The Art Meme

Below is an essay I wrote in Dr. Andrew Hershberger’s graduate critical theory class while pursuing my MFA at BGSU in 2005.  Wikipedia defines memetics as such :

Memetics is a theory of mental content based on an analogy with Darwinian evolution, originating from the popularization of Richard Dawkins’ 1976 book The Selfish Gene. It purports to be an approach to evolutionary models of cultural information transfer.

As a concept, memetics has become more mainstream since the writing of this paper, so I have decided to publish it online.  The paper explores these main concepts:

  • The Evolution of the Art Meme
  • The Art Object as Physical Construct and Memetic Carrier
  • The Idea of Artist-as-Meme
  • The Art Meme and Human Evolution
  • The topic of a ‘memotype’ as a neuroscientific (or mental) counterpart to the genetic and biological concepts of genotype and phenotype.

I would like to extend my thanks to Dr. Susan Blackmore, author of The Meme Machine, who provided valuable insight on the topic of memetics through online correspondence during the writing of this paper. Comments from readers are welcome at the end of the post.


The Heredity of Art: A Memetic Perspective

Colin Adriel Goldberg

Introduction

Art has evolved alongside the human species as an cultural counterpart to our genetic code.  It has perpetuated itself out of usefulness. Like genetic traits, cultural traits that become useless or ineffectual simply disappear.  The art that has become part of historical record has become so for a reason.  The idea of art, or the art meme if you will, has a heredity that we can trace through etymology.  If art itself is a meme, are artworks also memes?  And what of artists themselves, are they memes as well ?  This writing aims to investigate the heredity of art through the lens of memetics, focusing on four main ideas: the evolution of the art meme, the art object as physical construct and  memetic carrier, the idea of  artist-as-meme, and the relationship between the art meme and human evolution.

The Evolution of the Art Meme

 First, the art meme, and its etymological heredity; a Eurocentric starting-point for this argument is not arbitrary; an effective deconstruction of the art meme must tear down the mountain upon which it is based: the English language.  Words and their definitions compete for what can be described in terms of mindshare, or percentage of our collective attention.  This is not to say that memes, words, or objects consciously compete with each other; the ones that end up being preserved, reproduced and propagated are simply the most efficient or effective. In her book The Meme Machine, Dr. Susan Blackmore describes human creativity as  “a process of variation and recombination”.

[1]

At the root of memes are words.  If we cannot name an idea, we cannot conceptualize it.  Words are the key fields in the relational databases in our brains that make up our memotype.  This term has been used to describe the actual informational content of a meme, but perhaps upon further consideration, we could posit that it could also be applied properly as a to describe the mental component of a  human being, alongside the existing descriptors of genotype and phenotype, which describe a person’s genetic code and the physical manifestation of this code, respectively.

Like a record in a database, each word in our vocabularies enters our brains at some discrete time in our lives, at which point we can begin expanding upon this record by pairing it with a primary definition, as well as pointers to relevant terms, images related to the word, etc, etc.  If we can pull this information out of our minds at will, it must be stored there in some orderly fashion or format.

Memetics is the empirical study of memes. Meme is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as:

“A unit of cultural information, such as a cultural practice or idea, that is transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another” [2]

The  Oxford American College Dictionary defines meme as:

“That which is transmitted from one individual to another through nongenetic means, especially through imitation”[3]

Dr. Richard Dawkins defined the term in his book The Selfish Gene.  His initial rationale for the choice of term was as follows:

“The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme.  If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to ‘memory’ or to the French word meme.  It should be pronounced to rhyme with cream” [4]

Recent studies, such as The Electric Meme by Robert Aunger suggest that these “cultural units” can be defined through neuroscience as discrete electrical patterns of neurons firing, which constitute the electrochemical coding patterns by which we encode, store, recombinate, and transfer  information biologically[5].  This is primarily the realm of neurophysiology, however.  Memetics is primarily concerned with the study of how cultural information propagates.  This pursuit  is inherently linked to the fields of linguistics and etymology.

Let us define the art meme as the relationship between the word art and its changing English definition, beginning with the first recorded usage of the word as it came into popular usage in the English language during the early thirteenth century:

“Art (n.)

c.1225, “skill as a result of learning or practice,” from O.Fr. art, from L. artem, (nom. ars) “art, skill, craft,” from PIE *ar-ti- (cf. Skt. rtih “manner, mode;” Gk. arti “just,” artios “complete;” Armenian arnam “make,” Ger. art “manner, mode”), from base *ar- “fit together, join” (see arm (1)). In M.E. usually with sense of “skill in scholarship and learning” (c.1305), especially in the seven sciences, or liberal arts (divided into the trivium — grammar, logic, rhetoric — and the quadrivium –arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy). This sense remains in Bachelor of Arts, etc.

