Are memes the pop culture art of our era?

meme
Memes don’t usually have the longest shelf life. Temporary Internet superstars like Antoine Dodson and once-popular photos like Scumbag Steve fade into obscurity and get replaced by newer, trendier memes. They’re fun, and they’re disposable. Like a Forever 21 top: Three seasons from now you’re probably not even going to remember them. 

But that’s all beginning to change – and what better example is there than Grumpy Cat? The foul-tempered feline miraculously extended its run and signed a movie contract, which says way more about the state of the entertainment industry than it does about the merits of Grumpy Cat. More telling, however, is the cat’s crossover from meme to mainstream art. 

sir grumpsalot

Grumpy Cat recently inspired an art exhibit with over 30 studio artists working to create Grumpy Cat-themed artwork, which was then sold at an auction out of the Lowe Mills Art Gallery in Huntsville, Alabama. The auction raised money to build a children’s playground in the area, and some of the artwork commanded impressive sums of money, especially a painted glass piece called “Sir Grumpsalot” by Judson Portzer. 

 This Grumpy Cat exhibit is impressive for its thoroughness, but it’s actually not the only instance of memes as the artist’s muse. The painter Lauren Kaelin has an entire project of paintings inspired by the Internet – and while she has her own version of Grumpy Cat, she also covers countless other Web delights like Prancercise Lady, Sneezing Panda, Sloth Photo Bomb, and I Like Turtles

Kaelin’s website displays many of her paintings (which you can buy prints of here) and explains her philosophy. She calls the project “Benjamemes” and she bases her work on both the Internet and the theorist Walter Benjamin. 

“Benjamemes takes its name from a German art theorist, Walter Benjamin. In Benjamin’s 1936 essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ he addresses the then new-found reproductibility and availability of art. This democratization of art made Benjamin question the value of the original. An original of art, he theorized, possessed an aura, which made the experience of viewing the original unique. Reproductions degraded the value of the original’s aura.”  

“A successful meme is by definition reproducible, shareable, and recognizable. Benjamemes creates an aura where none previously existed.” 

Kaelin described how she came to memes, citing the Ikea Monkey as her first meme love. “Originally, I was just really eager to paint the Ikea Monkey: His isolation, his expression, and most of all, his jacket – all really appealed to me. When I developed the project, memes proved to be a great source material. There’s a treasure trove of past material and new Prancercises are happening all the time.” 

Ikea Monkey

 Not all memes are created equal for Kaelin – some are too difficult to turn into art. “So far, I’ve steered clear of cartoon memes, or memes that are heavily text dependent. It’s important to me that each Benjameme stand alone as an image and to some extend, be beautiful,” Kaelin says. “So far, I’ve attempted to paint Maru and Rick-Rolled and have had a hard time with them. They ended up not looking like my style, so I didn’t post them. I’m determined to do Rick Astley, though. One day.” 

The idea of communal ownership is one that meme-lovers embrace.

Kaelin’s project explicitly sets out to imbue memes with an artistic “aura” – they intend to elevate the material. And while the Grumpy Cat exhibit’s intentions aren’t as clear, the quality of the artwork demonstrates that the artists saw their project as a thing of value; this wasn’t pure kitsch. They’re creating something with a wink and nod, certainly, but it’s supposed to be (and is) good, interesting art, as well. 

Kaelin’s paintings are certainly well-done and high-quality; the impressionistic, angular style has all the marks of a professional painter’s work. She takes memes and transforms them into something more.

And this memes-as-muse trend isn’t limited to just the Grumpy Cat exhibit and Kaelin’s art. There are many galleries showcasing Internet-based art. One of the more prominent ones, Gallery 1988, which refers to itself as the world’s number one destination for pop-culture art, has run exhibits that Kaelin’s paintings would fit into well. A 2012 exhibit called “Memes” draws from similar source material, with art depicting Honey Badger, Hipster Ariel, First World Problems, and other popular Internet touchstones. 

Of course, “good” is an entirely subjective and often fraught concept in the arts, and there may be critics who deride the choice of subject matter here – although probably not as many as you might think, since this type of artwork owes a debt to Andy Warhol and other pop artists who took the banal and everyday and brought it into the fine art world.

These productions aren’t stuffy or pretentious – they’re for the people and by the people; the democratization of art without rules and ample creative license.

The PBS Idea Channel recently discussed the idea of memes as art. “Here’s an idea – anyone who has made a LOLCat has also made a work of art,” host Mike Rugnetta says. “People are creating images and sharing them with strangers to communicate their personal experiences? That, my friends, is art.” Although he allows that not all philosophers would agree, Rugnetta uses statements from thinkers like Tolstoy and Aristotle, going so far as to argue that Rage Comics embody Aristotle’s idea of art as catharsis. 

 Commentators like Rugnetta and artists like Kaelin make a strong case for memes as capable of hinting at the sublime, even if Kaelin takes some extra steps to isolate the meaningful elements and use her skill to raise her source imagery into something more beautiful. 

But this isn’t a one-way street. Memes can blur the line between content and art, but certain pieces that begin as art can also take on the qualities of a meme. For instance, much of Banksy’s work – though it starts as street art in alleys, on billboards, and on the sides of buildings – has become a staple of Internet imagery. The impact of the piece of art is not lost in reproduction; it is meant to be shared, and as Omar Canosa writes, “Banksy’s artwork explicitly and repeatedly proclaims his disdain for the concept of copyright or artistic ownership.” The idea of communal ownership is one that meme-lovers embrace. 

