Think that headline is an exaggeration? Nope. It’s just not going to happen.
For a piece of art (in the sense of something created using time and skill by someone who intends their work to result in just that) to become a meme (by which we mean an image rapidly shared across social media, often created on a whim, with that very goal in mind) is almost impossible. It would have to adhere to a set of guidelines so rigid that it would probably cease to count as art.
To be clear: this isn’t a judgement about the quality of either memes, or art. Memes can be insightful and thought-provoking just as art can be vapid and clueless. You can get a million times more out of a meme then you can out of a single piece of modern art hanging in a gallery. The idea that artworks can never become memes might seem crazy or even shortsighted, given how fast the online world evolves and how quickly new rules are made, broken, and remade again. But it isn’t. Art might not have rules, but memes do. And if you break them, you’re not a meme.
Even the most mundane sketch demands a level of engagement beyond that which is given to meme, and unless you have a vast circle of online friends (as in, hundreds of thousands) who all share the same cultural reference points, sharing it will not give it meme status.
Memes have to be reproducible, shareable, and instantly recognisable. That’s part of what makes them so successful: they fit seamlessly into the lightning-fast online world, able to be digested and passed-on in seconds. Art is the antithesis of that. Even the most mundane sketch demands a level of engagement beyond that which is given to meme, and unless you have a vast circle of online friends (as in, hundreds of thousands) who all share the same cultural reference points, sharing it will not give it meme status.
Oh sure, a piece of art can be shared around, often extensively — especially if it’s relevant to current events, or pop culture. But for something to go genuinely, truly viral? To hit Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, The Guardian, The New York Times? It’s either got to adhere to those rules, or be the Mona Lisa, which sort of defeats the point.
Lauren Kaelin knows this well. The Brooklyn-based artist has a series of paintings called Benjameme, which has her rendering current memes in oil paint (She’s done Ikea Monkey, Ehrmagerd Girl and Grumpy Cat, and if you don’t know what those are, you need to get online more). Oil paint may take fourteen days to dry, a thousand times longer than the shelf-life of a meme, but Kaelin has sold hundreds of prints of her work and appeared on CNN’s Anderson Cooper Live. Benjameme, by the way, is a reference to German art theorist, Walter Benjamin — Kaelin is an art history buff, and a fan of Benjamin’s writings on reproducability.
this isn’t about whether art is superior to memes, or vice versa. But is about a surprising example of a virtually-unbreakable set of rules, in an online world that is almost completely free of them.
“I think it’s because maybe an artist is chasing something more significant than creating something that is reproducible,” she says, when asked about why an artwork can’t become a meme. “They’re interested in creating an aura, creating something around a particular space or a particular object. Many artists are interested in drawing people to one spot or one location and making them think or feel things while they are there. A meme — and I don’t know if there is a universally agreed upon definition of what a meme is — but a meme is the opposite. There are always ways to break that rule, and lots of artists are responding to and engaging with the Internet in really smart ways.”
There’s one more rule: humour. A meme that doesn’t at least put a wry smile on your face has failed. Serious art has many merits, but being funny isn’t one of them. “Memes don’t really have a seriousness to them,” Kaelin says. “Humour is part of that, and they are easily digestible. They only require five seconds to think about and get the meaning of. Otherwise, you failed in some way.”
Again: this isn’t about whether art is superior to memes, or vice versa. But is about a surprising example of a virtually-unbreakable set of rules, in an online world that is almost completely free of them.