Meaning “human workmanship” (as opposed to nature) is from 1386.

Sense of “cunning and trickery” first attested c.1600.

Meaning “skill in creative arts” is first recorded 1620;

esp. of painting, sculpture, etc., from 1668. “ [6]

The term fine art appeared about five centuries after the English word art came into widespread usage.[7]  It is during this time period that commerce began to play a much larger role in western culture than ever before.  One reason for this was the explosive growth in shipping, which led to the establishment of a wealthy merchant class who were able to afford accoutrements which were previously only possessed by nobility.

The English word art finds its etymological root in the Latin word ars, which translates roughly into the English word “skill” in a wide variety of contexts.

ars , artis, f. [v. arma]

I. skill in joining something, combining, working it, etc., with the advancement of Roman culture, carried entirely beyond the sphere of the common pursuits of life, into that of artistic and scientific action, just as, on the other hand, in mental cultivation, skill is applied to morals, designating character, manner of thinking, so far as it is made known by external actions (syn.: doctrina, sollertia, calliditas, prudentia, virtus, industria, ratio, via, dolus).

I. Skill in producing any material form, handicraft, trade, occupation, employment (technê).

1. With the idea extended, any physical or mental activity, so far as it is practically exhibited; a profession, art (music, poetry, medicine, etc.); acc. to Roman notions, the arts were either liberales or ingenuae artes, arts of freemen, the liberal arts; or artes illiberales or sordidae, the arts, employments, of slaves or the lower classes.[8]

The division of the arts into two classes is what has led to our modern day idea of liberal arts, which are still generally thought of as the domain of an educated class. However,  skill at any useful trade or craft will provide a genetic advantage in terms of economic

sustainability of survival and likelihood of reproduction, and thus skill itself would seem to be a desirable meme to emulate.

The idea that useful skills could confer a human reproductive advantage could potentially give these skills a greater chance of being passed on, as their host organisms are provided a longer lifespan with which to distribute the memes directly to their offspring and others. In this sense, the skill meme, can be considered to be self-propagating.

The current art meme as defined by consensus has deviated most significantly from the skill meme since the advent of the fine art meme and its subsequent excision of the word fine.  This might be attributed to a postmodern rejection of the fine art definition of  beauty as an end or qualifier in art; thus anything can be art, if contextualized as such and justified to be worthy of its place in such context.

The Art Object as Physical Construct and Memetic Carrier

Art objects act dually as both physical constructs upon which memes are based, and memetic carriers or vehicles of these memes, passing on the instructions they contain without the need for the presence of their creator, and doing so potentially for generations after the expiration of the individual who origianlly created them. This is especially relevant with regards to art objects in the context of written works as Walter Benjamin’s oft-cited Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. The internet has greatly increased the ease with which information can propagate, which allows for effective memes to spread more rapidly than ever before.

Today, when we think of art, we all will have different associations with the word.  Generally speaking, though, people define as art the things we will find within the context of museums and galleries.  This definition of art has effectively replaced the older definitions associated with skill and craftsmanship[9], and is an art chosen not by the population at large, but by a subset of the population who make cultural decisions for the rest of the population, such as curators and editors.

The oldest objects in our museums are functional objects, whose decorative or aesthetic aspects became more and more developed through time.  There is the question of what is classified as art and what is artifact, but this seems to be a largely semantic issue defined by the curatorial agenda of the presenting organization.  Early human objects have sorted themselves out through a human selective process; the most effective human-made objects enabled their creators an evolutionary advantage that enabled them to produce these objects in great enough numbers that they are reflected in the archeological record.  There is one reason that certain objects prevail in the archaeological record: they successfully filled a niche of functionality in human culture which evolutionarily enabled their human producers to reproduce them through generations and in doing so, to  develop memotypic variations.

Through the objects and images that we have uncovered through archaeology, we have been able to discover some of the origins and purposes of human culture and the process of making things.

Recently, engraved plaques (below) were discovered on the southern coast of Africa that are dated to over 70,000 years old, over 30,000 years older than any similar object from Europe. The utilitarian purpose of these objects is still unclear, but they are definitively symbolic objects, which point to the African continent the source of our earliest human artworks.

