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Legitimising Memes – Are They Art?

By Kames Narayanan

 
@classical_art_memes
 

There is no denying that Andy Warhol is one of history’s greatest artists. Even to the art illiterate, Warhol’s signature paintings of Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962), Green Coca-Cola Bottles (1962) and silkscreen prints of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley are identifiable signposts of the Pop Art movement that flourished in the 1960s in America. But there lies a much-debated irony on Warhol and his works. 

Warhol’s renditions of banal everyday objects as works of art, in a way, marked fine art’s departure from the emotionally driven Abstract Expressionism to an era of commercial Pop Art. The American artist’s approach to art was removing himself from its seriousness and in the process, creating a genre that provoked a fundamental question of identity: What is art? 

The question leads to a variety of schools of thought. The first, conceived by Clement Greenberg — one of history’s most influential art critics — makes the case for modern art as “the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticise the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence”. An alternative perspective suggests an entirely different theory where modern art is based on a pastiche of varying elements and influences. But these blurred lines of ambiguity do cross paths when one dives into the motivations behind the creation of art, independent of when or how it was made popular. 

Gucci
 

On the grand cultural scheme, art is, in essence, an outlet for reaction. It is a metamorphosis that alters in form and medium through the passage of time. In 2016, memes — essentially captioned photos — catapulted to viral fame. These two-dimensional images juxtaposed against witty one-liners were a platform through which ideas, big and small, were perpetuated. While memes, like Warhol’s pop-culture references, approach even hard-hitting political issues in a cavalier, none too serious manner, the monumental levels of engagement these commentaries garner speak to their legitimacy. 

Far exceeding the social media influence of the president of the United States himself — as of press time, meme curator Elliot Tebele’s Instagram following is almost twice that of Donald Trump — memes, like art in the past, are the bellwether of cultural conversations. But only without the snooty elitism associated with the latter. 

Within the infinite depths of the internet resides a relatable meme in commentary to every conceivable facet of the contemporary way of life. Beyond just matter for mindless repartee, the influence of memes and their creators has been tapped on as a marketing tool. Earlier this year, esteemed luxury fashion house Gucci debuted a slew of attention-grabbing memes as part of its digital campaign in promotion of its new line of watches. 

Where the creators of memes are increasingly tapped as bona fide artistic collaborators, in all objectivity, the work that they create warrants a similar status. As the advent of technology and digitisation continues to be a pivotal game-changer in the way art is both created and valued. Will the future Vincent van Gogh find his canvas on the interwebs, or perhaps, a mobile phone app? 

@classical_art_memes
 

Like art, memes can be divided into different categories. Here, we break down the DNA of four identifiable accounts that have amassed a cult following. 

The Classical Art Memes

@classical_art_memes is a journey back to the Renaissance period of fine art. Paintings revived from the pages of art history are made relevant and relatable. While the one-liners that accompany these images may be a far cry from the intent of the original painting, the viral effect of memes motivate even those who are not well-versed in the art world, an insight to the particular genre of art. If not for the carefully curated account, Vincent van Gogh’s first portrait painted by John Peter Russell in 1886 would have been easily forgotten; a pertinent piece of history buried with time. 

@classical_art_memes
 

The curator behind the account is as unidentifiable as the dated works of art are to an untrained eye. A Google search on the face behind these widely popularised, signature memes drew a blank — no interviews, no photos and not even a profile write-up was to be traced. Nevertheless, I reached out to him and my attempt was unexpectedly reciprocated with an email interview. Only revealing his first name, Stefan, the man behind a meme account with a burgeoning following of 137,000, hid behind a veil of mystery. The only other personal information that he divulged was that he held a full-time job in the medical industry. 

@classical_art_memes
 

A man of a few words, he speaks in one-liners, like the memes he creates. Today, the account is a melting pot of original content he creates and those that are sent to him. Stefan attributes the popularity of memes to its relatability and earnestly adds, “There is so much suffering in the world and memes bring joy to people.” 

