Y tho: Art memes’ new online literacies and modes of everyday engagement

Meredith Whitfield, Field Museum, USA


Over four million people online participate in making and using Internet memes of art: they interact with works of art, many of them museum objects, as part of their everyday lives, without institutional prompting. This session presents research on six months worth of art memes, providing an introduction to the practice and discussion of meme literacies, as well as a framework to understand meming as a mode of engagement with art. The session also theorizes methods museums might use to observe and understand this practice as part of new engagement strategies and kindles discussion about how templated interactions prompt participation.

Keywords: interpretation, digital practice, coproduction, audience research, art

Introduction and methodology

When Eilean Hooper-Greenhill wrote in 2000 that the museum of the future would “move into the spaces, the concerns and the ambitions of communities,” she may not have anticipated quite so many “lulz” in the process. However, internet memes have experienced astronomical growth in relevance, both practically and academically, over the last decade, and recent years have seen the entry of museum objects, particularly works of art, into the phenomenon. Meme accounts across social media platforms enjoy followings in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, and the Internet meme is a critical element of the online vernacular in 2017. As of July 2017, the Facebook page Classical Art Memes had 4.5 million likes, and thousands more engage with art memes via other platforms (https://www.facebook.com/classicalartmemes/). Studying this phenomenon means examining not only behaviors but outputs; as Ryan Milner (2012) reminds us, “the study of cultural participation means the study of the social texts that constitute that culture, like memes.” Accordingly, I explore the texts of art memes and their sociocultural roles in people’s Internet lives.

I approached this analysis by encountering meme accounts and pages using both ethnography and visual analysis, noting where these disciplines overlap and building an understanding that a meme is a product of a social process, and the sum of those products creates public discourse (Pink, 2015). I chose accounts with large pools of followers and reasonable levels of activity per post: because Classical Art Memes is the most-followed art meme account on both Facebook and Instagram, I focused my work there, studying activity on the classical Art Memes pages on Facebook and Instagram between January and July of 2017. I identified memes that illustrate specific conventions of this cultural production: moments illustrative of the memetic mode, jokes requiring various literacies, and examples of memes’ semiotic functions. My ethnographic practice was primarily observational; to experience art memes in a similar way to people who like or follow the accounts I studied, I liked and followed the accounts “as myself,” using my everyday social media accounts and integrating art meme content into my everyday consumption, liking and sharing a meme here or there. This illuminated not only the extremely notable influence that social media infrastructures exercise on memetic production but also led to further questions about the construction of identity online. Establishing reflexive ethnographic practice in the face of memes designed specifically to be “relatable” was a particularly interesting challenge: as Milner (2012) references, most Internet content is “blandly global,” written in English and speaking to a default white, Western audience with pop cultural, historic, artistic, and meme literacies; in short, myself. (Pink, 2015). In this situation, criticality about excluded narratives and voices deeply informs discussions of necessary literacies and the limits of an often-idealized participatory culture online.

My first area of focus is the art meme as object, exploring what art memes look like and unpacking their functions as cultural artifacts. Art memes are typified by the image macro, that is, text either overlaid on or captioning a reference image, and my research will, accordingly, focus on memes of this type. I seek to understand how artistic texts and written captions work intertextually to communicate a message. Further, I hope to address the idea that interacting with “memed” art constitutes a mode of behavior distinct from interacting with “non-memed” art, and that this changing mode illustrates a shift in interpretive authority. A museum might hold the so-called true text of an artwork, but the true text of a meme is necessarily open-source, its meaning and interpretation subject to change by nature of its form. I next turn to memes as a function of practice, asking how they propagate and fit into structures of participatory culture. Memes’ forms often take on a type of coded language; I will ask what knowledge is required to read and write memes and develop a typology of memetic literacies. Art memes mark a revival in popular engagement with art, rendering artworks everyday palimpsests that open the door to new ideas of authority. While traditionally, museums have served as gatekeepers of meaning, being both repositories for objects’ true texts and arbiters of their interpretation, observing the vastness and depth of the art “memespace” points to a redefinition. As Internet communication is a constantly changing field, my research will serve as a case study for examining ways that the move to social media and coalescence around groups and accounts has affected how people interact with memes at large.

