Articles and Features

How Art Memes Have Become the Art World’s Newest Form of Criticism

By Adam Hencz

“Via Instagram, art meme accounts uphold the illusion that anyone can remotely participate in the madness of the art world even just by double-tapping on funny images, gifs or short videos.”

Since the platform’s original release in 2010, the art world has approached Instagram in various ways; from collectors buying artworks via Direct Messages, through the rise of Instagrammable exhibitions at art museums, to art activist accounts curating social movements across the globe. In the past two years, art meme accounts have been among the fastest-growing on the paramount social media platform. Superimposing contemporary contexts and conversations into classical art accompanied by culturally relevant captions, or reflecting on relevant topics like art world elitism or just making snarky remarks about curators and museum management, meme accounts appeal to all types of art audiences. We reveal the main underlying trends and examine the ways art memes have contributed to the popularity of classical artists as well as they have become a primary method of institutional critique.

Art memes by Freeze Magazine.
Freeze Magazine tracks many of the signature themes in institutional critique, specifically fair pay, as well as the questions of decolonisation and inclusion.

While the pandemic has forced the art world to embrace the digital – with major auction houses holding their first online auctions or selling NFT digital artworks for eye-watering prices, the art world’s real digital challenge is now to advocate new media literacy. The rise of art meme culture and its wide acceptance just demonstrate that the channels of information dissemination are transforming. The pace of relevant art criticism has also changed remarkably in recent years. Even on social media, we are being schooled on the etiquettes and nuances of the art world but in a way that no amount of time in an art school could have taught us.

Art memes by Freeze Magazine.

Freeze Magazine (@freeze_magazine) is one of the Instagram users to follow for a steady stream of humorous posts, inside jokes and witty criticism. Since its launch in September 2019, it has grown to become a critical platform within the art community, as well as advocating memes as a collaborative form of communication by nature. Its collaborators are from anonymous citizens to contemporary artists, campaign groups and arts organisations. Freeze has been discussed in university lectures and covered in the press, including The New York Times, The Art Newspaper and Frieze Magazine.
Freeze has contributed greatly to scholarly meme theory as well, by presenting Meme 5OO, a project with Open Space Contemporary to push the boundaries of meme analysis and understanding with an objective of also being accessible to both readers and writers. The account tracks many of the signature themes in institutional critique, specifically fair pay, as well as the questions of decolonisation and inclusion.

Another account with a remarkable follower base that amplifies the influence of art memes is Jerry Gogosian (@jerrygogosian) – a play on the notorious New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz and blue-chip art dealer Larry Gagosian – that went from making raw inside jokes to eventually using their platform to engage in questions like sexual misconduct or decolonisation. Accounts like Freeze Magazine and Jerry Gogosian are in some ways trying to lower barriers and the invisible class and privilege boundaries in the art world by letting people in on private jokes being made at the expense of artists and galleries.

"Your boat looked bigger in your profile picture" inspired by Anders Zorn, Sommarnöje, 1886
“Your boat looked bigger in your profile picture”
Anders Zorn, Sommarnöje, 1886

A different kind of home to the quickly digestible text-on-image format of art memes draws often from Renaissance and sometimes modern artworks. Accounts like @classical_art_memes_official or @artmemescentral aim to revisit classical and well-known works to juxtapose their images with texts on contemporary first-world situations, severely exaggerating their drama.

From Classical Art Memes Official

Themed art meme accounts balance on the fine line between being particularly relatable to a specific group of people like art lovers, but universal enough to attract a large following while advocating art historical works. Posting, sharing and liking memes enable us to participate in a collective exchange of feelings without requiring us to reveal whether a particular meme has any real significance for us. It upholds the illusion that anyone can remotely participate in the madness of the art world even just by double-tapping on funny images, gifs or short videos. At the end of the day, whether we like them because we agree, because we feel understood, or because we simply find them entertaining is irrelevant. What remains important is that through these accounts, we can become part of a collective therapy session that additionally is intended to improve the system from within, rather than to recklessly reject it.