Reading Memes

This post uses slides, images, and examples to introduce critical (thoughtful) reading strategies for art and even the news.

According to lexico dot com, a meme is an element of culture or system of behavior that is passed from one individual to another by non-genetic means, typically by imitation.

Discerning what is legitimate is particularly difficult concerning social media where the authors of memes are not included.

My metrics for evaluating works of art: FORM, MOOD, FUNCTION, PERSONAL and SOCIAL VALUES, and the most important HISTORICAL CONTEXTS.

Thomas Jefferson, as a man of the Enlightenment, knew well the power of art and the importance of symbolism. For the fledging country, Jefferson wanted the symbolism of Neoclassicism symbolically embedded in new architecture. This is a positive use of ideology.

Jefferson’s use of Greco-Roman architecture to symbolize the new country and its ideals is one of the defining moments of the new country and its positive and uplifting ideologies.

Greco-Roman architecture embodied the Enlightenment ideals of balance, restraint, unity of design, clarity, and proportion. These were the values Jefferson and others wanted the new country to aspire to.

This is the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. What does the Greco-Roman architecture symbolize for museums?

Or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City?

Or the public buildings in St. Louis?  FORM embodies ideological content.

Can you imagine the shock of the artist George Bellows when he learned that fellow artist and colleague Marcel Duchamp submitted the urinal as his art entry to the competition? What did Bellows recommend for Duchamp’s entry?

How a work of art is meant to FUNCTION can be key to its meaning and social values.

Here are Damon Davis’s building posters during the Ferguson protests after the murder of Michael Brown in 2014. What might the hands symbolize? Can you come up with more than one interpretation for the hands?

Here are Davis’ All Hands on Deck installed in our galleries in 2016. How has their FUNCTION been altered?  Is their symbolism any less significant or has it become more so?

In this painting from the Saint Louis Art Museum the FUNCTION of the painting was to advertise the prostitute who is holding a meme showcasing her services.  A 1625 Dutch painting titled A Courtesan Holding an Obscene Image.

Personal and SOCIAL VALUES influence one’s opinion regarding a work of art, a social media meme, or the news.

In this detail of Bruegel’s 1559 Netherlandish Proverbs, foolish behaviors and popular beliefs are called into question by the artist. Throughout History, serious artists were never solely interested in painting pictures to merely replicate the world; philosophy and world-views were always being explored visually and metaphorically.

HISTORY is the most important of my five metrics of visual evaluations. History is the most important because the context can alter all of the others – FORM, MOOD, FUNCTION, VALUES are changed over time to some degree. However, some values change very little over time or even cultures. Valor and heroism are admirable in any time period.

Picasso Guernica 1937 is one of the epitomes of anti-war statements by an artist. Here, Picasso condemns Spanish dictator Franco for having had the Nazis bomb the Spanish people.

Andy Warhol proved many times that he was more than a mere disinterested commentator. Here in this eleven foot tall painting Warhol has made a very strong civil rights statement against police brutality. The black and white photo is from LIFE magazine. Red Race Riot, 1963; Germans recognized what Warhol was accomplishing and the Ludwig Museum in Köln scooped up this masterpiece. How might we discuss this political work of art in our museum?

Media messages are constructed, but that does not mean all of the constructions are meant to mislead.

Who created the message is the most important. Consider how much effort the FBI put into trying to find the origins of the social media posts maligning our elections.

Consider how African Americans view confederate public works installed during the Jim Crow era. What public work might offend you or worse, make you fear for your life? Art forms carry and delivery the content. I think a Nazi statue in an American public park would be of concern.

Brugel, Netherlandish Proverbs, 1559.

Goya, Third of May 1808, 1814 condemns the French occupation of Madrid and murder of Spanish citizens.

Max Beckmann, The Night, 1919, condemns the atrocities of war.

Diego Rivera, The Detroit Industry murals, 1933. 27 fresco panels portray automotive, industrial, and agricultural industries.

A political cartoon by Jacob Burck, The Lord Provides, 1934.

Walker Evans, Portrait of a Sharecropping Family in Alabama (1936).

Builder Levy, I Am A Man / Union Justice Now, 1969, silver gelatin print.

Robert Longo, Master Jazz, 1982, representing the angst and turmoil of the early 1980s.

Félix Gonzales-Torres, Untitled, early 1990s.  The artist specifically posed the work’s meaning as open-ended and encouraged viewers to come up with their own. Often considered as a memorial to those who succumbed to AIDS in the 1980s.

Jefferson’s use of neoclassical architecture with its “built-in” or inherent symbolism of order, logic, and clarity is the best example of how content is conveyed by a society’s art works.

Today, it is perhaps, much harder to discern fact from fiction. But with the study of art, looking closely at who made it and why and in what historical circumstances, it can become much easier and rewarding.

Roland BarthesMythologies, 1957.  Barthes explores topics as diverse wrestling and soap detergents identifying culture’s supporting connotations and themes.

Mary Ann StaniszewskiBelieving is Seeing: Creating the Culture of Art, 1995. Staniszewski tracks how the meaning and value of “art” has changed over historical periods, and what it means today.

Brian Wallis, editor, Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation, 1984. A superb anthology of contemporary art by such authors as Jorge Luis Borges, Michel Foucault, Craig Owens, and Martha Rosler.