What is an art meme?

A significant body of work has been devoted to identifying what an Internet meme is. Shifman (2013) argues that memes should be thought of as groups of diffuse content units with three memetic dimensions: content, form, and stance. This definition is useful enough in formulating a working definition of art memes: units of cultural production that incorporate art as part of their content. A meme’s content, as Shifman defines it, refers to “both the ideas and the ideologies conveyed by [the text].” In my analysis, the meme’s “content” is exhibited through its written text caption. Form is the “physical incarnation of the message…includ[ing] both visual/audible dimensions specific to certain texts” (Shifman, 2013). The readable “text” supplied by the art contextualizes this aspect of the meme; relevant considerations here are subject, style, narrative, and cultural associations. Art memes add elements to works of art to create a new type of object, and in so doing, change the values associated with the art, and several divergences between encountering original art and encountering “memed” art arise.

Art memes are necessarily intertextual, as they involve both the image, read as text, and its caption, which uses the visual information in the work of art as a communicative shorthand. Traditional understandings of intertexts position the choice of art as a literary one, assuming a degree of intent or complexity intended by choosing a particular work of art. However, Fitzsimmons (2003) separates types of intertextualities into obligatory, in which an author deliberately makes an association between or among texts that is required to understand the work, and optional, where the association enriches understanding, and accidental.

Art memes, then, use art as a type of emotional shorthand, and the feelings and associations art meme readers have with that artistic text affect the way the meme is read. Most frequently, obligatory intertextuality in creating memes, especially art memes, is used to make a joke, as I discuss further in my taxonomy of memetic literacies. However, there are other instances where more basic ironies are the sources of humor, as with Tabloid Art History’s pairing of fine art and pop culture photographs. The appeal of these memes comes from the traditional narrative of fine art as untouchable and not “for” the everyday person; a reader who had not had this experience with art might not derive the same amusement from the form. This irony is also present in ways that meming art changes traditional interpretations of the art: where previously, for example, the Mona Lisa might have represented cultural shorthand for mystery, mastery, or subtlety, Mona Lisa memes denote another set of cultural associations.

Comparing memes’ employment of a work of art to an authoritative interpretation of the work yields interesting observations about art memes as intertexts. I have selected two examples to explore, each of which I noted recur more than once in the period of memes I studied: Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World (MoMA) and Quentin Matsys’s The Ugly Duchess (also known as A Grotesque Old Woman) (The National Gallery), which illustrate optional intertextuality and accidental intertextuality, respectively. I note also that analysis of these intertexts and the sentiments communicated in their uses illustrate that art memes also play a role as artifacts of an incomplete participatory culture, records of ongoing inequalities and biases.

A Christina’s World meme (Figure 1) illustrates an instance of optional intertextuality:

Figure 1

According to the Museum of Modern Art, the painting depicts “a woman crawling through… tawny grass,” artist Andrew Wyeth’s “neighbor in Maine, who, crippled by polio, ‘was limited physically but by no means spiritually.’” Interpretive text also points out the “great detail… nuances of light and shadow,” identifying the painting’s genre as magic realism (http://www.moma.org/collection/works/78455). Comparatively, the meme can be read in two ways. If the reader knows nothing about the work, then the emotional sentiment signaled by the figure could be read as dramatic: “I’m too ill to get up off the ground.” However, with knowledge of the piece’s subject, the meme becomes darkly ironic, comparing going in sick to work to a debilitating, degenerative muscular condition. The art’s figuration prima facie serves a basic, symbolic type of semiotic function, the reader understanding the art’s gestural and narrative utility to illustrate a certain situation. However, in this case, the meme’s meaning changes as new literacies are introduced.


