Half-Baked: After the End of Memes, Part 1

Take One: Cold

There is a read on art history that goes something like this:

Starting in ancient times and picking back up in the Renaissance, art practice generally and visual art particularly had a trajectory, and that trajectory was concerned with mimesis. That is: the reproduction of the world in as faithful a manner as possible. This pursuit leads to the production of hyper realistic marble sculptures, painting and portraiture styles of the early modern period, the pursuits of theater (increasingly) and eventually the novel. All these mediums would attempt to capture and invite the audience into the experience of lifelike re-creation. 

This trajectory–one of ever increasingly realism and faithfulness in most, if not all, art forms–faltered in the 19th and 20th century with the invention and popularization of the camera, photography and filmmaking. If cameras can easily capture a faithful image of the world… what are the rest of the arts good for? What is “art” if faithful reproduction can be done with “technology”?

In response, artists experiment with the increasingly gestural, attempting to find what art is, and is good for. This leads us to romanticism, impressionism, expressionism and the abstract arts. Painters and sculptors, playwrights, novelists, choreographers and composers don’t seek to imitate the world as it is, but express something of the ineffable experience of being in it. As artists move from expressionism and modernism into post-modernism, critics and creators develop a sense that a work doesn’t even really contain, within its bounds, all that is required to understand it. The work is a pastiche of its author’s unconscious, their social and historical context, reflects the conditions of its production, and so on. The work extends far outside the work itself, in both inspiration and influence.

And so in the early-to-mid 20th century, not a few artists started to wonder … do you need “an artist” as they have been traditionally considered? Some answers to this question lead us to Duchamp’s Fountain in 1917, and the work of Andy Warhol in the 1960s. Warhol famously reproduced endless iterations of already famously, endlessly reproduced images, making them even more famous by the very fact he reproduced them: Marilyn Monroe, Campbell’s Soup, and Brillo Boxes. 

For art theorist and philosopher Arthur C. Danto, the Brillo Box is significant. The Brillo Box is, in effect, an exacting replica of a Brillo Manufacturing Company’s soap pads box. Next to the “real thing”, one would be forgiven for not being able to pick out which is which. For Danto this fact heralded the end of art. It signaled that art’s trajectory had ended: the mimesis is so exceptional, it becomes unclear what about the art object makes it an art object. It’s no longer possible to understand or appreciate art, on its face, as faithful, technically adept re-renderings of some aspect of life. Though Warhol’s Brillo Box is exactly that, in order to understand it as a ‘work of art’ one needs to understand a set of theories – concerning pop art, commercialism, the art market, industrial design, etc. Without those theories… it is simply a box of brillo pads. For Danto, the Brillo Box marked a point where art went from having concepts, to requiring them. 

This is the point at which art ends because, in a way, it becomes philosophy. In the New York Times, Danto summarizes:

…there was no special way works of art had to look in contrast to what I have designated “mere real things.” To use my favorite example, nothing need mark the difference, outwardly, between Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box and the Brillo boxes in the supermarket. And conceptual art demonstrated that there need not even be a palpable visual object for something to be a work of visual art. That meant that you could no longer teach the meaning of art by example. It meant that as far as appearances were concerned, anything could be a work of art, and it meant that if you were going to find out what art was, you had to turn from sense experience to thought. You had, in brief, to turn to philosophy.

To be clear – there are still artworks after the end of art. There are still artists. There’s an art world. But Art, as a pursuit engaged in by a distributed group of people, producing works of historical importance… that ends. The art object had been made ephemeral to a point where the possibility of coherent historical progression becomes difficult, if not impossible. No more movements. Just artists, working independently, with their own dissimilar interests, solving their own problems, working with their own theories which audiences need to understand in order to appreciate their work. Danto, again:

… And artists, liberated from the burden of history, were free to make art in whatever way they wished, for any purposes they wished, or for no purposes at all. That is the mark of contemporary art, and small wonder, in contrast with modernism, there is no such thing as a contemporary style.

We could, if we wanted (and for now, we do want to), apply a similar art historical progression to Internet Meme History: from aims at faithful mimesis to requirement of theory for comprehension. And, just to be clear, by “internet memes” I mean, y’know, like, the expanding brain meme. Which I think we’ve progressed into the lightning segment of. 