In the Chinese province of Jiahu, artifacts from the Neolithic period have been discovered and recorded[10]Neolithic is defined as:

“..Of or relating to the cultural period of the Stone Age beginning around 10,000 B.C. in the Middle East and later elsewhere, characterized by the development of agriculture and the making of polished stone implements.” [11]

This definition conjures up mental images of primitive people hammering at flints to produce arrowheads.  The remarkable thing about the finds at Jiahu is that they reveal a much wider range of cultural implements than previously imaginable.  These included:

“… houses, kilns, pottery, turquoise carvings, tools made from stone and bone—and most remarkably—bone flutes…  evidence of a flourishing and complex society as early as the Neolithic period, when Jiahu was first occupied.”

The artifacts that we have preserved to represent ourselves as a species and the ones that we are constantly creating with ever-increasing rapidity are in constant competition for preservation and reproduction.  Are these objects themselves memes?  No.  But they are memetic carriers, or vehicles, much in the way that humans are as described by Dawkins and others.

The African plaques present an intriguing mystery, as a true understanding of their cultural significance would surely shed light on the society which enabled their creation. These objects are obviously symbolic carriers of ideas; our inability to decode the memetic structure with which they are recorded does not diminish their validity as memetic carriers.  These objects communicate through their very existence; they are the mute oracles of a past we can never know firsthand.  Perhaps the direct channel to spirituality that art-making is said to offer many of its practitioners is one of the earliest impulses recognized and sought after in the evolution of human consciousness.   Our art objects as well as our artifacts are memetic carriers, but they differ in one way in general: they have attribution to an individual artist or creator.

Mindshare can be defined as the percentage of members of a human population who are hosts to any given meme.  For instance, the people who have heard of Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous painting The Mona Lisa are carriers of the Mona Lisa meme.  These people represent a discrete percentage of all people currently alive, and the ratio of these groups would approximate the relative mindshare of the Mona Lisa meme, which is probably the most fit meme currently associated primarily with a singular painting.

The relative success of the Mona Lisa meme is due to the unicity of the objective carrier, that is, the painting itself is the only one of its kind.  The high mindshare, or “fame” of a painting has a direct relationship to the number of times it has been reproduced, as visual  reproductions are very effective memetic carriers, transcending verbal or written description.  The technology of digital reproduction and online distribution allows for an exponential spread of previously existing reproductions, as well as a methodology for tracking objective metrics on which memetic theorems can be based, primarily internet usage statistics gleaned from search engines.

A Google Images search run on December 5, 2005 for the term “Mona Lisa” yielded 53,200 image results[12].  Many of these are variations on the original work, which lends itself to the idea of mutation as related to memetics.  In genetics, this variation is the key player in selection, and this mutation is always said to be random. Perhaps this genetic randomness will, in turn, be explainable in scientific terms, as the field of genetics matures.  It is this variation which produces the gene pool from which each successive generation is drawn.  Genes which survive until the reproductive age of their host organisms are the only ones which will be passed on to the next generation and gene pool, thus their fitness is what defines their lifespan.

The Mona Lisa variant images are based on recombinant memes, which may, like genetic mutations, seem random from the standpoint of the viewer.  There are explanations that can be made for the existence of these images, both from the postmodernist perspective of the psychoanalysis of the artist and the context in which the work is created, as well as a sociocultural examination and interpretation of the work’s significance and that of its existence on the Internet.

Regardless of why these images are on the internet, their existence there yields measurable numerical statistics.  The Mona Lisa meme has experienced a recent rather viral revival through the popular novel The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, which provides an alternative history for the painting and an interesting, if fictional, hypothesis on its relationship to Christianity.

Examples of art with low unicity but high mindshare include: comic strips in newspapers, engravings on currency, music videos, and corporate logos.  These examples may fall outside of the popular  definition of the word art, which for many is now synonymous with fine art, i.e. drawing, painting, and sculpture.[13]

So art objects themselves are not memes, but they can serve as the physical constructs for memes, and also can act as memetic carriers of information ranging from bison migration patterns to ideological statements on consumerism.  Art objects differ from artifacts because the name of the individual artist that created the object is generally a  meme carried along with these works, as well as the memes of geographic region and time period of origination attatched to artifactual objects.

The Idea of Artist-as-Meme

 So, can artists themselves be memes? No, but they can serve as memetic recombinators whose names become memes because of their carriers’ exceptionally recombinatory (or creative) nature.  These name-memes serve as informational indices that are paired to the recombinant memes carried within the art objects themselves.