Memes based on Quentin Massys’s The Ugly Duchess illustrate a situation in which the implications of the original work are lost almost entirely when compared with the way the work is memed. However, something about the art as text prompted association with another text or act of cultural production. The National Gallery’s interpretive text says Massys “probably intended to satirise old women who try inappropriately to recreate their youth” and that the work depicts “a woman who suffered from Paget’s disease, a malformation of bone.” In an excerpt from the National Gallery’s podcast, curator Susan Foister points out that this woman’s clothes are out-of-date, indicating that she was old, but that her fancy adornments suggest she was proud of her appearance and wanted to attract a suitor, an idea that Massys wished to parody and condemn (http:// www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/quinten-massys-an-old-woman-the-ugly-duchess). A meme (Figure 2) that uses this work (https://www.instagram.com/p/BROX9AhD1cd) takes another tack, missing the original’s possible intent to criticize older women’s lustiness and replacing it with melancholy self-awareness: “can’t be ugly if you don’t look in the mirror.” The presence of the pointing hand also borrows from Black Twitter’s “Roll Safe” meme, based on “a screenshot of actor Kayode Ewumi grinning and pointing to his temple while portraying the character Reece Simpson (a.k.a. “Roll Safe”) in the web series Hood Documentary.” (http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/roll-safe).

Figure 2

The other meme (figure 3) that uses this work (https://www.facebook.com/classicalartmemes/photos/a.595162167262642.1073741827.595155763929949/1170998856345634/) captions it with “while he’s having a smoke/and she’s taking a drag,” lyrics from “Mr. Brightside,” a song by American pop-rock group The Killers.

Figure 3

The lyrics here create an accidental intertextuality; they allude to the speaker observing the object of his affection smoking a cigarette with someone else, and the meme thus creates ironic desire for this “ugly” figure. “Mr. Brightside” has birthed a few memes, many with the same ironic, voyeuristic stance: a meme family pairs images of awkward kisses with the lyric “it was only a kiss” (http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/mr-brightside). It is likely this act of cultural production that the meme-maker associated with The Ugly Duchess, rather than the song itself—this Ugly Duchess meme pairs the over-the-top emotionalism of the song with an unexpected image of an undesirable situation.

This exemplifies Milner’s (2013) idea of “the logic of lulz,” the tendency within Internet culture to elevate humor and irony and eschew emotion, so Mastys’s earnest social commentary is out of place in the memescape. In this instance, the only idea tying traditional and memetic interpretations of the work together is the subject’s evident ugliness. The “logic of lulz,” however, represents a limited and hegemonic view of humor and constitutes problematic internal biases, which I discuss in this paper’s final section.

Literacies in reading and writing art memes

Art memes raise important questions about how cultural practices inform the processes of creating, reading, and sharing. As Rintel (2013) points out, memetic humor and irony create a specific type of language shared by those “in the know.” The development of memes as language only grows in relevance as they become more widespread and memetic references, quirks of language, and modes of creation and interpretation diffuse. Following this, memes have followed the trend set by early comment boards of reaction memes, and the later advent of reaction GIFs, and have begun to focus commentary largely on humorous depictions of relatable situations, drawing irony from the outrageousness of the image or inspiring “memesis” from the seeming universality of the sentiment. Memes beginning “tfw,” (that feeling when), “me when,” “when you,” and “me:” are popular in both non-art and art meme contexts.

Social media-influenced meme-making trends have lowered the bar to technical literacy, i.e., memes are easier than ever to make, but Milner (2012) argues that in order to truly understand a specific “memespace,” one must possess specific scaffolding knowledge: “In the case of mediated artifacts… cultural participation is not as simple as deciding you want to engage and then doing so.” As art memes “reinterpret and transform texts depending on personal expression or social context,” certain narrative, technical, and contextual familiarities are required in order to read them (Milner 2012). Some memes, like this one (Figure 4) require, at top level no specific literacies: they are funny prima facie, though understanding of textual or cultural references, i.e.: the “lamb of christ,” may enrich the reader’s understanding of the joke (https://www.instagram.com/p/BPhXuWKgek2/).

Figure 4

However, for less comprehensible content, I categorized necessary literacies into four types: meme, pop culture, historical, and art, which I outline below.

