Half-Baked: After the End of Memes, Part 2

Take Two: 🔥Hot🔥

In Part One of this two part, Half Baked Essay we discussed a number of parallels between internet memes, and fine art (mostly visual). Specifically, building upon the work of art critic and philosopher Arthur Danto, I showed how the historical progression of art is seen in internet memes.Were the fine arts’ starting point was mimesis and memes’ relatability, they have both arrived – so a popular narrative goes – at inscrutable self referentiality. To put this another way: obscurity is lit fam *dab* yeet

To review, Danto’s argument is that visual artists concerned temselves with ever greater degrees of verisimilitude until the camera. With machinery capable of capturing images of utmost fidelity, visual atists moved towards the gestural and conceptual looking for untrodden territory. 

Danto describes art history as “cognitive progress” (akin to the sciences) where artists search for a particular piece of knowledge: what is art?[1] Danto viewed Andy Warhol’s “Brillo Box” as announcing the conclusion of this search. The box marked “the end of art” by making clear what art isn’t: art objects need not be any particular thing. They could in fact be any or no thing. 

This realization frees artists to do whatever they wish: no longer do the circumstances of their moment require that they adhere to some stylistic expectation. This, in Danto’s estimation, ends the historical progression of art. When anything is possible, the narrative of art ends (though artworks and artists persist).

I put forth “E” as the climax of a meme narrative which echoes Danto’s but isn’t it exactly. This narrative casts internet memes as “neo dadaism”: the absurdity of Dadaism, so it is argued, was determined by its historical moment and flight from artistic logic and reason. The absurdity of shitposting, then, is determined by our historical moment and flight from populist relatability. Both are bat-shit inflection points along a progression which started off, more or less, hunky-dory. 

Similar to the Where The Hell Do We Go From Here-ness of Brillo Box, we may ask where we go from E. Can memes be any (or even no) particular thing? Has their history stopped, though memesters soldier on? If you’ll permit me the luxury of arguing against myself, here in part two we’ll complicate these narratives: that of art’s trajectory, and internet memes’ as well.

To start, the art historical progression – representationalism, camera, abstraction, Warhol, fracture – is attractive, but fraught. 

and also that

We will tackle these claims in order.

On the broadest scope, Danto’s description of art as “cognitive progress” – leading towards a moment where we learn finally what art is – is indicative of teleological reasoning.[2] Teleology looks for the value of things based on their outcome or purpose, and when applied to history it runs a high risk of reducing the complex whole of human action to oversimplified steps towards some end point. 

People do plan and work towards goals, individually and collectively. We may hope for certain outcomes and if we’re lucky, attain them. But the teleological view totalizes the vast and often competing pursuits of disparate individuals and collectives. It coheres them into a single evolutionary vector. Many of us do not, for instance, view the global relapse to fascism as “progress” though teleology may look back and describe how we were “always” headed here. Laborers then and now did and do not view the industrialization or algorithmicification of various forms of labor as “forward thinking” though new technology is almost exclusively cast as an advance. As philosopher of history David Carr writes, those who see a telos, or ultimate aim, in such a “mixed picture” do so “because they were looking for it.” (History and Theory 56, no. 2) [3]

This is no different in art, as it is in politics, or labor. The idea that photography’s fidelitous representation of life caused artists to mount a pioneering search for art’s purpose and that they worked towards abstraction – away from mimesis – and that this progression involves building knowledge about the essential nature of art… is true only when made true. This narrative is one which – if it were not controversial in theory – is also questionable in practice.

Throughout all of human history, we find evidence of abstraction (the smoke, imo, to conceptual art’s fire, but granted: this argument warrants more support than it will get presently). Some of the earliest works of art – by some estimations the earliest works of art at all – are abstract. This year, archaeologists discovered a set of cave paintings in Spain which date back 66,700 years. Made by Neanderthals, the paintings do include “the outline of a human hand” but also “long lines [and] patterns of dots.” In other words: abstract art.

Continuing through history, many patterns found on ancient and early modern pottery from China, South America and other civilizations are decidedly abstract. 

