Meme me up, Scotty

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Classical art is no longer known to the masses as simply dead people’s portraits and confusing scenes from stories most of us don’t know. After centuries of art residing undisturbed in its ivory tower, a new trend has found a way to bridge the temporal and cultural gap between fuddy-duddy art history and snap-happy millennials. That trend, unsurprisingly, surfaced from the Internet in the form of memes. We can now all appreciate art for what it mostly is: selfies and dick pics.

Popular on social media sites, memes have become one of the latest models for self-expression; as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words and the meme’s setup is perfectly tailored to our media-fuelled, Segway-driven laziness. Replete with instantly gratifying gags, their universality is a lot more thought provoking than what meets the eye. As approximately 75% of people think either in images or images and words, memes could be considered a new, secondary language. Visuals are everywhere, and their ability to speak as loudly as words should not be undermined Since verbal thinkers automatically follow a linear and coherent linguistic structure whereas meaning can be easily expressed in few signifiers simply using the symbolism and connotations of images, visual thinking is clearly the faster form of communication. Because of this dynamic, the concise message offered up by memes satiates the expectation of immediacy we’ve come to demand thanks to modern technology.


Behind the humour and the artistic appropriation, some memes subtly, and perhaps unknowingly, reveal contemporary issues relating to the pressures of our society. Statements of desperation and distress are often trivialised by the meme-maker’s contrasting of negative emotions with contradictory gestures and expressions in the image. A smiling face or shrugging shoulder is not what we expect alongside cries of anguish, satirising the socially perceived need to disregard important problems and feign happiness. A maxim we often hear is “someone has it worse than you”; could it be that societal emphasis on a phrase that originally related to materialism has mutated to undermine the importance of an individual’s emotional problems?

Art memes capitalize on the absurd, drawing comedic value from the underlying uncertainty of the artist’s original intentions. Medieval imagery, for all its anatomical incorrectness and supernatural subject matter, provides the best entertainment opportunities. Once deployed to illustrate moralising stories for the illiterate masses – affirming the significance of visual thinking – their bizarre narratives and ludicrously stylised figures are more than enough to leave the modern viewer in hysterics. Was the artist having a joke, or is the top image meant to be a serious murder depiction? If so, why is the victim smiling as his head erupts with flame-like ‘blood’?  Memes have picked up the thread of combining incongruent features such as violent actions and inappropriate facial expressions that added captions amplify to reflect on present day problems. Whilst making light of serious issues, they also dramatize the mundane by including disproportionately extreme reactions. As we're bombarded by carefully constructed images online that might make our everyday experience seem inadequate, memes provide a levelling of experience, demonstrating that we all find fun in the drama of even the most trivial situation.

The reimagining of a familiar situation, a well-known piece of art, or a common product inspires us to see what we already know in new light. In mocking classical art, we mock the noble and romantic image of history. By reimagining these images in a modern context, we identify with it and come full circle to mock ourselves. Memes are perhaps the clearest mirror through which to recognise the human mishmash of excellence and ridiculousness. Who would have thought a meme could mean so much? Above all, the temporal aspect of classical art memes can even be comforting, showing us that something we understand about ourselves as a people will always endure; if not our fashion trends, beliefs systems, or governance, then without a doubt our sense of humour and absolute absurdity.

Words by Faith Douglas

images from classical art memes and @arthistorycaps