What Memes Mean: What If Memes Were Art?

Each Wednesday in What Memes Mean, Kirk Bozeman questions the significance, humor, and subtexts of viral videos, memes, and other Internet fads.

An interesting video titled Are LOLCats and Internet Memes Art? was recently posted on the Idea Channel, a PBS-affiliated YouTube venture. Host Mike Rugetta posits that with Internet memes “people are creating images and sharing them with strangers for the purpose of communicating their personal experiences… That, my friends, is art, plain and simple.”

Really? Is our beloved arena of meme definable as art?

Rugetta employs a few historic greats to support his idea. He feels that Tolstoy’s description of intentional emotional expression as “the activity of art” and Aristotle’s idea of art as an “act of catharsis” apply directly to Internet memes. He also likens the “user-generated culture” — a wonderful and apt phrase — of memes to Andy Warhol’s famous “Factory” art studio.

Rugetta also handles the potential rebuttal to his own position, saying that many philosophers would complain that memes are rarely “objectively beautiful” and thus not art, or that there is a distinction between simple “performance of emotion” and art. Although he feels that these are good points, Rugetta still maintains his view that “meme is art.”

Personally, I’ll side with Rugetta here, though a tad reluctantly. Rugetta’s definition of art as an expression of experience or emotion in visual, auditory, or written form — even though it may not be “objectively beautiful” — gets my thumbs up. And memes certainly fall under this definition, so I guess this means I agree. (As a side note, my personal experience has been that my own generation tends to take this definition of art as a self-evident truth, while older generations are less comfortable with it.)

My sense of reluctance concerning memes being defined as art is this: Meme-makers are not intentionally creating memes as art. Most memes are expressions of pure sentiment or — most frequently — simply attempts at getting a laugh and a “Like.” My discomfort has to do with labeling something as art when there isn’t an artist around who defined it as such. But in the end, I’ll begrudgingly admit that it has to be this way. I’m very hesitant to demand that all art must be intentional; I’m afraid that making a demand like that would cause too many things excluded that I would want to call “art.”

Am I OK here? Is it OK for Christians to define art in this way? Many would find this too subjective, feeling that we ought to accept only a wholly objective definition of art. In search of biblical backing, such discussions often end up dissecting Paul’s statement: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8).

But while this verse certainly applies to art (and many other things as well), it isn’t really a “biblical definition of art.” Paul is simply directing us in our passions. Paul wants us to consider self-evidentially beautiful things, most likely the Word of God being foremost on his mind. But the larger idea of “beauty” has an unavoidable element of subjectivity to it in most cases, which is one of the difficulties in defining art as wholly objective. (But that may just be my generation showing again.)

Anyway, I’m with Rugetta here: Meme is art. But I will say this: If meme is art, it is forgettable art. I hope it is not the kind of art that finally defines our culture as a whole and specifically the contributions of my own generation.

About Kirk Bozeman

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