The 15th century Japanese artist Sesshū Tōyō pioneered a style of landscape painting called haboku wherein the artist renders their subject in gestural, otherworldly clouds and rivulets of ink, abandoning strict representationalism for a nearly abstract, monochromatic proto-impressionism.

Once we arrive at the midcentury, Western genre of Abstract Art™ there are also influences which challenge the tidy narrative of a singular drive towards the non-figurative from the mimetic, and in response to the camera. Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, two painters who began their careers as Romantics but ended them as Expressionists and who would heavily influence the abstract expressionists, were themselves heavily influenced by the abstraction of Sub-Saharan African art.

Danto’s counter arguments to these challenges could take several forms. Neanderthals, he may say, didn’t intend to make art or did so before there was a sense of art for the sake of art.[4] Or that works from Asia and South America were made in different “pictographic cultures” (End of Art, 91) or “artworlds”: cultural contexts and art infrastructures which encourage particular art practices. 

In After the End of Art Danto does acknowledge, in a passage about Picasso’s visit to an African masks show at the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro, that a lamentable popular attitude towards African art at the time was to find it barbaric and tasteless. He explains that the beauty of modernism is an end to the “tyranny of taste”, thus finally welcoming African art into the museum and confirming what “collectors” have known all along: that this work is aesthetically, formalistically worthwhile. 

But there is no pause to consider the work of different peoples is perhaps the result of different tastes, not an absence of it. Or that Non-Western art is significant sans-aesthetes, collectors and museums… that it has been excluded – regarded as barbaric – for reasons which determine, rather than are determined by, “taste”. And finally, that these works have not been welcomed into modern art museums in their own right, often serving only to provide context for the work of Americans and Europeans or as the spoils of colonialism. 

Here we encounter shortcomings of the “cognitive progress” of art telos specifically, outside of teleology generally: Art practice has always been fractured, with countless artists working towards their own ends, for any (or no) reason. Were we to refine our subject to Commercially Relevant Art in The West Since 1500, say, we may have a better case but on the view of “art” as such, building knowledge about it hasn’t been a cumulative process but much parallel work and constant rediscovery, towards many and varied ends.

To our own ends, we turn finally to the camera. In the 1860s some artists and critics declared the “death of painting” at the hands of photography. But counter to such a pronouncement visual duplication technology has been used in service of pre-existing art practice, not seen as a threat to it, since the mid-16th century. The Hockney-Falco thesis, which is controversial, posits that the hyperrealism of portraiture in the Renaissance is thanks to the camera obscura, camera lucida, and technologies like them. 

Philosopher of science and technology Don Ihde points out, though, that the Hockney-Falco thesis is likely only controversial because it augments the human hand, considered by many art critics and historians – especially those concerned with the Renaissance – to be the only, and purest source of painted artworks. Ihde describes the camera obscura as a “familiar” painting aid as early as DaVinci, and calls its use uncontroversial “common knowledge” (Ihde, “Art Precedes Science: or Did the Camera Obscura Invent Modern Science?”). 

In modernity the photographic camera has likewise aided, augmented and inspired the hand of the painter, as a method for capturing moments that are later recreated in paint or for the creation of a base layer that is then – in the terminology of one artist – “overpainted”.

The long and short being: far from (or: meaningfully in addition to being) a challenge to pre-existing visual art practice, the camera was incorporated into it. The movement from representationalism, through abstraction (smoke) and into conceptual art (fire) was not a movement away from new technology but more of a drunk walk forward, backwards and sideways through a multitude of possibilities in response to and also simply nearby it. 

What _made it_ and where we _ended up_ and what became the _focus_ of some few dozen painters in America and Europe doesn’t comprise a conclusion to the global practice of art, nor conclude a forward progression in knowledge about that practice. What is ordained by the commercial market in New York and Paris as “art” should not be mistaken as some pronouncement about the essential nature or narrative of the arts. Warhol’s Brillo Box, Ryman’s white paintings, Duchamp’s Fountain are artifacts of one particular microcosm of that global practice, albeit a microcosm suffused with personnel influential enough to write and then confirm its history, impact and legacy. 