Only a small percentage people outside the of the “art world”, which can more accurately described be as the art industry,  are likely to have even heard of any living artists who are currently a given high valuation in the context of the industry, such as Jenny Holzer or  Jeff Koons, let alone be familiar with their work, which is art that delivers well-crafted concepts commenting deeply on topics such as gender bias and consumerism.

The pop artists of the 1960’s are currently experiencing a revival through a propagation of their works in museum shows and auction houses.  Only now, the art of a half-century ago is becoming acceptable as art by a mainstream audience.  This can be attributed, in large part, to art history defining which objects become regarded as art, contextualizing them as such, and then teaching this information dogmatically in an academic context.

The names of artists such as Picasso,  Miro, Warhol, Da Vinci, and Van Gogh have become memes that are propagated on a daily basis from mind to mind.  The use of Internet search engine results to compute a general mindshare statistic was demonstrated by Dawkins in his examination of the popularity of the term “memetic” in comparison to a competing term, culturegen. [14]

Dawkins used an Internet search engine to calculate the number of references each term was referenced online. These results calculate the number of times a term can be located on the hard discs of computers linked to the Internet.  As these computers are electronic information carriers, as opposed to biological carriers such as ourselves, these numbers cannot be seen as a direct  indicator of a memetic saturation, but can be seen as having a direct statistical relationship with mindshare, in that they define the number of binary reproductions of this object.

To revisit our earlier image search methodology,  we can again use internet search engines to retrieve the following results regarding how many images are returned as search results for particular artists:

Picasso: 490,00

Van Gogh: 196,000

Miro: 186,000

Da Vinci: 174,000

Warhol: 115,000

Koons: 8,740

Kostabi: 3,800[15]

Image search results provide a decent metric for the reproductive fitness of works produced by individual artists, and therefore, in some way, the efficacy of their creators.

We can see that a relative newcomer such as the Warhol meme has made rapid headway towards that of Da Vinci, the venerated creator of the Mona Lisa herself.  This is probably due in part to Warhol’s prolific nature, but also to the outside propagation of the Warhol meme by others.  The artist himself described the production of fame as a product in his books Popism, and The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, as well as addressing the subject directly in the content of his artwork by reproducing and recontextualizing “famous” consumer objects such as Brillo boxes and Campbell’s Soup cans.

It could be said that media and the applied arts in general are the “invisible art” of today, as commercial work generally remains anonymous.  Every second of television contains thirty frames of information processed by humans with the skills and abilities to do so.  All magazines in the newsstands are created through the human application of skill, craftsmanship, and intellect.  It has been said that ten percent of the population creates the entirety of our cultural content, while the remaining ninety percent are solely cultural consumers.

Today’s “visible art”, or that which is popularly defined as art, is generally referring to unique objects created by individuals who are no longer alive.  If asked to choose a favorite artist, most individuals will more often than not, name a venerated painter such as Picasso, Miro, Warhol, Da Vinci or Van Gogh.  Being deceased, all of these artists have closed bodies of work, thus, unlike living artists, it is impossible for them to decide to quit painting, or to change style or subject matter.  Their work is done, and the work of historians and critics is begun.

The Art Meme and Human Evolution

As discussed earlier, the art meme per sé began its existence in the 13th century when art entered into regular usage as an English word.   From that time until the present, its definition has changed, as shown through the brief etymology of the word presented in the beginning of this writing.  In fact, to be precise, we would have to believe that the definition of art (and every other word) is in a constant state of flux, with the current definition representing that of a consensus or majority. There are various dictionary definitions of the word art that are generally agreed upon, and there is also a personal definition that is unique to the memotype of the particular carrier.

This variation based on carrier in combination with the action of art objects as memetic carriers that could account for the variety of niches that the art meme has filled, and the evolutionary reasons for its existence and perpetuation.

The changing evolutionary advantages conferred by the application of the skill meme are vast and various.  These could include but are not limited to:

Survival (carving of cutting tools, creation of pottery)

Instruction (petroglyphs and other two-dimensional representation)

Spirituality (cross-cultural religious artifacts including the sculpture of religious statuary, depiction of symbolic imagery, the architecture and artifice of places of worship)

History (depictions of battle scenes, journalistic illustrations, photography)

Commerce (currency design, cross-cultural objects and their commodification)

Politics (battle scenes, national flags, propaganda art)

Ideology (the avant-garde and critical theory)

At the individual level, art-making can allow for the perpetuation of the artist’s ideas beyond the life of their creator.  This is a form of “afterlife” in a sense – the legacy of an individual artist lives on in their artworks, provided these artworks, or at least documentation and reproductions of them, survive their creator.  This conception of a memetic afterlife might explain, at least in part, the seemingly irrational drive which inspires artists to devote their lives to the creation of objects which they themselves sometimes have great difficulty in explaining.

