Memes and Museums

The Clash of New and Old Worlds


The salience of these remarks preceding the issue ahead stem from a jocular admission whose shelf life has perhaps expired. I feel like I’ve been saying it for a longer period of time, longer than the April of 2016. I was visiting Los Angeles then. I had lots of fun: Catching up with friends, pedaling the bike down to the beach every morning, and catching burgers & drinks with my California family. Among the activities included an impromptu sit-in at a UCLA School of Arts and Architecture course. It has since been the only college class I’ve ever attended. Product being the flippant, false narrative of me claiming that I’m an honorary Bruin — simply because I crashed a single art history class. This, as far as I’m concerned, however, grants me the iota of responsibility and qualification to write earnestly about art, especially in the realms of sculpture and painting. These are styles that have reduced me to tears and prolonged periods of reflection. Furthermore, plodding through the halls of art museums is among my favorite pastimes. The limited self-bestowed permission, in conjunction with my fandom for art, has made way for the following essay.

If we’re being technical, which we are for the sake of thoroughness, “meme” is a shortening of mimeme (from Ancient Greek mimema — meaning “imitated thing,” from mimeisthai “to imitate,” from mimos “mime”). So technically, memes predate their modern, internet forms by some thousands of years.

To understand memetics, we must first talk genetics. A chunk of the following information comes directly from an informative YouTube video titled “The Science of Dank Memes,” published in 2016, but still so relevant and readily available for full viewing in the hyperlink.

The word “meme” was first coined by British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his book, “The Selfish Gene” (1976), as a concept for discussion of evolutionary principles in explaining the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena.

The Meme Theory: We didn’t just evolve to spread genes, we also evolved to spread memes.

In these genetic terms, a meme is a carrier of information (like a gene carrying genetic information). Like a gene, a meme competes with other memes for survival. Genes compete with other genes because there’s only so much room in our DNA. Memes compete with other memes because our brain power and attention spans are limited.

The first of memes include when early humans made fire and language and shared it throughout their communities. This was information spread by non-genetic means.

Memes have played a role in survival, and therefore the ongoing development of evolution itself. Although, genetic evolution is a lot slower than memetic evolution. We’ve evolved to replicate memes and to recognize patterns, something humans are really good at. We are talented copiers, memory retainers, and learners — especially after having seen a meme performed i.e. someone pouring concrete.

The most successful memes are the ones that survive the longest while mutating the least. By these terms, internet memes aren’t “successful.” They spread quickly, but mutate wildly and their lifespan is short, making them less like genes and more like viruses. Which is apt terminology and a fair comparison in itself, considering that memes have the potential to go viral. For instance, I can’t tell you how hard it was to shake Lovesick Blues from my head, all thanks to the Walmart Yodel Boy.

Elaborating on the genetic analogy, the lifespan of a meme is practically its mileage, as in how far it can go with the ability to make people laugh. Once everyone in your community has developed an immunity to a virus (a meme), it cannot replicate anymore, so it dies out (unless it mutates).

Digital trends .com illustrates the lifespan of a meme like this:

Quora offers more trite and Austinite lifespan answers like, “A meme is dead once it goes mainstream.”

The Internet Meme

Memes are usually still images harvested from cartoons or screenshots related to current events and/or hot topics, the news or popular videos. These kinds of memes live exclusively online, shared and forwarded among netizens; a meme’s relevance thrives on the web.

So, if you’re not on your smartphone often, browsing through Twitter or Instagram, or if you’re simply out of the loop, it’s easy to see how one “doesn’t understand” a meme. That’s because its understanding is almost always a product of its background and origin. They are a branch off the pop culture tree.

To meme an image (to give it a funny caption) is a matter of crowd pleasing. The audience largely focuses on millennials and Gen-Z kiddos, because these age groups are constantly on the internet. The 21st century is a digital age and it’s mind boggling to think about Gen-Z, the demographic cohort following millenials. They don’t remember a world without the internet because it’s been a part of their lives since their own beginnings. Perhaps you’ve come across the other name of Gen-Z: iGen. The tag infers their closeness with the internet. Also possible: Their parents met through the internet.

A meme’s objective is in comedy; it should make others smile or laugh. Some will agree that memes are immature for their zero-regard for serious topics. Sometimes a meme goes too far and touches on subjects that shouldn’t be discussed with comical whimsicality and casualness. Like anything in comedy, the red line for these jokes are mostly subjective in themselves. However, profanity is welcomed in memes, if not encouraged. Memes are facetious, so they naturally don’t cater to the humorless.