Don’t get me wrong – Brillo Box is rad and important and I love it for all the reasons Danto does and more… but its creation, display and impact are all – for lack of clearer term – accidental. Brillo Box (or, really, the possibility of something like it existing) is not the result of a long iterative and universal process towards some unavoidable climax – ‘if art begins, it must end and here is where it does that’. It is the result of countless circumstantial factors in and outside of art, occurring in a time and place which would eventually become historical, but which was determined neither by History, nor some fundamental aspect of Art’s being. It is all – like much of the art of its time – a “mixed picture”.

Now … It has a been a long diatribe, this. You’re probably wondering: what about the maymays? What of these lessons may we transport to DON’T SAY IT DON’T SAY IT DON’T SAY IT DON’T SAY IT DON’T SAY IT DON’T SAY IT DON’T SAY IT DON’T SAY IT DON’T SAY IT DON’T SAY IT, the big cow or basically everything posted on tiktok?

Much like the now-complicated narrative “art got more abstract over time thanks to the camera” there is a similar sentiment that internet memes have gotten weirder; that we have gone from the relative clarity and comfort of lolcats and demotivational posters to the maximal inanity of dat boi, deep fried spongebob, and meme man. Pursuant to our discussion of ancient abstract cave art, we may ask: were there inscrutable, inane or absurd memes of yore? 

I think a case can be made that Mr. T Ate My Balls (or “AMB”, as it were) or the Dancing Baby exhibit a level of “no thats it – that’s the joke” absurdity familiar today. Digging even further back, Luke Vaxhacker and the DEC Wars, kibology, and even some of the more notorious faxlore entries were difficult-slash-impossible to understand without a kind of context, or backstory investigation also familiar to contemporary audiences curious why everyone is joking about the energy of big dicks. There is much work to be done, I think, in collecting the memes of these pre-www communities, to show how and if the predilections of internet inside-humor have changed or – more likely, I think – persisted. In other words: where the Michael Dukakis Memes at?

Alas, this internet archaeology task is outside the scope of this present study. And so we may consider not just the argument that memes have gotten weirder… but ask, on that argument’s own terms, why? What was the internet meme’s camera? This would be the thing which, in this narrative, ostensibly inspires modern meme creators to distance themselves from the stylistic norms of their previous work, and move towards remote aesthetic territories (in fact: historically familiar territory).

If you’ll permit, I’ll take the “memes got weirder” narrative at face value and offer my guess about what precipitated such a shift. Then I’ll argue against that argument. I know it’s like having your cake and eating it too – but I think I’ll summarize a familiar narrative listen the essays are called half baked for a reason ok The camera of internet memes was

Normies – normal people showin up and bein all “what’re these memms you got here? funny pictures of cats I like funny pics roflmao” 

The communities responsible for the upsurge of internet memes during the mid-and-late 2000s were resistant, and even hostile, to the use and enjoyment of their work by outsiders. If those posting on 4chan’s /b/, for instance, caught wind of a story which would likely inspire an influx of newbs, they would post reams of gore or pornography to dissuade return. Websites like icanhazcheezburger and 9gag were seen as thieves, and profiteers. 

Increasing inscrutability, then, became a tactic to keep inside jokes maximally inside, acting against the perceived relatability of more legible meme formats. The proliferation of raw materials – in the form of photographs, tv stills, stock images, and so on – allowed memers to create reference dense work, with purposeful image over-compression acting as (early-internet nostalgia sure but also) metaphor for ~dankness~ … as if this specimen was pulled from the bottom of some 2001 internet scrap heap and barely dusted off before display. 

Except – nom nom nom cake – the relatability of those earlier internet memes wasn’t so given. In the “”earlier”” days of The Meme “””Renaissance””” (circa 2007) it was not uncommon for general audiences to regard lolcats with the same confusion Johny Johny Yes Papa is met with today. A tilt of the head. A slow blink. A decisive “I don’t get it.” This attitude may seem foreign now, but the wide[ish] adoption of lolcats, demotivators, advice animals and the image macro in general was a long, complex process. One could view the stylistic shift of later memes not as a move towards increased inscrutability but an attempt to maintain a familiar inscrutability. Like the arts, we might argue that the “progress” of internet memes has not been cumulative, but a drunk walk forwards, backwards, side to side… exhibiting much parallel work and constant rediscovery. But towards many and varied ends? I think yes.

