Webster’s Dictionary defines art as “the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects.” This definition makes sense—after all, a painter learns to paint, a filmmaker develops the skills they need to make movies and a writer learns how to meld words together on a page. All of these are established artistic pursuits in today’s world. But do popular Internet memes, fit into it?
A meme is defined as “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture,” again that comes from the well-respected Webster’s Dictionary. Memes take hundreds of forms in today’s world but the most common is a screenshot from a movie or film, or a drawing, accompanied by text. They have become a dominant force of the modern Internet culture to the point where entire websites such as 9gag and Imgur are devoted entirely, or nearly entirely, to their distribution. They are definitely an important tool to understanding culture, but are they art?
The short answer is yes. The slightly longer answer is that, according to Webster’s, a meme by itself is an idea. Therefore, the posting of memes to the Internet, the area widely regarded by the world as the last safe haven for the free exchange of ideas, would be an expression of that idea. American poet Amy Lowell called art “the desire of a man to express himself, to record the reactions of his personality to the world he lives in.” There are a vast number of memes devoted solely to expressing personality—such as grumpy cat or trollface. Therefore memes expressing an aspect of personality should be considered art.
But wait; Webster’s defined art as needing both the use of skill and creative imagination. The fact is, memes do require skill, just not in the same sense as other art forms. Creative imagination is used to either draw or find the image and if your first reaction is to say that those who capture images rather than draw them are not artists, there are a few photographers who would disagree. Other skills are used in the crafting of the meme—creating the text, background etc.—which allows the artist to express their idea. That indicates a practical knowledge, not just understanding how to accomplish creation on the Internet but how the World Wide Web functions as a tool for spreading information. This would not be the first time such a thing has happened; films spread art into cinemas while mainstream papers allowed writing to take place in homes.
Whether memes can be compared to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, for example, is not the point up for debate.
Memes are an important expression in culture and the role they play grows daily. How many people would be aware of the Kony 2012 movement; would there have been any political pressure on that topic at all if not for memes? They are more than ideas; they are an expression which flows as the freest form of art on the internet right now. Consider memes to be art: it makes putting off essays sound a lot more reasonable when one is indulging in artistic expression.