Meme literacy

Understanding the meaning of a meme, even at its most accessible and direct level, sometimes requires knowledge of other, similar memes. Shifman (2014) introduces the notion that some memes are readily accessible and can be read “by almost anyone, whereas others require detailed knowledge about a digital meme subculture.” As Rintel (2013) points out, “in-groups,” that is, Internet denizens, “have always demonstrated their cohesion through restricted code… clearly the in-jokes and associated templating knowledge… hold far more meaning for the Internet cognoscenti than the millions of Internet users who have no idea of meme history, and the billions more who have never seen them.” I experienced this phenomenon as I conducted my research; in July 2017, almost overnight, I noticed a new textual convention appear on the accounts I was researching: “He protec, he attac.” Not immediately understanding why this was funny, I turned to Know Your Meme, which explained that the convention was introduced in late 2016 to Instagram and picked up in early 2017 by larger Instagram meme accounts. On July 15, the meme (Figure 5) made it to Classical Art Memes on Instagram, where the creators teamed the text with two depictions of Christ: Lost No More by Christian artist Greg Olsen and Cecco del Caravaggio’s Christ Expulses The Money Changers Out Of The Temple (https://www.instagram.com/p/BWjxU_cAwFa/).

Figure 5

The comments on the meme point to a template with “he protec, he attac,” that became more pronounced as the meme was remixed: ending with a line that rhymes, sometimes linked by “but most importantly” or “but also.” A later post paired depictions of Caligula with “He was a total megalomaniac.” Comments on the Jesus meme like “then he resurrec,” and “tithes he collec” connect this rhyming convention to the subject matter of the art and express new meme iterations of the text. This experience exemplifies Rintel’s (2013) assertion that each new iteration of a meme “prompts association… with the original and whatever other versions have been seen.” This meme was unintelligible if not read “as part of a series or category,” and the humor completely indecipherable without the understanding that Internet-speak is often used as an in-joke for in-joke’s sake. In this instance, understanding the meme represented more than merely the single instance of joke-making: it identified the viewer as part of an in-group. Know Your Meme even links to a meme-concerned subreddit in which a user asked (https://www.reddit.com/r/MemeEconomy/comments/62eb0l/how_are_he_protec_but_he_also_atac_mems_doing_on/dfm6l3f/) if the “normies” had gotten to “he protec, he attac” yet, reinforcing the ideas Miltner lays out about memes as an ironic, exclusive currency of Internet belonging, even in an age where memes are more ubiquitous than ever.

Pop culture literacy

Understanding references within art memes to news, events, politics, or entertainment is often necessary to successfully read the meme. This example (Figure 6) from April 2017 requires exposure to the news story about David Dao, a Kentucky doctor, being forcibly dragged from an overbooked United Airlines flight (https://twitter.com/MedievalReacts/status/851567075957059587).

Figure 6

The joke trades on the idea that being forcibly dragged from an airplane, in 2017, could be referred to by the idiomatic “medieval torture,” a behaviour literally depicted in the art used for the meme. Although the meme could be categorized among many others that also refer to the incident, nothing about the format or references made in those memes predicates understanding this one, so pop culture literacy is the only type required to understand the meme (http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/events/united-airlines-passenger-removal). This type of literacy necessarily extends to encompass not only current events, but politics, entertainment, and internet phenomena, all of which were referenced in art memes I studied.

Historic literacy

For the simple fact that much of visual art, especially the portraiture and other figure-oriented art used in meming, takes its subject matter from history or historicised fictional narratives, like myths and religious stories, some memes require prior knowledge in these arenas to be fully appreciated. This meme (Figure 7) juxtaposes two works of art: King George III’s coronation portrait by Allan Ramsey and Gilbert Stuart’s Williamstown portrait of George Washington (albeit flipped horizontally, so Washington is looking toward King George) (https://www.facebook.com/classicalartmemes/photos/a.595162167262642.1073741827.595155763929949/1280182878760564/).

Figure 7

There is an inherent cultural joke about sexuality in this meme, but the prompt to write erotic fanfiction about the two men is particularly funny if you know they represent the opposing British and American factions during the American Revolution. This form of literacy illustrates that the narrative embedded within art is an important semiotic shorthand, often of more utility to the meme than the visual characteristics, like facial expressions, of the art.

Art literacy

Another essential category of literacy is knowledge of art, sometimes required to understand a meme’s text, most often in order to “get” a joke. For example, this meme (Figure 8) juxtaposes Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” and the Venus of Willendorf (https://www.facebook.com/classicalartmemes/photos/a.595162167262642.1073741827.595155763929949/1121785741266946/).

