Thinking About Memes
After the panel on Art, Memes, and Blockchain at the National Arts Club
By Yehudit Mam
This dry-as-a-bone definition does not begin to describe the effect memes have on us. In fact, they are the most important popular art form of the 21st century.
Like art, memes are creative, and extremely expressive. Whether they are a sole image or a combination of words and pictures, memes have the ability to communicate sophisticated ideas powerfully and immediately.
They are popular because they are anonymously created, and they are ubiquitous. Their success is not measured in profits, it is measured in virality. It’s measured in how much a meme resonates with the biggest number of people, and also in how many different riffs can be inspired by a brilliant meme.
Memes are a spontaneous, immediate response to our zeitgeist, which they enrich by having a dialog with it.
Different cultures spawn their own memes, or memes get adapted by different cultures with their own particular nuances. But some transcend borders and reach universality. They also seem to transcend their original subject. Whether it’s Hitler having an unhinged meltdown or a hapless Spanish lady taking it upon herself to restore a Christ fresco, memes pare it down to the true essence of its subject. I have watched many iterations of the Hitler Downfall meme. The creators closely follow and mimic the dramatic rules of the scene and all its twists and turns by inserting their own preoccupations, from a lack of features in the iPad, to sold out Springsteen tickets, to Disney buying Marvel, even to too many Hitler Downfall parodies. The memes actually lay bare how well-constructed the scene is dramatically speaking, but even as they hijack the subject, they play on several layers of meaning, including casting a mocking eye on power structures, sheeple, groupthink, human meltdowns, as well as fanatical obsessiveness, just to name a few.
Successful memes can be revisited millions of times. If they have at their core a human insight, they will remain fresh. This may be my favorite meme of all time.
To this cat, the idea that his owner has any sort of control over him is ludicrous. As millions of cat memes attest, this is true of the relations between cats and humans. But let’s parse the action: We find the cat, obviously bored with the TV, investigating a small glass cup. At first we hear the woman chuckling softly as the cat throws down the remote instead. Having satisfactorily pushed the remote off the table, the cat then returns his attention to the little glass cup. The owner emphatically orders the cat not to even think about it. What happens next is the most remarkable display of effrontery in the annals of animal husbandry. The cat looks at her, suspends his paw next to the cup as he continues looking at her, and, with utter sangfroid and nonchalance, pushes it off the table anyway. You can hear her noes turn from a command, to pleading, to bewilderment, to final surrender. There is more real behavior, let alone dramatic escalation, in these 36 seconds of video than in entire movie franchises.
But there is also a creative and curatorial decision at play. This lady recognized the power of what just transcended and was enlightened enough to post her shitty little video on You Tube, horizontality be damned. Moreover, she had the good judgement to end the video right at the punchline (probably because she stopped shooting, but still). I don’t know who she is, I don’t know if she got her 15 minutes of fame. Not being an American probably prevented her from imagining that she could parlay this into a lucrative career for her Gato Malo (Evil Cat), like that of the famous Grumpy Cat, who actually has an agent. She remains my anonymous hero, an unwitting, self-effacing and selfless artist.
The magnificent wonder of it all is that memes are free. A gift from the interwebz, always there for your pleasure when you run into them. Most of the time, the best stuff comes straight to you. It has already been stamped with the seal of approval of millions of shares. A common thread of human understanding, mostly through humor.
Consider the infamous Señora Cecilia. At first, she was mocked:
But then, for a moment in time, her colossal blunder put art on the forefront of social media, even the news. Her memes questioned what is art. Who is an artist? They recognized that art is not easy. They also recognized that volunteering, no matter how well-intentioned, needs to be tempered by an awareness of your own skill set.
Sadly, not all memes are benign. Memes that are created expressly to disinform, manipulate and defame are propaganda. They tend to be leaden and unappealing except to rabid ideologues or greasy losers lurking in message boards. They may not be as massively shared as crazy cats or doges, but they are extremely harmful. The Nazis’ extermination strategy included years of the sustained use of dehumanizing images that normalized and encouraged the hatred of Jews and minorities in Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe.
So even if it’s used ironically, a noxious image’s destructive DNA remains. You may be able to scrub an innocent little frog from alt-right associations, but a malignant stereotype cannot be whitewashed.
Meme monetization and tokenization is already happening with projects like Rare Pepes, an instance of a meme that was saved from infamy and put to good creative and very lucrative use. Because of open source coding, many possibilities await creators and collaborators.
I am all for artists making a living from their work. Still, I wonder how marketing will affect the unfettered, free, anonymous, spontaneous, intrinsically collaborative and improvisational essence of memes? Louis Parker of Archetype.mx, a meme distribution platform, says that memes are competitive. They are in that they try to best each other at the same game, which results in adding expressive value to the whole meme; but at the same time, they seem to me to be essentially collaborative, because they are frictionless and permissionless.
Are people going to want to pay to own a meme, or to riff on one? How will the quality and the content of memes evolve as they are massively commodified? What imaginative leaps will blockchain technology inspire in meme creation? I can’t wait to find out.