Art is dead. Long live Dada.
Just over a hundred years ago, Cabaret Voltaire – an artistic nightclub featuring avant-garde and often ludicrous performances of poetry, music and dance – opened its doors in Zurich, signifying the launch of a radical new art movement: Dada. Fiery and unapologetic, Dadaism arose out of the wake of World War I as a politically left, anti-war, anti-bourgeois anti-art. There was no clear directive, no goal or greater purpose. Dada was a reaction: a way to express disillusionment not only with war, but with capitalism, technology, nationalism – with the whole damn nonsensical world. Dadaist art mirrored this insensibility through works of sheer absurdism. Ruling art conventions and the status quo were rejected. Everyday objects were altered to be useless and elevated to ‘art’, and techniques like collage and assemblage became all the rage. Dada rode high until after World War II, when the mixture of post-war anxiety and Marshall-Plan optimism saw in the rise of movements like abstract expressionism and pop art.
Dada is dead. Long live Meme.
Memes have been around for almost as long as there’s been internet, but recent years have seen a proliferation the likes of which we could never have imagined in the days of Dancing Baby and All Your Base Are Belong To Us, way back in the nineties. Or even back in the noughties. Spurred on by the rise of social media and, arguably, by the vast swathes of time available to millennials working ‘bullshit’ office jobs (see the work of anthropologist David Graebe who argues that these kinds of bullshit jobs make up over half of societal work at present), memes have become both a mode of communication and a necessarily participatory art movement.
While rickrolls, Lolcats, Condescending Wonkas and Success Kids embody the respectable face of meme culture, they are merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Using found images rather than found objects, the vast majority of memes are works of Dada-esque absurdism, their political and social commentary refracted through a prism of humour or inanity. Their juxtaposition of random image and text roundly mocks everything and everyone, holding no punches and taking no prisoners. Though memes are seen as farcical and inane (especially by older generations) and often make little sense without context, when taken collectively, they speak to the confusion and meaninglessness of modern life. This combination of not-art and oblique social commentary make memes closely analogous to 20th century Dadaism, peppered with that particular millennial mix of morbidity and irreverence.
(Image by The-Rucoon)
Riffing off a viral 2016 meme depicting a green frog riding a unicycle with the words “here come dat boi / o shit waddup!” (the origins of which are convoluted and nonsensical but involve a newscast regarding the ‘most wanted criminal arrested’ and Pacman), the above image shows meme culture at the height of its self-aware splendour. The image was created by The-Rucoon, whose other work is an eclectic mix of fan art and mythology-inspired semi-erotica, and posted on DeviantArt.
Weird, pointless and kinda confusing, the popularity of Dat Boi and memes like him speak to our cultural moment with morbid sincerity. A reddit copypasta explains it this way:
u want to know why I love dat boi? Dat boi is a completely self-made meme. So many other memes are based in nostalgic childrens shows, funny faces, relatable situations, or references. Not dat boi. Dat boi is completely absurd. It’s a low-res frog on a unicycle, and an arbitrary method for greeting him. The first person to ever upvote dat boi did not do so out of recognition. The first person to ever upvote dat boi did not do so because a pre-existing meme format. The first person to ever upvote dat boi upvoted a meme literally pulled from the ether by sheer human creativity and willpower. Dat boi is evidence that humans can stare into the meaningless void of eternity and force their own meaning onto to it. I will always upvote dat boi, o shit waddup!
These are absurd times, and memes, like a contemporary Dadaism, reflect as much: now with all the speed and urgency of the internet age. It’s no coincidence that they are predominantly generated by millennials. Not only do millennials have the worst economic prospects of any generation born after the Great Depression, but we came of age in a world of terror, fake news, climate change, proxy wars (Iraq, Syria, Yemen), police brutality, immigration battles, racism and sexism and homophobia and all the other bigotries that the civil rights movements fought against. We grew up in a world of chaos and our art reflects our discontent, epitomised in nihilistic and cynical memes like ‘Simpsons pictures that I gone and done’, a series of bizarre naïve-art style illustrations of pop culture figures with equally absurd captions, or 2018’s Eating Tide Pods meme (which, in its earlier iteration, was a much darker riff on suicide by way of bleach).
