Art is constantly evolving, but if the purpose of art is to express a human truth, the Internet meme fits the bill.82 Like many other art forms, we use memes to understand, critique and share thoughts about the world around us. Exhibits on Internet memes signal their importance and pay tribute to them as cultural icon.
Bringing them and their derivatives into a gallery setting elevates them as a legitimate art form, since the art world and art market still value that. They are a highly accessible art form worthy of serious consideration, and exhibits serve to more permanently record their impact as well as give people more space and time to absorb meaning, reflect on how they affect their lives, and engage in conversations about inspiration, content, and effect. They stand as another example of a physical embodiment of a meme, underscoring their ability to take many forms and exist in many media spaces.
Previous art exhibits on Internet memes include one at the Back Room Gallery at Holdran’s Arcade in London in August 2016, called What Do You Meme? One of the curators, Maisie Post, wrote about the exhibit’s meaning:
It illustrates the transition from a simple ‘internet meme’ to ideas that have transferred from URL into IRL. They will no longer be viewed as poor taste or low culture but will be portrayed as the most democratic art form. I see memes as a type of folk art, made for the people by the people, the difference in the tools used, such as Photoshop and pixels over wood or clay. I wanted to take a different angle with memes, moving away from the 4chan boys club and showing the different communities that exist within meme culture. Memes are a running commentary on society; they are topical and give a comical twist on current affairs. Exploring this discourse within a gallery setting creates an opportunity to give resonance to memes, a practice that has been portrayed as low culture. Celebrating them and giving an alternative to the elitist nature of the art world.83
Post commented on two of the included artists, Pantyhoe$ and Meme Gold: “neither of them identified as artists—there was no role for the artist to follow and no regulations,” a nod toward the subversive freedom of art icons like Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Beuys, Sherrie Levine, and Jenny Holzer.84
Another meme exhibit was held at the Junior High gallery in Los Angeles called By Any Memes Necessary in February 2017. It focused on the realities of empathy and coping and established the work and creators as art and artist. “These are art pieces and I want people to take what we are doing a little bit more seriously” said the curator, ka5sh. In an interview with Bustmagazine, ka5sh speaks about taking a meme seriously as art:
I remember my friend was saying memes are a part of the neo-Dada movement. And I didn't know what that meant, but it sounded tight, so I googled it and I feel the same way, like this is the next wave of art. Memes have existed since the beginning of time, says the definition of memes and meme theory, so it's only fitting for these to be put into galleries. I'm Andy Warhol rn with the mf pop art content memes.’85
Ka5sh’s reference to Andy Warhol is and apt reference because of his ground-breaking work, beginning in the 1960s. He was a leading figure in the pop art movement, where he combined art, celebrity and advertising in new ways. His use of pop culture as subject matter and a non-painterly technique caused many a spectacle in the art world at that time. His famous Campbell’s Soup Cans, created in 1962 by a silk-screen process, was not considered “fine art” by many within the elite art world but became popular with everyday people. Ordinary people could understand this new art, because it reflected their world, not some unrecognizable other. Everyday life and objects and people within became valid subject matter.86
Internet memes join these other art forms of disruption and are often compared to pop art and street art. Since social media platforms have become our modern gathering space, it makes sense that they are considered the street art of the Internet. Street art runs the gamut of subject matter as well and is a highly accessible art form created by everyday people. Both art forms attempt to disrupt norms, question society, and start a visual dialogue that can speak truth to power. An Xiao Mina states:
Memes are the street art of the social web, and like street art, they are varied, expressive, and complex, and they must contend with the existing politics of our public spaces.87
Graffiti, or street art, has historically been underappreciated and considered illegitimate, if not illegal, by many in and out of the art world. Just as Internet memes are far from ephemeral, the same is true of street art — even if it is taken down quickly. The image and message embed in people’s memory and shared pictures claim additional impact on social networks.
Graffiti has had a longstanding resistance to legitimacy, even though artists such as Pablo Picasso considered it to be an innocent and pure form of expression that could inform new artistic movements like Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism.88 Classical and early modern examples were valued in academia, but otherwise considered a taboo subject until the 1970s, when the technological innovation of spray paint gave artists and their work a renewed visibility.89 Work created by everyday people not trained in art expressed an authentic truth, which differed from that of the power structure.
The Internet, social media platforms, and wide use of smartphones, gave street artists a much wider audience and led to popular and fine art mixing in new ways. Their inherent democratic and participatory characteristics flattened the distinction between “high” and “low” art, as many more people were exposed to the art form created by everyday people.
Wynwood Walls and the surrounding area in Miami stands as a monument to the legitimacy of the art form. This area was transformed from warehouse walls to large canvasses in 2009, where national and international street artists created work. Tony Goldman, the Walls creator said:
By presenting it in a new way, I was able to expose the public to something they had only seen peripherally. We have strived for a diverse representation of both American and international artists that encompasses everything from the old school graffiti artists to the newest work being created around the world. The project has truly evolved into what my friend Jeffrey Deitch calls a Museum of the Streets.90
The area continues to grow as art emanates outside of the Walls. Murals of all sizes cover buildings, garage doors, and alleyways in the surrounding area, garnering international attention.
While subject matter of street art varies, it often makes social or political commentary, including those directed at the elite art market where collector investment drives value.91 The infamous 2018 Banksy “stunt,” where one of his iconic works self-destructed just after it sold for $1.4 million at a famous London auction house, highlighted that hypocrisy.92 The rise in popularity of JR, a French street artist, is another example of internet reach, as images of his massive street art installations have been shared widely. 93
Darrin Wershler, research chair at Concordia University argues that memes, like street art, “are a type of ‘everyday Conceptualism.’ He said:
Through an ironic and playful treatment of a fragmented subject, memes break down high and low culture, disrupting ideas of originality. Memes should be understood as the digital descendants of artists such as Man Ray, Walker Evans, and Andy Warhol—all vanguards whose practices largely concerned informational and social disruptions.” 94
At the 2018 “Two Decades of Memes” exhibit (shown below) at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, NY, Brad Kim, curator and editor in chief of KnowYourMeme.com said “I want to bring [memes] to a level beyond [a joke,] and [show] how they interact with the social affairs in the world.” Museum Executive Director Carl Goodman said of the exhibit “we’re helping people look at them in a more serious way and document what is significant, influential, or inspirational as we’re living through it.”95
Memes are valid pieces of artistic expression and effect culture far beyond the digital. They embed in our consciousness, help us understand the world around us, and become part of our cultural psyche.