The Art of the Meme: Making Old Art Relevant Through Humor

Art but make it sports

Somewhere along the rise of the digital age, memes were born. While I am no meme expert, I grew up during this so-called digital age and feel somewhat qualified to define them. As for a more literal definition, memes are an amusing cultural response to relevant, present-day happenings in the form of photoshopped images with text.. I personally like Alice Bucknell’s definition of memes in her recent Artsy article titled “What Memes Owe to Art History. In Bucknell’s more playful terms, memes are “the democratizing medium of our collective digital present. Easy to make, easy to share; instantly recognizable and a little nonsensical; a hilarious, and at times, sickly-sweet jab at the world’s blunders, scandals, protests, and hypocrisies.” And I tend to agree.

Memes have evolved into their own culture and have cultivated somewhat of a “memeified” language. In order to become this culture, memes look a certain way (pictured below) and rely on societal context to remain relatable and relevant. The key word in Bucknell’s definition is recognizable, and the key word in my definition is relevant. Without their relevance, memes lose their poetic and hilarious “punch,” so to speak. Remember the Bernie Sanders meme that circulated the web after President Biden’s inauguration in January 2021? The meme is funny: 1) Because Sanders appears to be pouting, 2) because he is wearing mittens, and 3) because of the ridiculous captions “memers” tagged to this photo. Eventually, the meme community photoshopped Sanders alongside the iconic 1932 Empire State Building photo of workers sitting on a beam. This is funny because Bernie’s entire campaign was largely in favor of the working class and he was wearing mittens. See? Relevant. The point is, memes are funny when they become culturally applicable. And whether memes are more traditional, straightforward, confusing, or alternative, they relate to an audience just like any other form of art.


So, it makes sense that there’s an entire meme subcategory devoted to art history. In this art historical  meme “subdivision,” the need for relevance remains true.Art history memes take  serious historical imagery and add a bit of modernized humor to it, thus, making it funny in a current-day context. And really, there’s something sort of exciting about imposing a ridiculous caption onto an important piece of art history.

Classical Art Meme
Classical Art Meme
Classical Art Meme
Classical Art Meme

But wait. Haven’t we seen this before? Ah yes, Marcel Duchamp and the famous L.H.O.O. Q Mona Lisa. Nearly a century ago, Duchamp plastered a french-styled mustache on the precious Mona Lisa. Slightly different from the COVID-19 blue medical mask we all know, but sort of the same idea, no? In my mind, art historical memers are a new-age, digitized Dada movement just waiting to be studied by art historians. One big difference is that meme-making is largely anonymous, and Dada, just like the rest of art history, is all about the name behind the masterpiece. Bucknell said it best: memes are easy to make and easy to share. And really, memes thrive off of this rather ambiguous nature. Part of the fun is wondering: “Where did this creation come from?” Because of its mysterious nature, there is something more approachable about meme-culture. Unlike the prestigious name-crazed museum and gallery world, the pressure is off because memes can be anonymous. Whether there’s a reason for the mysterious-nature of meme culture or not, one thing is for sure: the nameless nature of meme culture will surely inform the way it's studied compared to the rest of art history. I mean, everything is signed in museums, even a urinal passing as a fountain.Now that we’re talking about meme subcategories, let’s take a look at @artbutmakeitsports Instagram page highlighting art and sports throughout history. The page features several hilarious memes: Katy Perry’s iconic Super Bowl Halftime Show performance paired with Romanticism painting Watson and Shark, by John Singleton Copley (1778). Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1618-19) paired with an image of Megan Rapinoe lifting up teammate Rose Lavelle. And even Lebron James’ breaking the NBA scoring record in February 2023 paired with Perseus turning Phineas and his Followers to Stone by Luca Giordano (1660). These memes take century-old works of art, place them in a modern context, and make them relevant in an unthinkable way. It’s hilarious!

Bernie with the Empire State Building Workers (1932)
Bernie with the Empire State Building Workers (1932)

Take this meme of the Mona Lisa, for example. This memer photoshopped a blue medical mask (one we are all familiar with three years into the pandemic) onto one of the most prestigious pieces of art history in the world—and I have to say, it's funny. Even in this example, the meme is funny because it is relevant to our post-pandemic world.This meme is funny because the memer took a part of history, worlds away from the COVID-19 pandemic, and made it applicable to our current context. It’s hilarious.

I can’t lie, at times, it was hard to keep a straight-face while writing about memes. Sure, I may be arguing that memes will become a prestigious anthropological research topic in the coming years, but the truth is, memes are silly, and that’s how they’re supposed to be. In their silly nature, memes impressively cover everything and all. From politics to pop culture, they have become such a common form of public commentary on life as we know it, and many might argue that’s how it should be, and will be, for generations to come.

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