Memes are unavoidable. Whether it be politics, pop culture, Wendy’s franchises, or a dated meme texted to you from your grandma on “kids these days,” there is no escaping the fact that they have permeated our social fabric. If society holds these memes in such high regard, should we consider these memes art?
To determine whether or not memes are considered art, I should first define what exactly art is. The Oxford Dictionary defines art as “The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination ... producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” Now the question becomes, what is a “meme”?
The term “meme” was actually introduced by British author Richard Dawkins in his book “The Selfish Gene.” Dawkins used the term to explain the rapid spread of ideas or cultural phenomena. Therefore, anything that rapidly gains popularity and reaches diverse populations around the world could be considered a meme.
In the modern context, memes have evolved faster than ever due to the interconnectivity of social media and the internet. Thousands of subcultures have developed to fit the niche sensibilities of very seasoned “memelords.”
In this article, I will mainly focus on Reddit meme culture, only because of the high variability offered by its system of subreddits. But, this is not to disparage other sources, like Instagram, Twitter, 4chan, but not Facebook.
From grumpy cat and other saccharine, harmless memes back in 2008 to absurdist, existential memes on subreddits such at “r/me_irl,” “r/surrealmemes,” “r/dankmemes,” “r/bonehurtingjuice,” or “r/othepelican,” there is little structure to meme culture as it has become increasingly self-referential.
So why do people connect over posts as simple as the single word “nice” or an abstract rendition of a four-panel 2008 comic titled “Loss”?
These niche examples of meme culture demonstrate the propensity for people to want to be “in” on a joke, no matter how absurd the content is. When someone can take a popular trend and cleverly manipulate the formula to the point that it is just barely recognizable, the audience can share in the realization that they have ingrained themselves enough in the community to understand the reference. This instant gratification feeds the cycle and keeps those who consider themselves connoisseurs of quality memes coming back to pounce on the next short lived trend.
When memes are not purely appreciated for their familiarity, they can be indications of larger cultural and mutual experiences. On campus at the UW, complaints over housing, grades, college anxieties, and the terrible new Crafted in the HUB are represented through cleverly contrived memes that allow students to bond over their mutual opinions on campus life.
Racially focused communities such as “r/blackpeopletwitter,” which compiles especially noteworthy content posted by black Twitter users is a great example. The subreddit is perhaps the best example of people using the power of memes’ spreadability and adaptability to raise awareness for common experiences among black people from their upbringing to everyday life. This movement is not like that of other artists who use their work, whether it be through music, literature, or painting, to convey the experiences of minorities in society.
A Los Angeles community art space called Junior High opened an exhibition tracing the development and cultivation of meme culture throughout the internet age. The figurehead behind the show was prominent Instagram “memer” @Ka5sh. The purpose of the installation was to promote the ability of memes to display how common experiences of a generation can promote empathy for difficult or sad experiences. Connecting with large groups of people over such specific commonalities fosters an “if we don’t laugh, we cry” mentality. The mindset gives young adults the sense of acceptance and comradery that cannot be merely explained with “memes are only jokes.”
Let’s return to the definition of art I chose to use for this piece.
Do memes demonstrate an application of human creative skill and imagination? Absolutely. Like any other medium of art, some content creators put more effort into their works than others. However, sometimes someone will put in hours of work just so that they can subvert expectations and enhance the meme past its current stage of development. Meme appreciation typically resides in the details. The awareness that creators spend so much time on such a disposable joke is what adds to the humorous appeal.
For the second part of the definition, we can delve into whether they are actually appreciated for their emotional power.
Many modern art installations aim at creating a visceral immediate reaction without aspiring beyond that first, instant sensation. This foundation is not unlike many meme trends, especially some of the more obscure subcultures, such as “r/surrealmemes,” which are geared toward creating uncomfortable laughs. There is a reason memes have exploded into the public eye as a defining characteristic of our generation: People love them. They are a glimmer of laugher that is always available and offers constant content that is always evolving, keeping the base engaged. There is emotional power in that purpose.
There is a reason the UW Teens For Boundless Memes page is perhaps the most active UW-centric Facebook page with over 20,000 followers.
It’s because memes are art.
Don’t @ me.
Reach writer Charlie Kappes at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @cjkapp