Ye Olde Arte Meme


Your next rainy day activity is PLANNED. (You’re welcome.) It’s time for you to check out one of New York’s incredible art museums. If you don’t like art—and I do think I heard a collective groan of boredom from half the population just by writing that—don’t stop reading yet! This isn’t going to be your typical museum trip. Instead, I’ve got some instructions for you:

  1. Bring your phone.
  2. Open up a camera, preferably Snapchat.
  3. Find a piece of art—painting, statue, photo, whatever—that you think looks funny. This could be because of the subjects’ poses, expressions, or anything like that.
  4. Take a photo of the art if the museum allows it. If they don’t allow photography, jot down the name of the painting and do the rest of these steps at home.
  5. Caption the picture (this is where Snapchat would be useful).
  6. Post to your social media accounts for your followers’ entertainment.
  7. Congratulations! You’ve just made a meme!

I can assure you from personal experience that this is a great way to spend the hours at a museum. In fact, check out some of the examples that a friend and I made last winter break at New York’s own Metropolitan Museum of Art:

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Yes, we are hysterically funny and wildly creative, thanks for mentioning it. But that’s totally besides the point. The point is, I’ve not only given you a fun activity, I’ve also introduced you to a whole new sub-genre of memes: Classic Art Memes.

Look, there are literally thousands of memes out there. But are classic art memes some of the best ones? I would say yes. First of all, their irreverent humor is usually so unexpected that you have to laugh. And there’s something about the incongruity of the old-fashioned images with the Snapchat captions or modern slang that only heightens the wittiness of classic art memes.

L.H.O.O.Q. by Marcel Duchamp (1919)

The thing is, this incongruity is not a new idea for art. Overlaying objects or already existing art with new meaning or minor changes is reminiscent of surrealist Marcel Duchamp’s early twentieth century readymades, such as his L.H.O.O.Q(Seriously, you may want to read more about this piece of art—Duchamp had quite the sense of humor). In many ways, classic art memes are just a continuation of an older artistic tradition begun by Duchamp and his contemporaries.

Sure, we’ve given the medium a new name by calling them memes, but artistic terms like “readymades” and “Dada” weren’t part of people’s lexicons either until the surrealists popularized them.

I’ve brought up the question in a previous post of whether memes are the art form of a new era. I’m not going to be coy about it: I think that it is. Memes are to millennials what Impressionism was to Monet, Cubism to Picasso, or Pop Art to Warhol. Memes are this generation’s way of flexing our creative muscles and pushing the boundaries of what it means to be artistic.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe memes hold less artistic significance than I aim to give them. Perhaps there will never be a Metropolitan Museum of Memes or the Rich-Dead-Person Meme Wing at the Museum of Modern Art. But I believe that, aside from whatever else it is, the Internet is something of a museum. It’s a museum dedicated to contemporary humanity, showing us each whatever exhibit most intrigues us, a Mirror of Erised-like gallery curated by the algorithms of Google, Facebook, and Twitter.

But if you will permit me, I’ll curate this page. Below are a selection of some of my favorite classic art memes. I encourage everyone to check out Medieval Reactions (@MedievalReacts) on Twitter or Classical Art Memes on Facebook (all of the images I’ve selected have come from Classical Art Memes). I also recommend the print version, Classic Art Memes, by Gemma Cooper. I saw it on my aunt’s coffee table, and now I want a copy in every room of my house! Seriously, though, be your own curator—or, better yet, get out there and make your own. Leave us a comment with your favorite classic art memes or new ones that you’ve made, and feel free to share the memes you find here!

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