Jessica Anteby & Elliot Tebele

Meet Instagram's most influential meme curating couple. Jessica Anteby (@beigecardigan), 27, and Elliot Tebele (the genius behind a series of meme accounts including @kanyedoingthings, @jerrynews and @pizza), 26, count more than 17 million followers across their multiple accounts. What started out as a fleeting impulse to prove her meme curating prowess to her husband eventually paved the way for Anteby’s Instagram account — which is essentially synonymous to “basic bitch” according to the website, Urban Dictionary. 

@beigecardigan/ Elliot Tebele
 

While both Anteby and Tebele identify with a shared sense of humour, the former’s account, peppered with images of Paris Hilton from her heyday and screengrabs from “Keeping Up with the Kardashians”, appeals more to women. Her collaboration with storied Italian luxury house Gucci adds to her credibility as a meme artist. 

@beigecardigan/ Elliot Tebele
 

Tebele, on the other hand, has transitioned from individual social media accounts to establishing an empire. Since creating his personal Instagram account named after his love for comedian Jerry Seinfield, he has moved on to set up social media management company Jerry Media, which he considers as a “millennial start-up”. Counting Hollywood A-listers like Kanye West, Kim Kardashian, Justin Bieber and Joe Jonas amongst his burgeoning following, Tebele is the epitome of a social media luminary. 

If Hollywood has its power couples, social media has found its equivalent in the Tebeles, who present an added dash of humour alongside their entrepreneurial endeavours. 

Sebastian Tribbie

Like artists who display trademark qualities in the works that they create, Sebastian Tribbie (@youvegotnomale) has established a niche brand of memes under his account. Humour comes as second-nature to Tribbie, who had his first brush with creating memes during his time as a marketer for comedy clubs in New York. His comedic tendencies predominately circle the topics of fashion and pop culture but no topic is out of bounds. 

@youvegotnomale
 

His outright personal dislike for Hollywood actresses like Lena Dunham and Anna Kendrick is clearly evident in the content that he creates. While it is commonplace for celebrities to bear the brunt of internet memes, Tribbie’s parodies have garnered strong aversive reactions from A-listers. He is currently blocked by both Dunham and Taylor Swift. 

@youvegotnomale
 

Tribbie is a celebrity in his own right. Getting stopped on the streets has become customary to the artist’s everyday life and the requests for interviews come pouring in. Further catapulted to fame since his collaboration with Gucci’s digital watch campaign, his Starter Pack memes, a collage of photos meant to exemplify an archetype of a celebrity or subculture has found its standing as a category of memes on its own. 

The nature of his work may be light-hearted but Tribbie’s approach to it is anything but. Vocal about his disdain for meme accounts that curate rather than create, Tribbie has made it his personal mission to never fall into the former category. 

April Eileen Henry

Looking across the board at meme accounts, visual appeal often ranks low as a consideration. After all, the assumption is that people visit these social media accounts to primarily seek comedic relief. 

@textsfromyourexistentialist
 

@textsfromyourexistentialist is a meme account that boasts a uniform aesthetic unlike many others. Each post features an image — often Renaissance artworks or the occasional movie still from a Jean-Luc Godard film — meticulously overlaid with blue or grey speech bubbles bearing sadistic exchanges related to varying degrees of existential crisis. 

@textsfromyourexistentialist
 

It is easy to guess where Los Angeles-based poet April Eileen Henry, the creative mind behind the account, draws her inspiration from. Like most 20-something creatives, Henry’s woes of the heart saw her turn to social media as an outlet for her emotions. What started as a platform for healing from a breakup eventually evolved into a platform for her inner monologues. Here, in the recesses of social media, like-minded individuals seek empathy for a compendium of new-age problems. 

Her Instagram description reads “Nietzsche all on your mouth like liquor”, in reference to Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzche, a German philosopher whose mental breakdowns resonated deeply with Henry. A mood board of alluring images and a griping message, Textsfromyourexistentialist is in a class of its own.