Memes as art!? It sounds ridiculous, but Sarah Park presents a convincing case. Sarah is a 2nd year Art History student with a love for meta-memes and a proclivity for making Spotify playlists as a form of procrastination. Sarah can be found wasting away in any one of the coffee shops in St Andrews, swooning over cute dogs in the street or on Instagram (@sarahpark_).
Valentine’s Day is upon us once more, and with it, a barrage of internet V-Day cards and memes. With my Facebook feed becoming more and more inundated with images of Kermit the frog, chefs flamboyantly sprinkling salt and belligerent thirteen-year old girls challenging the hoes to “cash her ousside,” it has gotten me thinking about memes themselves and how they function as a mode of communication. St Andrews has recently seen a revival of university-oriented memes in the past few months, remarking on topics ranging from the absurdity of accommodation costs to the most recent event of FS being cancelled. While some may see memes as an inconsequential form of entertainment, their function as a mode of social commentary could very well classify them as art.
Before you roll your eyes, let me make a historical comparison. In the early 20th century, a collection of European avant-garde artists founded a movement known as Dadaism. Marcel Duchamp, a key figure of the movement, created a series of works called “ready-mades”— the most notable being his work titled Fountain. Rather than a conventional marble sculpture laden with figures from classical mythology, Duchamp took a porcelain urinal, signed it and thus called the work finished. Another piece he created was a postcard with the image of the Mona Lisa that he embellished with a Dalí-esque moustache and goatee and the caption “L.H.O.O.Q.,” which was reads as a rather rude remark that roughly translates to “she has a hot ass” when the letters are spoken with a French pronunciation. Duchamp’s work and Dadaism were meant to cause social uproar, to challenge classical ideas of art and to comment on current social and political happenings. At the time, the art of Duchamp and his contemporaries were rejected by critics as vulgar and ugly—which was exactly their intentions. The Dadaists wanted to create art that appealed to the intellect and not just to the eye: something that could arguably be applied to memes.
In the same way that artists have turned to art as a way of expressing their emotions and opinions of their current political and social climates—Goya’s The Third of May, 1808 and Picasso’s Guernica being a few memorable examples—millennials have turned to memes as a way of coping with a very complicated world. Memes not only allow us to inject humour into an otherwise grim reality, but they encourage engagement and foster a sense of community through relatability. They take the characterisation of our generation having short attention spans and turn it on its head, using it as motivation to create witty, relevant content with merely a picture and a few words in a caption. The reproducible, repostable viral nature of memes make them a form of mass art.
In 2017, in a world where an overgrown Cheeto with a comb-over is president of the United States, where the fight for human rights and general decency seems direr than ever before, it is important for us to maintain our voice and make noise about the injustices that plague us and our neighbours. Whether it’s done through poignant op-eds, SNL sketches or viral memes, all are forms of commentary and expression. If we’ve learned anything from the past, we know that art accomplishes what politics sometimes cannot. It may be time to reshape our idea of what art is once again—and this time, include memes.
Images from Facebook, Buzzfeed, and St Memedrews.