(Posted on @TheSimpsonArt Facebook page)
(Posted on @MrRamgon9’s twitter account, this meme epitomises the intricate randomness of meme culture. It’s laid out in the familiar Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse meme style, this time with each horseman represented by an internet trend. Famine is represented by a Tide Pod because that’s what everyone on the internet was eating in 2018; war is Knuckles from Sonic the Hedgehog, which is pretty hard to explain but involves people using a 3D rendering of Knuckles in VR to start fights while quoting violent Ugandan action movies; death is YouTube celebrity Logan Paul from an infamous 2017 video in which he went to Japan’s suicide forest and came across a body, which he then filmed; and pestilence actually has nothing to do with pestilence and everything to do with a 1930s cartoon with the line “somebody touched my spaghet!” which the internet found very funny and which infamous douchebag YouTuber PewDiePie used in a video he put up in defence of an earlier video that he posted criticising Logan Paul for the suicide forest stunt and which YouTube took down because it was bullying.)
These are absurd times, and memes, like a contemporary Dadaism, reflect as much: now with all the speed and urgency of the internet age.
Like Dada in its inception, memes are not seen as art. Usually, they’re cast aside as internet junk, distinctly low brow albeit sometimes funny. Often, they engender confusion and frustration. People just don’t get them and most of the time, there’s nothing to get. They are the modern-day equivalent to Duchamp’s Fountain (an inverted urinal on a pedestal with R. Mutt 1417 scrawled on the side) and the contemporary answer to Man Ray’s Gift (a flatiron with tacks stuck to it that Ray gave the composer Erik Satie after stopping at a hardware store on the way home from a night out). Memes flirt just as outrageously with the dichotomy between art and object as Dadaism did; except unlike Dada, they don’t make a deal of it. Memes just are: no explanation necessary.
Writing in the May 1917 issue of The Blind Man, Duchamp said: “Whether Mr Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life and placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object.”
Memes are the radical extension of this conception of art: images and gifs are sourced, photoshopped and captioned only to be passed on from user to user and altered – sometimes to the point that they are no longer recognisable. Every user is given complete control of the meme and empowered to disappear its significance under their point of view, whatever that point of view is. The Harambe meme, for example, started off as users expressing grief at the death of the gorilla; it was then co-opted by people making fun of the mourners by sticking Harambe into tribute images with celebrities that had died in 2016; it briefly (and disgustingly) became a racist joke about Adam Goodes; then finally, it somehow settled as Dicks Out For Harambe. Dadaism on steroids.
As exemplified by Harambe, radical co-option has a downside: memes are easily appropriated and can be used to spread vitriol and propaganda. Probably the most famous example of this is Pepe the Frog, which originates from Boy’s Club, a comic by artist Matt Furie. By 2015 it was one of the most popular memes on Tumblr and 4chan with numerous iterations including Sad Frog, Angry Pepe and a number of Rare Pepes. In 2016 Pepe was associated with the Trump campaign and was then appropriated by the alt-right movement as a symbol of white nationalism.
Memes just are: no explanation necessary.
While all memes allow user control, some specifically require partial effacement and redrawing. Captioned memes like Good Guy Greg, Grumpy Cat or Ridiculously Photogenic Guy speak not only to the creation of a new thought for that object, but also reflect Dadaist ideas about randomness, as well as pop art and Oulipo critiques of mass-produced art. While captioned memes are generally seen as ‘just for shits-and-giggs’, they often contain political messages or social commentary, intentionally or otherwise. The Good Guy Greg and Scumbag Steve dichotomy, for example, expresses both an idealism for the potential of human kindness and a cynical acknowledgement that people are dicks. Other captioned memes have been used to express opinions on everything from job security to reproductive rights.