Red lines are certainly crossed, though. For example, take Pepe the Frog.

Pepe the Frog is an online cartoon character. It first appeared in 2005, young and innocent. It later became a meme and is now one of the most famous of all, or infamous.

Once a harmless internet frog, Pepe was designated a hate symbol in the September of 2016 by the Anti-Defamation League. This was following the memes of Pepe that had surfaced from the anti-semitic branch of the political alt-right. Before this dishonorable recognition was given, Pepe was among the king of memes. He’d been tweeted by Katy Perry and he landed on Nicki Minaj’s Instagram page on multiple occasions.

Per LA Times: “The Daily Beast spoke to a white supremacist who said there had been a concerted effort on the site 4chan to ‘reclaim Pepe’ from normal people in 2015.”

The supremacist group remixed Pepe with Nazi propaganda for a laugh. Nazi Pepe made its way to Twitter, and decent people reacted accordingly to such awful hate. As a result, Pepe was killed off by his cartoon creator.

Memes are generally a meeting of imagery and text. With the allowance and space for creativity in meme making, one might ask if memes are a form of art. If we’re speaking in the genetic terms of earlier, the answer is a precarious “sometimes.” Art can be a carrier of ideas. Performance art can be replicated, as can methods and techniques of painting.

Art (speaking loosely) is an umbrella term for expression, sometimes creative. Usually nobody is hurt in art or the making of it. In the case of making memes, the text is up to whoever is thinking up a caption. Again, a measure of subjectivity comes into play here. Is the meme honestly funny? That’s up to the vox populi. However, interests and trends are subject to constant change. That’s their nature. Points of view shift rapidly, especially online. What was knee-slap funny last week is old hat today. The internet is an unforgiving place, with an insatiable appetite for fresh content.

Perhaps one of the most premium of crossroads between memes and art: The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. A recent trip down the metro’s green line had me arrive at the museum, and eventually down the rabbit hole of deep internal debate. I was thinking heavily on society and generational behaviors. As any museum in Washington D.C., it was an effervescent scene: Middle grade students on a field trip, high-chinned and unsmiling art connoisseurs sauntering about with wide strides and hands behind their backs, the peaceful elderly reading the plaques on the walls, a tight- shouldered amoeba of turbulent college boys, and families of three or four (mum looking pitifully sleepy, pushing an empty stroller around, maybe unaware that jr. disembarked, loosing a shoe in the process, and is off with older sister, probing the oil on canvas).

There was a pattern whose endurance saw no hiccup. It was impossible to ignore. All the youngsters (kids and millennials) crept up on a portrait — as a tiger weaves her way through tall grasses to stalk her prey — and snapped a photo, typed like mad on the screen, and snickered as they pressed their phones against their chests, walking away with a little more panache in their steps and a little more curls on their smiles. And I immediately knew what this was, because I, too, can be hip, and I have mature and smart friends, some of whom are proud educated products of Ivy League Universities. The aforementioned youngsters were taking photos of portraits and giving them (hopefully) original captions via Snapchat.

Art History Caps is a relatively popular Instagram page and website. It “was conceived in 2013, beginning the way most projects do: out of mutual love and sheer boredom.”

Art History Caps is an online gallery of re-imagined and rehashed, memed, portraits. It’s the source of many memed paintings. It’s a coveted digital zine among young art snappers. The pages welcome unsolicited submissions. AHC was founded by Alana and Emma, two young professional females in NYC. They are the gals in the photo below.

Images from the website’s page that is titled “the art” will fittingly be sprinkled throughout the remainder of this piece.

This is a thing. It’s an activity, a hobby of sorts with scavenger hunt-like parallels: The captioning of classic painting + portrait for the sake of humor and a possible rooted hope to go viral.

On one hand, it’s blatantly frivolous. It’s a tasteless attempt to make others laugh. It’s immature and silly. And it’s fodder for the “uncultured swine” and philistines who have no desire to bask in the glory of divine art.