Case in point: as the camera was both subsumed and shunned by pre-existing visual art practice, “normie” memes were cited as inspiration for the increased complexity of memes-at-large while their vernacular was adopted by shitposters, causing marked influence on meme-fare deemed paradigmatically weird by, like, yknow, Vice. 

Obscurant formatting, low resolution, confessional details, and non-sequitur subject matter are but a few of the stylistic meme-norms in communities stereotypically replete with moms, olds, and normals. This vernacular has traveled outside of these supposedly lay-communities, and significantly informed the hardened shitposting style normally held up as the vanguard of meme-making. 

We can complicate the progress of memes from relatability to inscrutability in the same way we did the progress of art from mimesis to abstraction. We can see how attitudes considered polar ends of one progression have been at play throughout, and how cause and effect is not a single track of ordered events. 

Have we seen art, or memes, end? I don’t think so. We’ve seen that they persist now as they always have. Far from a moment without narrative – with progress impossible because there can be no further development in our understanding about the true nature of the thing – we find a moment of upheaval and impact, but also one of familiar return. A mixed picture, if you will.

That we may so readily compare and contrast fine art and internet memes as we have here, gestures I think towards some continued reckoning. The intersection of material culture, personal expression, and technology – the complexity of copyrights, reproduction, ownership and authorship – the vagaries of tone, irony, sarcasm, earnestness – the presence, importance and role of audience in a heavily mediated culture defined by many fleeting art experiences – to me this seems a particular moment. A next step in some senses, a repeat of previous circumstances in others … but a moment where I do feel invited to ask, earnestly, what art “is”. 

Daily we concern ourselves with who makes, shares and sees creative output – where it is shown and why – what it is worth and to whom. Perhaps this is an indication we haven’t reached an end, but another beginning *dab* yeet, fam

— NOTES —

[1] Danto refined this argument throughout his long career. For both parts of this Half Baked study, we draw principally from his mid-80s essays The End of Art and The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art, published in a collection of the same name, as well as segments of his book After the End of Art: Contemporary Art in the Pale of History, first published in 1996. For this piece, also, we’ll forgo an argument against applying an already controversial conclusion about the sciences to the arts: “There is no internal reason for us to think that science, or art, has to be endless, and so there was always a question that would have to be faced, as to what post-progressive life would be like.” (The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art, 97).

[2] Danto’s ideas are heavily influenced by Georg Hegel, an OG of teleology and from whom Danto borrowed the phrase “the pale of history”. 

[3] This, incidentally, is also a compelling argument against the claim we’re continually building on knowledge gained in the past. Much to the contrary, it would seem humanity needs to re and re-relearn many lessons. But computers keep getting smaller so like /SHRUGGY GUY I guess? We’ll return to this argument a few times.

[4] Quite an aside here: In a later piece of writing (History and Theory, Vol. 37), responding directly to some of his critics, Danto discusses art criticism’s penchant for disenfranchisement: finding reasons to say that some such work isn’t, in fact, art. He finds this disappointing, and frustrating – saying that when works lead critics, curators and art lovers to ask “But is it art?” the result is always a net good. “We can even ask whether there was…” he posits, “‘art before the era of art’”, quoting a favorite scholar of his: Hans Belting. He questions if cave painting may in fact be art, though it existed before the concept of art. This, given how I understand much of Danto’s work, is surprising. How does this fit into his larger art historical philosophy? Perhaps it is only after the end of art, where art can be any or no thing, that we are able to invite, so to speak, those things which at their time were “not art” into the big tent of art’s current, sprawling non-narrative narrative (the age of “pluralism” as Danto puts it). They become not a part of the narrative-in-progress at the time of their creation but are late additions to it, post-history, thanks to our insight, and generosity. This, to me, seems wildly charitable to the artworld I have directly interacted with, and if Danto does feel as though such a situation is possible or likely … I see no evidence for it either in his writing or my experience.