Starting in ancient times, 1979 to be exact, “meme” was coined by notorious blowhard Richard Dawkins to explain the interpersonal transmission of cultural units of meaning. In the early 80s through early 90s Douglas Hofstadter and Mike Godwin briefly discuss particular technology-based phenomena as “memes” before we enter the dark ages, where meme production becomes a largely underground pursuit. This shifts circa 2006, with the popularization of the lolcat via 4chan, Something Awful and I Can Has Cheezburger. 

This “Meme Renaissance”, if you will, redefines the meme almost exclusively as 2D images with text atop, assembled to communicate personal insight, or humor based on that insight. If the pursuit of art was mimesis, the pursuit of internet memes became relatability: a shock of recognition at the events or thoughts depicted, or an immediacy to the humor which plays off recognizable opinions about, principally, cats. 

After a decade plus of double-meta (all the way across the sky) popular internet meme creation, that symbology is thick with meaning. Layers upon layers of jokes lead to internet memes which are cryptic lest one has been there “from the beginning” or has put in the often difficult work of catching up. The result is a body of meme-work which can appear nonsensical, unrelatable. This progression into self-reference is familiar. In “The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art,” Danto writes:

When art internalizes its own history, when it becomes self-conscious of its history as it has come to be in ourtme, so that its consciousness of its history forms part of its nature, it is perhaps unavoidable that it should turn into philosophy at last. And when it does so, well, in an important sense, art comes to an end. 

The Meme World has similarly grown “self-conscious of its history”, and so arguably is progressing towards its own trajectory ending Brillo Box: the “user” made media object which can only be understood if one understands its reference, self-reference and underlying theory. Without this theory the meme would not be understandable as such; and with the theory, one would be hard pressed to apply it meaningfully to the wide-world of meme production. This speculative meme iteration would announce the presence of an increasingly heterogenous meme-making moment, freed from historical precedent. Many meme pursuits would be undertaken by individuals, or multiple, independent polymorphous communities, and not “The Internet” as a coherent population as it was often discussed in the early modern days of internet meme creation. This speculative meme iteration would herald, in short, The End of Memes.

There are many candidates for The Brillo Box of Internet Memes. One compelling entrant is “E” 

It is not a perfect analog, stipulated. Taking potential counter arguments first, E is not – like the Brillo Box – a faithful reproduction of a pre-existing commercial object. It does not primarily produce anxiety about the difference between meme objects and “mere real things”. However, like the Brillo Box it is a reproduction of pre-existing material and only becomes meaningful when one is informed of that material’s significance, and the conditions under which it was repurposed to make the work at hand. That story is outside our scope here–as it was with the Brillo box–but if you’d like to know more, see Know Your Meme.

I hope it suffices to say: a layperson is unlikely to enjoy this work for its immediacy. It can only (or most meaningfully? this is a complex distinction) be enjoyed when one is in possession of the framing concepts, and attendant context, none of which are found in the poetry of the work itself, and relatively little of which explains additional work. 

E could thus announce the point at which the trajectory of memification as a whole, its singular aim, ends. It is no longer relatability. There are now a multitude of trajectories. Deep fried memes, twitter memes, political memes, and the advice animal hangers-on pursue their own, independent ends. Some of those ends, of course, continue the charge of meme-movements past but many–and arguably the vanguard of internet memes, the output considered when experts are asked about the state of the meme world, the meme economy, etc–they operate at a level of theoretical remove comparable to contemporary arts. 

Before he died in 2013, Danto voiced some regret at what he saw after the end of art. Visiting the 2008 Whitney Biennial, he became upset. Or perhaps just bored? He writes

…the show’s themelessness strikes me as successfully representative of the reality they were required to deal with. The art world is themeless today. It is heading in no direction to speak of. 

No unity, no collaboratively confronted problem, no shared values and therefore, perhaps, a hit to the overall pertinence of art. There are, simply, a hodgepodge of pursuits applied to inconsistent ends. How much of this is at play in the world of Internet Memes is up for discussion; if, and how much, we can consider this a shortcoming is also up for debate… one we will confront in the second, and final, half of this Half Baked Essay.

In part 2, forthcoming, we complicate both of the above narratives – that concerning the art world, and that concerning the meme world. Was there, in fact, a progression throughout the history of the arts? Was there a meme progression? Has anything actually ended? What if, in short, a fair amount of what we’ve discussed has … problems?