Figure 8

For these works, wildly divergent in style and medium, to be coherently comparable, you need to know they are both Venuses.

Hybrid literacies

As intertexts, many memes require a combination of these literacies. A notable example is this version of a “mom’s spaghetti” meme (Figure 9), which requires pop culture literacy and two meme literacies to understand the joke (https://www.instagram.com/p/BXPr77vgH2c/).

Figure 9

The meme’s text trades on a “copypasta,” any textual phenomenon copied and pasted extensively, of rapper Eminem’s 2002 hit “Lose Yourself.” As part of a subgenre of confessional posts later termed “spaghetti stories,” various forum denizens in the early 2000s used the lyric “mom’s spaghetti” as shorthand for anxiety or awkwardness, often as a non-sequitur (Figure 10).

Further remix led to other lyrics being transposed into “spaghetti,” and the addition of hand-drawn noodles hanging from a photo of Eminem formed the first “mom’s spaghetti” image macro, which marked the beginning of the meme’s soaring popularity. Eventually, “mom’s spaghetti” entered the memetic vernacular, becoming what Burgess (2008) terms a “textual hook,” gaining prominence after being selected and repeated over time, and becoming “available for plugging into other forms, texts and intertexts” (http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/moms-spaghetti).

Using the “antiquification” of language popularized by the Joseph Ducreux meme, Eminem becomes a Ducreux-like character, and “his palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy/there’s vomit on his sweater already, mom’s spaghetti” (emphasis added) becomes the text of the meme, as Eminem’s head is overlaid onto a costume vaguely resembling Ducreux’s. Fully understanding the joke requires knowledge of the song, the spaghetti meme, and the Ducreux meme.

As Knobel and Lankshear (2007) point out, each of these literacies carries a social bent, “implicated in and generated out of networks of shared interests, experiences, habits, worldviews and the like that pick up on or use texts, events, phenomena, icons, cultural artifacts, etc.” The networks represented on these accounts share a common point of reference—that is, Western, educated, literate, and well-informed. As art memes experience this trend of consolidation and move to a more producer-audience model, Milner’s (2012) critique about participatory culture grows more relevant: “Despite the ability for many perspectives to participate in the competition of meme creation, the deck might be stacked in favor of certain perspectives, values, and references.”

Indeed, I noticed a trend in behavior on the Classical Art Memes Facebook page in the comments sections of memes requiring art literacy and historical literacy: many commenters were eager to display their knowledge of history and art. The comments section of the Venus meme contained the following: “Super triggered by the amount of people who don’t actually get this. But I love you if you do” (https://www.facebook.com/classicalartmemes/photos/a.595162167262642.1073741827.595155763929949/1121785741266946/?type=3&comment_id=1121787957933391&comment_tracking=%7B%22tn%22%3A%22R3%22%7D). “ACTUALLY, the figure on the right is supposed to be a point of view sculpture, made from a woman’s perspective looking down at her own body. It isn’t really trying to express the same thing” (https://www.facebook.com/classicalartmemes/photos/a.595162167262642.1073741827.595155763929949/1121785741266946/?type=3&comment_id=1299110096812158&comment_tracking=%7B%22tn%22%3A%22R9%22%7D). “I love talking about the Venus of Willendorf because it’s such a poorly named little statue. The people of that era didn’t have a concept of Venus, so it’s kind of like looking at a medieval artwork and being like ‘clearly this is a portrait of Scarlet [sic] Johansson’” (https://www.facebook.com/classicalartmemes/photos/a.595162167262642.1073741827.595155763929949/1121785741266946/?type=3&comment_id=722364851273506&comment_tracking=%7B%22tn%22%3A%22R9%22%7D). These comments could be read as fragment of a constructed online identity, one that privileges an educated perspective and furthers the idea of the in-group. As Milner (2012) points out, “how we frame our recreation marks us in terms of class, race, and education,” and publicly discussing the art, rather than the joke, in an art meme could point to these users’ desire to signal knowledge.

