The tyranny of selfies on social media took an old-fashioned—and less-than-flattering—turn this past weekend, when an app that matches users’ faces with purportedly similar-looking paintings went viral. There’s much about the Google Arts & Culture app that’s worrisome—Silicon Valley’s development of facial recognition seems both too fast and too slow—but there’s nothing new about it. All those Facebook posts juxtaposing a selfie with an artwork of yore distill how we’ve been memeifying art history for years.
Thanks to accounts like Facebook’s Classical Art Memes (4.8 million followers) and Twitter’s Medieval Reactions (494,000 followers), centuries-old paintings—usually captioned with a funny, contemporary tag—regularly reach virality. I suppose it’s my duty to tell you that critics of such artistic appropriation oppose them on worthy grounds. While institutional and individual social media accounts with educational aims generally provide some context for an artwork, painting memes tend to be an art historian’s nightmare. Many of the memes lack attribution and dehistoricize the works at hand. If every painting is a question, these memes provide a wrong (but satisfying enough) answer about what the artwork is meant to express. And taken in their entirety, art history memes tend to skew narcissistic, featuring the kinds of images we tend to identify with most (more lone portraits of sad, slumped-over mopesters; less floating angel heads).
And yet I can’t help celebrating the proliferation of those memes. Part of my enthusiasm stems from a frustration with the increasing homogenization of social media images: faces, places, kids, pets, meals. Filters further deplete social media’s visual ecosphere by seemingly rendering all photos into a pursuit of the platonic ideal of low-res bragging, as shared photos devolve into a copy of a copy of a copy. In such self-confining platforms, it’s no wonder that we hunger for a larger imagistic vocabulary. At the risk of understating the appeal of robust jokes, like the ones found in the “Two Monks” series on the now-defunct the Toast (which weren’t on social media per se but did go viral), art history memes remind us how bizarre visual language can be while eliminating the obstacles to access that prevent most people from engaging with most of the art in the world.
It is of course vital for museumgoers to understand the various contexts in which artworks came to being. But maybe we can also give ourselves a break for our social media myopia. Today’s selfies are vain, boastful, aspirational. But so were many of the paintings of wealthy patrons, who were for most of history the only ones who could afford for their visages to remain after they themselves shuffled off the mortal coil.
Art history memes don’t usually provide a portrait of the past, but they do impart a feeling of historical continuity—the sense that other people have come before us and experienced much of the same, if not more difficult, hardships we face now. That’s what I get out of those memes, anyway. John Everett Millais’ 1852 painting Ophelia, while not being about a historical figure, reminds me that my sadness at a particular moment isn’t remotely unique or extreme, but just a part of life. The beauty of Millais’ canvas, in fact, perhaps counterintuitively prompts me to recall the ease with which individuals indulge their own pain, and the familiarity with which male artists aestheticize female suffering. The “omfg hamlet” version of that painting, meanwhile, offers no meaningful background for the work. But it does provide, with its feminist revision of Ophelia as a rebel (if an overwrought one), a good laugh and a twist on the painting’s inherent melodrama.
If paintings were initially motivated by narcissism centuries ago, perhaps we just have to accept that they’ll also be used for self-involved ends today. I’m fairly certain I’ve never seen anyone on social media, at least, take a photo of a Yayoi Kusama installation without making it a boast about how they got to be inside one of the Japanese artist’s infinity mirror rooms. (Museums have embraced selfie-takers, sometimes to the detriment of the art: Every visit to a museum these days feels like people chasing after the most awesome backdrop for a selfie, trying to inadvertently create a recursion of narcissism.) If the relegation of art to the background is the only other way we can see art integrated into social media and the ordinary fabric of our lives, give me the art history memes, which continue to be reinvented as memes change visual form. As problematic as those memes can sometimes be, in a social media universe where selfie monotony reigns, they help make art weird again.