Memes: is it art?

Anth Graham and Maud Webster engage in the new age debate

multiple writers
20th September 2020


Will we one day find the front page of Reddit in the Louvre museum?

To accept that anything can be art is to constantly legitimise counterculture. The adage d’ya think this is art? feels like a societal test of what will be appreciated as unconventional. It is interpersonal and subject to change depending on what community you ask. What can be agreed upon is the conscious effort to categorise and contextualise art within an establishment, one that is heavily concerned with authorship. Do this for long enough and you begin to build a hierarchy. Spectatorship becomes prejudice towards any piece that does not immediately fit into the hierarchy, even if the person has a liberal definition of art. To accept that memes are art is to confront the formalisation of the art industry.

Memes, in all forms, are an act of condensing information. The digital horizon demanded new symbols that transcend language barriers. Instead of attempting to represent subjective reality, memes collage shared experiences for a single purpose – sharing. This changes the perspective of authorship. It is not who created the original meme but rather how its meaning has been transformed or imposed on by who is sharing it. This phenomenon can be traced back to conglomerate companies or politicians that use memes as a globalised tool, which itself creates a counterculture of post-ironic memes that are aware of the manipulation.

If memes are art, then art is closely related to semiotics. The art pieces at the top of the hierarchy dissolve into cultural symbols that are trans-formative, potentially losing their original intention or meaning. Memes simply hijack this process and use a platform to its advantage.

Anth Graham


Memes may be visual platform but they are not an art form.

Memes do not constitute art; if the meme was ever once an art form, the generic replication of the meme format has resulted in what I’d argue a blanket exclusion of memes as belonging as a category of art. Though memes can offer a cultural lens, a sense of commentary, in the same way art does, they divert from art in the respect that they offer no symbolism, and are void of emotional impact or intention. 

All definitions of art point toward the use of human creativity, skill, and imagination in its creation. Plugging text and an image copied from a search browser clearly requires such minimal creativity, skill, and imagination that they don’t even slide into the label of art.

Crucially, the human element required for a piece or format to count as art is evidently non-existent when it comes to memes, demonstrated by the popularity and aptitude of meme generators. Swathes of content on the internet are now produced by AI, and memes are far from exempt from this; sites such as imgflip are “better at making memes than humans”. Surely, if memes can be made just as well, if not better, by non-sentient algorithms than by humans then memes cannot be an art form. 

Yes, memes are a visual platform. However, they undeniably lack the substance, motivation and humanity which characterises art, and saying otherwise implies a sad indictment on the creativity and skill of true artists.

Maud Webster

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  1. As a member of a meme based community, There are indeed memes that can fall into the lens of art. Take for example the BEANS meme. The image of BEANS in a M1 Garand military rifle has a lot of emotional depth and storytelling behind the story of those beans and of that rifle. There is a hole journey and character arch behind why the beans are in the rifle were they shouldn't be. I can't get into it fully but they are at the climax of the story.

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