Interestingly, the activity on this page did not appear to place value on knowledge of the art when not relevant to understanding the meme. On a meme using an 1844-45 self-portrait of Gustave Courbet, a commenter asked for the artist’s name. The group admin responded with what Miltner has classified as an attitude “for the lulz,” saying, “he’s called Johnny Depp, a pretty obscure artist from the 18th Century.” Downthread, the comment received this colorful response: “the man we know as Johnny Depp was actually the Italian painter known as Gianni De Pantalone. He was famous for his painting of Giacomo De Passero, an 18th century pirate. Giacomo is chiefly remembered for his famous war-cry, that rallied his men in the heat of battle: ‘Where’s my buccaneers?’…” (https://www.facebook.com/classicalartmemes/photos/a.595162167262642.1073741827.595155763929949/1166848100094043/?type=3&comment_id=1166850046760515&comment_tracking=%7B%22tn%22%3A%22R4%22%7D) This joke, an entirely fictional account delivered deadpan, is a classic example of the ironic attitude that characterizes much online discourse.


The memetic mode

Orientation to art with an eye toward potential meming could be described as a “mode.” Traditional modes of interaction with works of art do not involve a direct communicative function in the way memes do: viewers have talked about works of art, not via them, with a few exceptions. Western English-language vernacular has adopted a few idioms based on specific works of art or artists, like “Mona Lisa smile,” “Titian-haired,” or “Rubenesque,” but these phrases describe stylistic or aesthetic qualities of the art they reference and are not immensely useful at telling a story or joke. Art memes, conversely, communicate using the in-work narrative as shorthand. Semiotically, using visual art in this way shares similarities with the rise of other pictographic communication forms, like emoji and GIFs, which dominate Internet discourse. The multimedia nature of communication enables us to develop new visual shorthand for specific feelings, stories, and jokes, and this new language-building has made a new space for everyday engagement with centuries’ worth of art. Eric Jenkins (2017) posits the idea that people who participate in a specific type of cultural production, in engaging with a specific genre of meme, enter a mode of understanding constructed by that genre’s “implicit instructions” for how to make sense of objects. Jenkins studied “fail/win” memes, arguing that fail/win viewers orient themselves to gamify images, playing within a relational structure that assigns win and fail designations to every conceivable image, spurred by a felt affect of amusement or happiness that results from that orientation. Jenkins observes that there are “poles” which limit the modality: in fail/win context, these poles govern which images are chosen to be judged. Art meme accounts seem to construct a mode of interacting with art with similar polarities and orientations. Although there are many types of textual templates and many memeable works of art, most people bound their behavior to jokes and commentary based on the work rather than serious discussion of art or using the meme to discuss real-world topics, suggesting the idea that art meming could be seen as a mode of interaction distinct from the mode of interacting with art elsewhere or interacting with non-art memes. In an art meme mode, the goal of commentary is to turn the image into a relatable situation or joke, rather than to deconstruct or react to the art for its own sake. This understanding of memetic practice transforms the original art into a “living object.” Art of this type, when encountered in this mode—as part of a cultural milieu that values and propagates art memes—is no longer merely art, but memetic possibility, potential palimpsest, prospective shorthand.

Hegemonies and biases

Conceptualizing the memetic mode and the online participatory culture in which it takes place as a polycultural, polyvocal space that entertains all points of view is exciting but, at best, idealistic. As we compare this idea to its reality, we must ask: to what extent does the memescape perpetuate existing biases and hegemonies? Are memes based on racist or sexist works of art themselves sexist? Whose voices do these accounts really represent? Ultimately, who wins and who loses in the world of art memes?

Indeed, as Milner points out, “there are winners and losers in mediated cultural participation, and the categories by which the decisions are made are eerily similar to old hegemonies,” and art memes align with the observation of white heteropatriarchal hegemony Milner (190) observed in his analysis of mainstream memes. In my research, I noted recurring themes of casual misogyny, like the use of slurs to refer to women, and memes that employ the male gaze, using captions like “dayum, girl.” Occasionally, in the same spaces, memes written from the perspectives of women recur, and many mock or make light of relationships with men, using captions like, “when your boyfriend dumps you and you can’t explain to your husband why you’ve been so sad lately.” This gendered language is overwhelmingly heteronormative; depictions of two women together are more often interpreted as friendships than romantic or sexual relationships, or the suggestion of homosexuality is played for a laugh.