To bring everything full circle, more traditional art can become a meme as well – just look at what happened with Ecce Homo, the Spanish fresco that began as art, but after a ridiculously botched restoration, became a meme. 

Screen Shot 2013-06-21 at 2.52.27 PM

As you can see, most of the artful qualities were obliterated in the restoration, and the Internet quickly embraced the art tragedy as a meme windfall. Parody Twitter accounts were made, people started calling it “Potato Jesus,” and something called The Cecilia Prize was established to recognize the most comical and inventive re-interpretations of the image. The creativity was endless. 

Screen Shot 2013-06-21 at 2.58.39 PM

So basically, Ecce Homo (the meme) is the opposite of what Kaelin is achieving with her artwork. The Ecce Homo meme is making the best out of a situation that’s actually kind of sad (destroyed art) but it would probably be difficult for even the most open-minded art critic to categorize some of the entries as art, since their intention is obviously just a lighthearted joke and they’re not actually meant to evoke emotion, just viral, share-worthy hilarity. 

Memes and Internet culture are fertile ground for artistic sparks. It’s less obvious that memes are art on their own merits, but because there is no objective criterion, it’s impossible to discount them as creative, valuable digital artifacts at the bare minimum. These productions aren’t stuffy or pretentious – they’re for the people and by the people; the democratization of art without rules and ample creative license. 

The haters who see Lil Bub gear and Nyan Cat paintings as tacky gimmicks are always going to hate – but they’re also going to increasingly find themselves in a world enjoying and adoring this “art” … or whatever you want to call it.

Social Media

Facebook opens pop-up stores at Macy’s, but they’re not selling the Portal

Facebook has opened pop-up stores at multiple Macy's, though they're not selling Facebook's new Portal device. Instead, they're showcasing small businesses and brands that are already popular on Facebook and Instagram.
Movies & TV

Out of movies to binge? Our staff picks the best flicks on Hulu right now

From classics to blockbusters, Hulu offers some great films to its subscribers. Check out the best movies on Hulu, whether you're into charming adventure tales or gruesome horror stories.
Home Theater

The best movies on Netflix in November, from 'Buster Scruggs’ to ‘Dracula’

Save yourself from hours wasted scrolling through Netflix's massive library by checking out our picks for the streamer's best movies available right now, whether you're into explosive action, witty humor, or anything else.
Movies & TV

The best shows on Netflix, from 'The Haunting of Hill House’ to ‘The Good Place’

Looking for a new show to binge? Lucky for you, we've curated a list of the best shows on Netflix, whether you're a fan of outlandish anime, dramatic period pieces, or shows that leave you questioning what lies beyond.
Virtual Reality

Think virtual reality is just for games? These awesome apps will change your mind

Virtual reality isn't all about gaming. Swim with turtles, paint in 3D, and immerse yourself in some unique experiences the platform has to offer with our curated list of the best VR apps.
Web

Switch up your Reddit routine with these interesting, inspiring, and zany subs

So you've just joined the wonderful world of Reddit and want to explore it. With so many subreddits, however, navigating the "front page of the internet" can be daunting. You're in luck -- we've gathered 23 of the best subreddits to help…
Social Media

Facebook Messenger will soon let you delete sent messages

A feature coming to Facebook Messenger will let you delete a message for up to 10 minutes after you send it. The company promised the feature months ago and this week said it really is on its way ... "soon."
Social Media

Pinterest brings followed content front and center with full-width Pin format

Want to see Pinterest recommendations, or just Pins from followed users? Now Pinners can choose with a Pinterest Following feed update. The secondary feed eliminates recommendation and is (almost) chronological.
Smart Home

Facebook's Alexa-enabled video-calling devices begin shipping

Facebook's Portal devices are video smart speakers with Alexa voice assistants built in that allow you to make calls. The 15-inch Portal+ model features a pivoting camera that follows you around the room as you speak.
Social Media

Vine fans, your favorite video-looping app is coming back as Byte

Vine fans were left disappointed in 2017 when its owner, Twitter, pulled the plug on the video-looping app. But now one of its co-founders has promised that a new version of the app, called Byte, is coming soon.
News

Social media use increases depression and anxiety, experiment shows

A study has shown for the first time a causal link between social media use and lower rates of well-being. Students who limited their social media usage to 30 minutes a day showed significant decreases in anxiety and fear of missing out.
Social Media

Twitter boss hints that an edit button for tweets may finally be on its way

Twitter has been talking for years about launching an edit button for tweets, but it still hasn't landed. This week, company boss Jack Dorsey addressed the matter again, describing a quick-edit button as "achievable."
Social Media

‘Superwoman’ YouTuber Lilly Singh taking a break for her mental health

Claiming to be "mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted," popular YouTuber Lilly Singh has told her millions of fans she's taking a break from making videos in order to recuperate.
Social Media

Facebook is rolling out a Messenger ‘unsend’ feature, and here’s how to use it

Facebook is starting to roll out a "remove message" feature for its Messenger app. It lets you delete a message in a thread within 10 minutes of sending it, and replaces it with a note telling recipients that it's been removed.