Once associated with the sillier side of the web, memes are leaping into the contemporary art world.
There’s no point in sugarcoating the situation. It’s already been a tough old year. Long, unspooling and gargantuan, it’s been a car crash of a situation and no matter the angle you take on the events, there’s no getting around the fact. When times are tough, though, humanity has a habit of rising from the ashes, phoenixlike, and making something out of the mess. Such has been the job of the meme this year. Once ironic and laden in barely-disguised sarcasm, the meme came into its own, helping artists and creatives alike make sense of a world that has become increasingly confusing.
How many times do you receive memes throughout the day? Once? Ten times? A hundred? Whatever your number, the digital crumb probably features somewhere in your inbox. Sprinkling a touch of universal irony onto any situation, the meme covers any and every situation, helping us deal with the mishmash of issues and opinions around us. We laugh, we relate, we feel a little better about ourselves.
There’s more to the humble meme than a belly laugh, though. Having taken on something of a cult status, the digital creation has gained the attention of the art world, blending irony and creativity into a series of work entirely telling of our times.
Since its earliest days, art has existed as a universal language, speaking to the masses without the need to utter a single word. An image alone can speak to an entire nation, or generation, appealing to people for any number of reasons. A painting was the digital image of its day. Even now, sometimes hundreds of years after its creation, a painting can speak truths. And while the contemporary meme might be created with a less existential aim in mind, its philosophy is the same: see the image, read the words, and you get what the thing is trying to communicate.
Artists like Ka5sh are taking this idea and running with it. An internet rapper and artist first and foremost, Ka5sh is changing the meme conversation once and for all, presenting the digital creation under the umbrella of fine art. Influenced by Richard Prince, the artist who exhibited other peoples’ Instagram screenshots as his own, Ka5sh applied a similar method to the meme, using the digital tool as part of a recent exhibition. By Any Memes Necessary is pop culture at its height, taking what seems like the most ephemeral communicative tool, the meme, and using it to express ideas on both empathy and coping. In a world invested in the mental health conversation, few things feel quite as pertinent to life in 2017 as this.
The premise of the show was simple, and by presenting a format at once visual and so definitive of a specific feeling, Ka5sh seemed destined to succeed. And is that not the very point of the meme — to hit the nail on the head, so to speak, and communicate to as many people as possible at one time?
The next natural step in the meme evolution might be to monetize the trend, but doing so could be a huge misstep. The format is not art as we know it and, as poignant as a meme might be to your situation right now, next week you likely will have forgotten about it. But perhaps that’s the beauty of the whole thing. Our culture — our world — is changing so rapidly that from one day to the next, you can have your belief system uprooted and replanted again and again. The meme plays into this mentality, offering us a temporary form of expression that fits, at least for a moment. And that’s by no means a bad thing. Impermanent as they might be, memes get to the heart of our way of living. In a few years we might look back on the form as a twee expression of times gone by, because they reflect the spirit of this moment. That is what art should be.