The development of the camera necessitated a redefinition of the role of the artist in society, and what resulted was a modernist trend towards individualism, which led to increasing levels of abstraction, with painting becoming more and more stylized until artists such as Jackson Pollock and Piet Mondrian discarded literal representation altogether. The postmodern school of thought, defined by the writings of critics such as Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, opened the door for conceptual works such as the performance art pioneered by groups such as Fluxus.

The relatively new literary field of art theory and criticism has allowed critics such as Clement Greenberg to define entire movements, as he did with the Abstract Expressionists, using the example of Pollock as his prime illustration of this school of thought.  Pollock, wholly engaged in the making of his famous “action paintings”, had a symbiosis with Greenberg, who was able to eloquently capitulate in words the ideas of non-representationalism expressed in the canvasses themselves.  It was not that Pollock could not paint another way, or in a more realistic fashion; he chose not to, perhaps because of  an unspeakable epiphany, which only later was communicated  to the world linguistically by Greenberg in his essays.

In conclusion, we are able to see that the art meme has evolved, and its evolution is reflected in the etymological record. Artists are not memes themselves, but they can serve as generators and distributors of recombinatnt memes via the creation of art objects. These are the objects which are eventually are agreed upon though consensus as art, which is a process of contextualization that is generally associated with commodification, or the attribution of value in general. Art objects have been demonstrated to be potent memetic carriers due to their value, which is based on a ratio between the object’s mindshare and its unicity.  These objects also serve as the physical construct upon which all or some of this information is based, making them unique as carriers.

Value is the prime selective force in the evolution of the art object; in Neolithic times, value was inherent in a well-crafted object, and the “fittest” objects have perpetuated themselves and have changed into modern forms.  The development of money as a standard index of value has made it much easier for objects to become commodified.  The linkage of object with value enhances its lifespan (likelihood of preservation), and usefulness as a vehicle of memetic transmission, with its value acting as a  reinforcer for the validity of the memes it carries.  Today, the monetary value ascribed to an art object can today be exchanged  directly through commerce for more tangible resources such as food, shelter and clothing.  This equitability provides owners of these objects the added evolutionary advantage of stored survival resources.  Generally, though, it would seem (and as an artist myself, I would hope) that people purchase artworks because they appreciate them and enjoy them.

Perhaps one reason that specific objects are in the dustless chambers below museums today as opposed to other ones is as much because of their monetary value as their intangible value  as cultural treasures.   Indeed, the works of the Old Masters are the new bodies for today’s sarcophagi, revealed periodically for worship at the altars of Art, our museums.  In the light of this initial investigation of the relationship between art and memetics, we can see that the creative drive of human beings is linked to our survival, with our memotype playing as much a role as our phenotype or genotype.

Bibliography (Sources listed in order of citation)

The Meme Machine, Dr. Susan Blackmore.

Oxford University Press 1999.

A Timeline of Art History (online)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art 2000-2005

http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition

Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000

The Selfish Gene, Dr. Richard Dawkins

Oxford University Press, 1976

The Electric Meme, Robert Aunger

Free Press, 2002

Online Etymology Dictionary

http://www.etymonline.com/

Douglas Harper 2005

A Latin Dictionary. Founded on Andrews’ edition of Freund’s Latin dictionary. revised, enlarged, and in great part rewritten by. Charlton T. Lewis, Ph.D. and. Charles Short, LL.D. Oxford. Clarendon Press. 1879

Google Image Search

http://images.google.com/

Google 2005

Google Web Search

http://www.google.com/

Google 2005

The Idea of History, R.G. Collingwood 1946

Oxford University Press; Revised edition (October, 1994)


[1] The Meme Machine, Blackmore 1999, p. 15.

[2] The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition

[3] The Oxford American College Dictionary, 2005

[4] The Selfish Gene, Dawkins 1976. p.192

[5] The Electric Meme, Aunger 2002

[6] Online Etymology Dictionary, http://www.etymonline.com

[7] ibid

[8] A Latin Dictionary. Freund,et al.

[9] The Idea of History, Collingwood

[10] A Timeline of Art History, http://www,metmuseum.org/toah/

[11] The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition

[12] Google Image Search, December 5, 2005

[13] The Idea of Histoy, Collingwood 1946

[14]  Blackmore, xiv

[15] Google Image Search, December 5, 2005

2017-01-14T17:34:52+00:00December 19th, 2012|journal|

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