(Posted on Twitter by @IAmSteezus)
The politics of this modern Dada isn’t always as overt as a caption. The Bath Bomb meme, which directly parodies a trend of similar, sincere videos featuring Lush bath bombs, sees people filming themselves dropping insoluble objects – everything from lettuce to laptops – into bathtubs, mocking both our need for useless aesthetics and our consumerist impulses. Indeed, critique of consumerism is built into the meme model. New products are churned out to replace the barely-old at a rate that belies belief. So too are new memes. Like products, memes have planned obsolescence. The very fact that memes are intangible, that they flow from virility to obscurity, that they are transient, impermanent and replaceable, reflects and mocks the capitalist imperative. As does the fact that memes, without exception, are free to view and share.
Technology, which itself makes memes possible, isn’t given a free pass either. Vaporwave –which is a music genre as well as a meme: think 80s and 90s mood music – is a heavy slap of neon, anime, glitch art, 3D-rendered objects, retro computer fonts and Japanese script, reminiscent of Dadaist collage and speaking directly to the failure of tech to give us the future we were promised. Surreal gridded landscapes in bright pinks and blues suggest a futuristic utopia, usually undermined by a sculptural bust to remind us that we’re just as stuck as the statue. Nyan Cat, whose rainbow iterations are thousand, provides a similar surreal commentary, with every like and share demanding: is this really what we’re doing with all our technology?
(An example of Vaporwave from Byte)
(An example of Dadaist Hannah Höch’s collage: ‘From an Ethnographic Museum No. XII: The Holy Mountain’, 1927)
Even memes like Doge have a subtle political message, undermining the sanctity – read: elitism – of language. Dadaists were concerned with language as a conduit through which rules are constructed and conveyed, seeking to expose the contradictions between words and meanings through wordplay or actions like turning letters into abstract forms to make them illegible. Memes recognise language as a class signifier and subvert this elitism through a disregard for punctuation, grammatical structures and proper spelling. Dada had puns, but our modern dissatisfaction with language is expressed through a super cute shiba inu and self-aware comic sans. There is, of course, a performative irony in many of the ‘mistakes’ made in memes, but even the unintentional ones are infused with contempt for linguistic and syntactical elitism – mistakes are not fixed before the memes are shared.
(As is the nature of the internet, in between beginning this piece and posting, this particular image has disappeared into depths that not even a google reverse image search can penetrate.)
While memes may embody high-brow philosophical ideas, they are neither dogmatic nor academic. They offer a relatively egalitarian approach to media production and can be created and shared by anyone with a computer and access to the internet, allowing for a flood of new material every day. It hardly matters that meme creators do not intend to create art, nor that meme creators do not consider themselves artists. The designation was dodged by the Dadaists too. To quote George Grosz and John Heartfield:
“The title ‘artist’ is an insult.
The designation ‘art’ is an annulment of human equality.
The deification of the artist is equivalent to self-deification.”
Despite this hedging, Dadaists came at the production of their not-art with a high brow. Dadaism is intellectual, cultured, intentionally anti-art. Meme production isn’t any of these things. It aims for entertainment rather than pure absurdity and as such, it manages to cast aside the exclusivity that made Dada inaccessible to normal people. What is produced in Dada and in Meme, however, is something against social convention, something difficult to define as ‘art’ in the typical sense, but something that nonetheless captures the cultural zeitgeist. So what if the art is photoshopped cats and the artists are an amorphous mass of usernames and avatars?
Art is dead. Long live Meme.
Dženana Vucic is a Bosnian-Australian writer, editor and critic. Dženana copyedits for The Lifted Brow and Brow Books, among others, reads poetry for Overland and is the former Associate Editor for Arts, Culture and Books at In Review. She has been published in Farrago, Above Water, In Review, Film Focus, Dialect, Lip Magazine and Junkee.com.
Image by Marc-Anthony Macon on Flickr.