Memes as Satire
Memes! I can’t remember the first time I heard that word said out loud. It’s very likely I first saw it written on Something Awful, an early 2000s incubator of absurdist internet satire. Back then the meme world was small. Humorous post that obtained the title “meme” usually involved cats and almost always were constructed with a single image framed by top text and bottom text. Like this…
It wasn’t until my junior year of high school that I learned the word’s origin in Richard Dawkin’s book The Selfish Gene. Dawkins coined the word to elucidate how cultural ideas can spread and mutate like genes. Ideas go viral if they are catchy and relevant and experience extinction if they fall out of step with society.
As a young designer, I found this vision of culture liberating. It gave me a framework to generate new ideas. I was no longer at war with a blank page but tasked with finding and mutating existing ideas to serve my goals. I see memes as leveraging familiar touch points to deliver bigger ideas.
Memes today are predominantly still satiric but the topics they confront have gotten more complex. The stakes are higher too. There are countless articles about the role “memes” played in the 2016 election. The power of memes comes from their ability to create a form of visual shorthand that can be endlessly remixed with familiar cultural signifiers . A critique of a politician can be summed and spread using two pictures of drake in a disapproving pose and an approving pose.
Familiarity with the format among sophisticated digital natives has led to the format to grow wiser. There are “meme-ers” (is that a word yet?) that use the populist format to deliver a more sophisticated cultural critique.
My favorite artist working in the medium is Brad Troemel. Troemel primarily uses memes to make institution critiques of the art market. His fixation on the topic stems from his involvement in the art world as both a teacher and an accomplished conceptual artist. I you are interested in learning more about Brad there is a great interview with him in New Yorker.
Here are some of my favorite meme’s created by Brad. I only chose works that follow a current “meme format”. I find these to be more cutting than his long form videos or multi-panel comics he post on his Instagram page.
The role of satire has always been to critique, ridicule, and ideally, force introspection and improvement. Satire, weaponized in meme format is only now being fully appreciated.