Quick: when’s the last time you saw a meme? Whether it was a minute ago or an hour ago, chances are you came across one while scrolling through Facebook, Twitter, or the like. Memes have long since infiltrated the mainstream to become a ubiquitous presence in our lives, popping up on social media feeds and, now, even the walls of art gallery exhibitions.
Puerto Rican artist Jesús “Bubu” Negrón presented his memes in an exhibition titled Nothing Conceptual: La Meme Era @ La Barra de Paquito last summer. Originally intended to simply make his friends laugh, Bubu’s San Juan-specific memes about politics and art resonated with his friends so much that a fellow artist friend convinced Bubu to let him curate a show centered around his works.
Consequently, Bubu compares the process of memes entering the art world to a video going viral on YouTube. “When people notice that something is special, they’re the ones who are able to help bring it out into the context of the art world or the gallery world,” he says.
Kash Jordan, better known online through his social media handle @Ka5sh, is one of those people trying to bring memes into the context of the art world. A Los Angeles-based rapper and professional meme maker, he has curated two exhibitions featuring memes in the past year alone. The first, by any memes necessary, opened in February at Junior High Gallery and presented the works of six Instagram meme makers. His more recent show was on view during the latter half of July at Superchief Gallery LA and featured the digital artworks of 18 artists. It was aptly titled Peaches: A Black Internet Experience, after Peaches Monroe, the woman who coined the term “Eyebrows on Fleek.”
Kash considers memes to be a form of pop art and draws a parallel to Andy Warhol’s work, which often involved appropriating images from pop culture, not unlike the way memes are created today. Pop artists blurred boundaries in an attempt to elevate “low” culture to “high” art. Similarly, Kash’s aim is to legitimize memes as a creative medium on par with “more traditional” fine art. And perhaps tellingly, people are actually buying and collecting the works. It even surprised Kash at first, who curated the exhibitions “to create an experience and give people a platform to share their messages” more so than to sell art.
There has, of course, been push-back against calling memes “art.” Although attendees love the shows in person, Kash has received criticism online. However, he remains unfazed and optimistic for the future of memes: “Everyone hates on stuff when it’s new, but once people start putting memes in galleries more frequently, I think that memes as a physical art form will become accepted as worthy of a space on a gallery or museum wall.”
After all, some of the biggest movements in art history have also made the biggest splashes. Impressionists, for instance, got their name from a critic, whose scathing review insulted their work as “impressions,” or mere unfinished sketches. Yet, Impressionism turned out to be one of the most influential art movements in history, inspiring future movements, like Neo-Impressionism, Fauvism, and Cubism.
Kash pegs the easy accessibility of memes and digital content as the main reason why memes aren’t immediately considered art or being consumed as fine art. But consider this: in this digital age when no one can escape the internet, is it really surprising that our art is digital, too?
top photo // courtesy of @forgoodness5ake