Analysing the importance and function of art in society and the fungi called memes
Source: original creation
Attempting to define art is like eating neverending philosophical spaghetti. (Seriously, the discourse never ends). There has been a lot of controversy in defining art because of the abstract nature of art and because it is so interlinked with humans. With human advancements, art also keeps developing and evolving, so a rigid, precise definition is almost impossible to curate.
But Leo Tolstoy has given a beautiful definition of art, which resonates with me a lot. ‘’Art is a human activity, consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings, and also experience them’’. Art is a way to communicate with others and to produce camaraderie and companionship.
Art is essentially indirect communication from one person to another. It has been with us as long as humankind. Art is a way to express ideas without using language. Art in society has been used in many ways. It was used to relay information, provide comfort, spread propaganda, or simply celebrate what it means to be human.
Now I’m not some kind of art purist, and I hope neither are you. Art is not and should not be limited to paintings, realism, or sculpting. It has no form. It is merely an expression or celebration of humankind.
Origin of the meme: Oxford
The word meme comes from the English word gene and the Greek word mimēma which means ‘that which is imitated’.
The word meme was first introduced in Richard Dawkins book, The Selfish Gene.He discusses how culture multiplies and essentially spreads. He says a meme is a unit of culture—such as “tunes, ideas, catch‐phrases, clothes, fashions, ways of making pots, or building arches.”
Source: Facebook (context: the man is Richard Dawkins)
The earliest memes’ I personally experienced were the dancing baby and rose on Blackberry back in the 2010s. But now the memes have become more expansive, complex, and interesting.
According to Arthur Danto, something is a work of art if
(i) It has a subject.
(ii) about which it projects some attitude or point of view (has a style)
(iii)by means of rhetorical ellipsis (usually metaphorical) which ellipsis engages audience participation in filling in what is missing,
(iv) where the work in question and the interpretations thereof require an art historical context.
Memes meet all these requirements: they have a subject, a specific style or format, and the audience (people on the internet) takes this meme format and fills in their interpretations of it.The fourth one, which is the most important characteristic of art, is what memes are based on. The work in question needs context. It may not be historical context in the sense of hundreds of years, but cultural and social context is extremely necessary in understanding them.
As we saw from the definition of art, memes fit the bill. Quite perfectly. Memes as an art form are special. While most art is created by an artist and sent into the world for interpretation, memes are a kind of social art. They are not simply born from a single mind. Sure, the format may be different, but the various multitudes of memes are created by countless people. Memes need us (their hosts) to multiply and survive, or else they will be obsolete. Hidden in a dark, dusty corner of the internet, never to be seen again!
Memes are literally fungi, participating in a symbiotic relationship with us. We give them survival; they give us human connection. Memes are engaging; they are literally humans coming together to form connections via inside jokes, witty humour, or teaching or spreading ideas through them.
One interesting parallel I found between memes and art ties back to the Catholic Church. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the church used to commission artists to paint about Christianity in order to move their cause forward and their propaganda. The same thing is done by corporations like Duolingo and Ryanair, where they create memes in order to further their own brand image and propaganda. Quite recently, the US military has been attempting to do the same. (Note: The word propaganda here refers to the spreading of ideas, information, or rumours for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person)
Technology and, most prominently, the internet are shaping and giving birth to new streams in various fields, so why not art? Many people earn money on the internet by participating in memes and going viral. A picture speaks a thousand words and many more. Memes are proof of that. Such simple images, but with a load of history, cultural context, and interpretation attached to it. They create conversations and get our brains running.
Isn’t that what art essentially is?