Topic: Pop Culture
Memes vs the art world;
Lessons from indoartno
One would expect memes to be easy, accessible and universal. It's kind of a weird assumption I have based on the hundreds of memes I consume daily. They are everywhere, from Reddit, Facebook, Instagram, and even Instastories of screen captures from Reddit and Facebook screen captures on Twitter. This ease and proliferation of cross posting lends itself to the accelerated intertextuality and circulation of memes that are characteristic of it. (When’s the last time you scroll through a social media platform and saw the same meme more than once under an hour?) Argued to be one of the most effective modes of communication, it goes even beyond the text, it's simple and direct imagery should make it easy to understand, to laugh at, to get.
So imagine my surprise when I first saw indoartno’s page, and was hit with sheer confusion. I didn’t understand a thing and this wasn’t because the text was in Indonesian, (Google translate makes quick work of this), it's the fact that the imagery, the jokes, the puns, just were so out of context for me. These memes were not for me. Memes are not universal.1
Indoartno is an Indonesian Instagram account that posts and circulates art memes specifically about the indonesian art scene. A parody of Indoartnow, an account that compiles and features art news of Indonesian artists. While not a one to one parody of the official page, it's a jumping point to much of what Indoartnow stands for. Much like other popular parody sites like Meme Appetit or locally here Memedef. But because of this cultural parody it makes it exceedly difficult to understand or even get any of the references. For the first time I felt like my parents, struggling with a whole new culture, that I could not grasp.
I think therein lies the misunderstanding that memes are actually universal, they are not. They are vernacular. Memes are often defined by the same tired genetic etymology coined Richard Dawkins from his 1976 book ‘The Selfish Gene’. Or its now dated definition of it being a “unit of culture”. But what these writers (and I guess we all often forget) is the failure to define whose culture. You aren’t meant to understand all memes, memes circulate in their own culture and have their own language. Memes in fact might be a secondary form of information rather than a primary source. But therein lies its power and potential.
Memes can change the world. We live in an unprecedented time where memes are both at the forefront of our vernacular digital language and weaponized tools for misinformation. Memes can affect change from a mere giggle to the shaping of literal democracies. This wide almost catch all potential of memes is because of its specific and pointed veneculaism within a given culture and not its universalism. This is why you have memes that bring together alt right neo-Nazis but can also create entire communities celebrating Pepe the Frog. Each of these groups have used memes as a vehicle within their own sub-cultures’ vernacular language, and this is why for many on the outside either of these groups memes might seem confusing.
And this brings me to the peculiar case of the artworld. The vernacular language of the art world… isn’t really all that vernacular for the rest of the world. I don’t think I need to put up much evidence to justify the often opaque landscape of the art scene. And this is where it runs oddly counter to the usual notions of what people see as informal and vernacular modes of communication.
But in a strange way, this is why it makes memes such a strong tool to break those precise boundaries down. The vernacular nature of memes in itself runs very much counter to the nature of the art world that at times willingly obscures or omits information. And thus allows memes to occupy a unique position of being one of the rare few modes of vernacular communication within the art world itself, lending itself to be one of the rare few antagonists ripe for the art world-
CIRCULATION OF ANXIETY2
ANXIETY AS TRANSPARENCY AS POWER AS MEME
THE UNTOLD POTENTIAL FOR MEMES TO CHANGE THE ART WORLD
1.Appendix A, WhatsApp text at 2:04 PM, 7/15/2020 between Daniel Chong and Anathapindika
2.Appendix B, WhatsApp text at 1:52 PM, 7/15/2020