The overwhelming majority of subjects depicted across art meme accounts on all platforms I studied are white. This comes with the choice to focus on what these accounts term “classical” art, most of which depicts white subjects, though, as I observed, the precise meaning of “classical” here is unclear. Nevertheless, subjects of color are excluded from representation in these memes overwhelmingly. Art memespaces, as part of this ecosystem of content, do not represent cultural production that directly contradicts historic or, indeed, contemporary power structures. The assumption that artifacts of participatory culture are more diversely representational or equal than their non-participatory counterparts, as art memes illustrate, is not always true. Further, Rintel points out that Western culture “dominates most Internet culture just as it dominates much of traditional media.” However, a cursory search on Facebook reveals that art memes show up in Indonesian, Algerian Arabic, Berber, and French. Further research into non-Roman alphabet languages and social media platforms, like Weibo, that are popular in non-Western contexts might reveal art meming with a whole different set of cultural associations and intertextualities. More attention should be paid to the transnationality of art memes and what other global perspectives contribute to the discourse.

The memetic mode in museums

Konstantinos Arvanitis (2005) establishes that museums create “mobile moments” as a matter of possibility: they “offer” their information as a portable utility, accessible from anywhere at any time, but they fail to create opportunities for co-constructed meaning, to “bring the voices of the everyday into the museum.” That opportunity is here. Art meming is a specific, observable, widespread action that involves people interacting with museum objects as part of their everyday lives, without institutional prompting. Just as Arvanitis (2005) asserts that mobile phones constitute “everyday technology,” I have established that art memes are similarly everyday casual acts of cultural production and consumption, folded into contemporary modes of customized content engagement that take place online. Meming happens in casual, consocial contexts, often in channels personalized to users’ interests. Art memes constitute languages and require literacies that constitute a new mode of “everyday knowledge,” which intersects with art in an intertextual manner and, in so doing, forms memes as an artifact of this cultural construction. Meming “make[s] ‘audible and visible’ the knowledge and understandings” constructed in the course of life online (Arvanitis, 2005).

Museums have a stake in this new mode of participation, particularly in understanding what their collections mean to people online. As museums address the issues of maintaining relevance in the information age and creating meaningful points of engagement for visitors both physical and virtual, they ought to pay attention to memetic behaviors. In applying this idea to practical institutional decision-making, further work on the relationship between a collection’s accessibility online and the recurrence of its works in memespaces would be helpful in drawing a parallelism between this mode of everyday engagement and the institutional hope that open access creates greater engagement. This investigation has implications beyond art museums; additional research might provide insight into pathways for engagement. Would the traditional authority wielded by a museum affect the “natural” life cycle of an art meme online? How can museums use consociality and templatability to affect engagement? Is humor an effective emotional key to making art accessible? Further research would also clarify how the idea of the template affects engagement with art. The literature illustrates that a memes’ most essential feature, templatability, is the “x factor” that has contributed to their popularity and longevity, even before memes became an online phenomenon. Observed trends in art memes suggest that this idea applies when participating with art. Where encountering art in an open-ended way might create anxieties, memes offer a specific, socially constructed and accepted code by which to engage. This idea may find purchase beyond memes in improving interpretive participation with art and dissolving the barriers between modes.

Ultimately, art memes represent widespread co-production: they revive and re-contextualize objects, move newer and larger audiences toward engaging with art in new ways, and have proven adept at adapting to an Internet in constant flux. The structures and observances I have cataloged are already slowly changing and will soon look and feel different, so it is more critical that research in this field and related studies of memetics keep up, developing an ongoing understanding not only of how memes continue to form understandings of the world around us, but how they represent historic interplay with similar attempts to make sense of the world. I conclude by echoing Shifman’s (2014) hope that “these challenges will be met by enthusiastic researchers, blessed with a tad of humor.


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Cite as:
Whitfield, Meredith. "Y tho: Art memes’ new online literacies and modes of everyday engagement." MW18: MW 2018. Published February 9, 2018. Consulted .