Art, politics, and memes: a mission statement

Written by Reuben Diaz, Staff Writer


The following is the first in a series titled Art, Politics, and Memes, which seeks to bring both the author and the reader to a deeper level of understanding in all of the aforementioned fields.




It’s been understood for some time now that everything is political. Yes, everything. Fashion, language, design, commerce, art (both of the capital-A and colloquial variety) — all of it. Especially art. In fact, art has long been understood as a means by which messages are conveyed, and has a storied history of being made exclusively to tell some truth to society. (Messages and truths, regardless of content, are political, because everything is.) This points us to an important insight: culture — the umbrella term that captures everything mentioned thus far — is the prime mover of the political landscape.


Through this lens, it becomes intuitive that, if we wish to understand politics, we must first understand culture. Similarly, to understand culture we must understand its components. Fashion, language, design, commerce, and most forms of art have been thoroughly, if not exhaustively, explored, both on their own terms and in relation to politics. However, an emerging medium has yet to be so well examined — memes.


I understand how silly that sounds. Memes are, if nothing else, hard to dwell on at length. That’s the nature of the medium — they’re designed to be quickly consumed and digested, like potato chips — it borderline defeats the purpose to analyze one in depth. However, considering we take in so many, memes doubtless have a profound effect on the health of our thoughts. If curiosity about neither art nor social change successfully draws in the reader, perhaps self-interest will.


But is it a Meme?


The philosopher Cynthia Freeland famously asks: But is it Art? Even now, we don’t have a definitive answer — at least, not in the general case. However, we know the following: if it is art, it is a Meme; if it is a meme, it is art.

To clarify — the capital-M “Meme” refers to the academic definition, as laid out by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, and thus includes all art a priori; the lowercase, to the colloquial use, which refers specifically to Memes repeated and recontextualized often enough to merit serious cultural discussion, especially those disseminated via the Internet. The following, for example, is a meme:

Note that the meme is intertextual; it is composed of two text blocks, each of which is borrowed. One might remark that there is nothing new about the meme, but this would be fallacious. Juxtaposition is, itself, a form of creation — this follows from the statement commonly attributed to Picasso: “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.” Since a meme is a work of art, it follows that a memer (or perhaps meme-ist?) is an artist. Likewise, what one many refer to as “stealing” a meme is actually the process of recontextualizing it, and, therefore, creating a new meme entirely.


Note also that the meme is, even in its most complex form, simple. The depth is not in parsing the meme, but, rather, in understanding the subtext of its stolen components. Anyone might read these two text blocks and chuckle, perhaps finding humor in the jarring transition between casual and academic language. However, only a handful of internet-obsessed teens will recall the source of the template, and only a scholar of Marx will recognize the opening phrases of his essay on historical materialism. The intersection of these two exclusive groups is the set of us who can fully appreciate the meme.


Finally, note that the meme is underground, at least marginally. Though there exist memes which touch broad swaths of the population, but these are memes only in the way Twilight sequels are literature. The excessive propagation in itself degrades the work; the sacrifices that give said work mass appeal, doubly so. Though such works may technically belong to their respective medium, they are, ultimately, instructions on how not to create meaning.


Memes & the Future

This brings me to my point: we must investigate memes further. Not only to understand what makes a meme worthwhile, but to observe how they influence us, and the world at large. Many have credited the outcomes of recent U.S. and U.K. elections to the power of meme magic. Others have proposed memes as an weapon against fascism. Others still have simply made it their mission to use the meme as a means to mock all things uniformly.


In the coming months, I make it my mission to investigate these positions, and many more; in doing so, I hope to draw out the aesthetic, cultural, and political truths memes have to offer. To my readers, I offer the following invitation: come meme with me. The terrain is vast and varied, and we have much to discover.