Barr, and a (now defunct) Twitter feed in the voice of her chair. The Marina Abramovic Made Me Cry Tumblr may even be considered art in itself, for directly showing the unique power of her piece in a way that an official press release or video feed from MoMA never could.
On Sina Weibo and the Chinese-speaking Twittersphere, Ai Weiwei has of course become a meme. The sunflower seeds he sends regularly to fans pop up on Sina Weibo, whether as images or as part of a largely commentary, while his now-iconic face has been placed on a grass mud horse and in biting satirical comics. Most recently, his fans stripped naked to show their support after he was investigated for distributing pornography.
Jenny Holzer’s Aphorisms
And where would we be without Jenny Holzer, whose pithy aphorisms are perfectly suited for Twitter?
It started with the 37,000-follower strong Jenny Holzer Twitter feed, which, in the early days before verified accounts, felt like they were coming directly from the artist until everyone figured out it was fake. The feed meme soon evolved into Jenny Holzer Mom (“YOU SHOULD KEEP NEAR THE THINGS YOU LOVE BUT SITTING THAT CLOSE TO THE TV WILL RUIN YOUR EYES”) and, my favorite, Jenny Holzer Cat (“LISTEN WHEN YOUR BODY TALKS BUT DON’T MOVE AS I NAP ON YOUR CHEST FOR THE NEXT 6 HOURS”). This latter only shows that cats, art and memes are natural allies.
So what does it all mean when even the sacred world of art is transformed and meme-ified for the broader internet? To me, the art world meme reflects the inevitable collision of the high art world with, well, everybody else. In a world in which the average art appreciator can feel empowered to create, remix and revamp, the art world meme is the internet generation’s version of sketching at the museum.
In the future, Warhol predicted, we’ll all have our 15 minutes of fame. But now that everyone can become famous, we need new metrics for lasting fame and success. For the art world, becoming a meme might just be one of those metrics. After all, living on in people’s Photoshop queues and social media ensures that an artist’s name echoes throughout eternity… or at least the Twittersphere.