Dazed Magazine declared 2016 “The Year of the Meme.” The internet community would doubtless have been quick to agree, had they not been so busy memeing. As one of the internet’s most dominant cultural forces, memes have also started to gain acceptance as works of art in communities online and off. Similar to pre-internet art, distinct meme movements have emerged, among them, surreal memes, which are defined by Knowyourmeme.com as “artistically bizarre in appearance and whose humor derives from their absurd style.”
Considered poignant by some and pointless by others, the jury is out on whether surreal memes serve to push the world of meme art forward. Below, we’ll discuss two ways in which surreal memes take meme art to new heights and two ways surreal memes reach only the heights of banality.
Surrealist memes represent progression in meme art.
Surreal memes are derived from a varied line of modern art traditions.
Surrealist memes find cultural forbears in the pre-internet art movements of Dadaism, Surrealism and Pop Art. Surrealist memes approach the absurdity of contemporary life in the same manner as Dadaism, which contended that art doesn’t need to make sense if governments and societies don’t make sense either. Surreal memes incorporate Surrealist and Dada styles, utilizing Salvador Dali-inspired meme bases, and montages that are reminiscent of collage techniques popularized by the Dada movement. The medium by which most memes are produced, with image macros that lays text over premade images, speaks to mass manufacturing, a focal point of the Pop Art movement. By referencing Dali in the same image as Pepe the Frog, surreal memes accomplish another central goal of Pop Art – to mix high and low culture and elevate ordinary, daily items into the world of fine art. This ongoing dialogue between various art movements and surreal memes points to the latter’s power as a driving force in the progression of meme art.
No message necessary.
A central criticism of surreal memes is that they don’t have any point, that they are devoid of any distinct message. To these critics, I (along with troves of surrealist memers) say, so what? Art needn’t have a particular message in order to qualify as art, or even to qualify as good art. As art journalist Jonathan Jones points out, distinguished artists like Mark Rothko and Nobel prize-winner Bob Dylan took pains to avoid meaning of any kind being attached to their work. Jones opines, “The most deadening influence on art in our time is the belief that content matters more than style.” Surreal memes evade easy understanding or categorization. They challenge their audience to accept that which cannot be easily googled, understood, and shared. Their seemingly meaningless content thwarts the easy consumption that meme culture propagates, making surreal memes no less an act of artistic rebellion than Dadaist Marcel Duchamp’s The Fountain.
Surreal art is taking meme art back centuries (well, ok, decade).
Surreal memes are internet elitism at its worst.
The internet underground is famously proprietary about its memes. Imageboard website 4chan has long claimed ownership of the internet’s most popular memes, and its users regularly scorn sites like 9gag and Reddit for their use (and hence, their popularization) of memes originally posted on 4chan. Surreal memes are but one manifestation of internet insiders’ preoccupation with keeping memes out of the hands of mainstream internet users. Because surreal memes deliberately avoid cultural references of any kind, they are not easily consumed or absorbed into the internet mainstream. Unlike the art world’s Dadaism, which sought to translate the confusing of the times to anyone who looked upon a Dadaist piece, surrealist memes actively repel audiences by using content that will only resonate with a select group of internet insiders (go ahead, pretend you understand any of these). This pretension to exclusivity runs counter to the common axiom that art should be for the masses.
Lost in Translation.
The nihilism of surreal memes reveals their regressive nature. At its core, art is about evoking emotion and sharing our experiences of the world. Art writer Linda Weintraub writes “If art doesn’t sensitize us to something in the world, clarify our perceptions, make us aware of the decisions we have made, it’s entertainment.” Internet memes, both popular and obscure, do give their audiences pause, drawing attention to the ills of our world with humor or shock value. But surreal memes in particular are unable to sensitize or clarify, because they intentionally lack both sense and clarity. They traffic in absurdity for absurdity’s sake, which leaves them little hope to evolve into something meaningful or new. Surreal memes can only “progress” through the intensification of nonsense ad nauseum. As the Art Factory said of Dadaism, “The DNA of Dada was self destructive [sic]”; so too is the DNA of the surreal meme.
Bottom Lines: The codification of surreal memes as a regressive or progressive element in meme art is as subjective as meme art itself. Where do you stand? Are surreal memes small works of irreverent, anti-establishment art in the spirit of Dadaism, or are they merely dog whistles for the fraternity of internet insiders?