On the flip side, though, it’s on to something, right? Otherwise it wouldn’t be so effective in capturing attention and traction online. The activity allows the new artist to share their caption with people on the web, friends on Insta and Snap. And when others are exposed to the meme, they are also undoubtedly exposed to the art. The meme has successfully spread information. It is possible that whoever was on the receiving end of the meme was introduced to a painting fresh to their eyes; their first impression of the painting came in the form of a meme. The figurative handshake was a laugh or grimace. In the end, the caption of a meme delivers beautiful, timeless pieces of art to people who may not have the opportunity to visit the halls of the Met or Louvre. And voila! Suddenly an entire new world has been revealed. The digital age meets the Renaissance in a strange, fascinating manifestation of doubled down human creation.

This frenzy does make way for ethical questions pertaining to things perceived sacrosanct. What is sacred? Is this art or trolling? Should this movement be taken seriously? If politics have taught us anything in the past couple of years, it’s a lesson to never count anyone/anything out. I can imagine that people will be split on the rightness and wrongness of memed portraits, but it’s important to remember that these memes were forged with silly intentions. Memes aren’t to be taken seriously, because they aren’t serious. (then why am I seriously writing about them?)

Memes in Education

Humor is essentially social. If I were a comedian and the last man on earth, I don’t think I’d be writing jokes for my livelihood or pleasure. Humor is a quality everyone should have. It can serve as a coping mechanism, dealing with it, and it’s a fabulous ice-breaker. Some studies show that humor can be a boon in education, and that it can be utilized as a tool for teachers. Several years ago, a Pew Research poll once showed that viewers of humorous news shows such as ‘The Daily Show’ “exhibited higher retention of news facts than those who got their news from newspapers, CNN, Fox News, or network stations.”

Neuroscience research reveals that humor systematically activates the brain’s dopamine (dope-meme, lol) reward system, and cognitive studies show that dopamine is vital for both goal-oriented motivation and long term memory.

Another study asked 400 college students “to document their teacher’s appropriated or inappropriate use of humor, their effectiveness as teachers, and how students perceived the humor. The results of this study showed that related, appropriate humor resulted in increased retention, while inappropriate, cruel, or unrelated humor did not.”

In a co-authored article by two pharmacists, it is further stated: “There are various positive ways to incorporate humor into the classroom. Humor can include funny stories and comments; jokes (especially self-deprecating ones); professional humor, such as linking content to mnemonic devices; cartoons; puns; riddles; top 10 lists; and comic verses.”

Memes and their humor have a long reach, undoubtedly. They have maneuvered from the smartphones in classrooms to the actual curriculum. UC Berkeley apparently has a Meme Studies Department. Cambridge also once offered a summer course entitled “Understanding and Analysis of the Meme Revolution.” I suppose, then, that memes can be taken seriously… VICE has gone as far to say that meme historians are inevitable.

The harder question asks: Are memed paintings the new way to see and share art? Is this the future Asimov foretold? If my visits to multiple museums in D.C. have shown me anything, the answer is no. People still frequent art museums en masse. But there’s a technical “it’s possible” in the answer. And it stems from knowing how good memes are at spreading. They live online, therefore having the ability to move much faster than humans. Their life on the web, for all intents and purposes, is immortal — even after deemed “not funny” or “ancient.”

Time, as it always seems to do, will answer these questions best. And I can only speak for myself. Maybe a part of me would like to believe that this is all a phase, a passing trend whose zenith no longer hangs high in the firmament. Maybe I’m too old school and just adore a trip to the museum too much.

I have a group of friends who invited me over for a “cookout” once. I was ushered to the kitchen where I discovered an ice-chest on the counter, lid open and filled with water. Protruding from the surface was an electric instrument of sorts, fastened to the edge of the sturdy container.

“It’s sous vide steak,” someone happily remarked, thinking this would appease me.

I answered, dejectedly, “I like to see fire.” It was a response that conveyed my love, and embrace, for classic gastronomy and for Americana tradition. I understand that sous vide is a cooking method used in some of the world’s most renowned and highly rated restaurants, but my preference remains with gas and flame on the range. I believe a kitchen should be hot. And if this is an outdated opinion, by all means, call me a caveman.

Having said all this, however, I’m no stranger to enjoying the hell out of a wholesome meme.

Hugo is an actor and freelance writer. He’s sometimes funny. Follow him on Twitter (@hugosaysgo) for random thoughts and on Instagram (@hugosnaps) for photography. Happy reading.

Freelance writer. Athlete. Texan. I consume a lot of news and my secretary looks a lot like me, but with glasses on. Email: