Art has existed for about 30,000 years now. And although art has no practical utility, it is one of those things that puts humans at the apex of the food chain. At first, art was strictly an extension of the artist’s speculation, and slowly it branched out to imagination. It slowly evolved into a tool to form friendships and solidarities, establish authority, form groups, bands, tribes, civilisations, and societies. Societies as big as Russia were formed through art. And, unlike the other extension of human cognitive faculty, i.e. science, art has evolved on its own through vessels called artists. It has endured through time and adapted itself to epochal changes and cultural diversifications like a living, breathing organism. If there’s one thing on the planet that could come close to humans, it would be art.
Time and the intent behind it shape the adaptability of art. Art can be used as a mouthpiece for personal vexation, for political propaganda, as a romantic sonnet, a rebellious speech, or even as satire. The possibilities are endless and the means to propagate them have a few malleable forms. The very beginning of art was through illustrations, statuettes, and fictional stories. As our ancestors developed their faculties, so did art. It has since then taken several forms, namely illustration, text, sculpting, acting, dance, song, cinema and now, memes. Like innumerable developments in the field of art, memes too betray a thing or two about the period to which they are relevant.
The word meme originally comes from the Greek word ‘mimema’, meaning imitation. The term was coined by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene in 1976. Back then, however, the word didn’t gain a lot of recognition. A few decades later, after the emergence of the Internet, memes have surged to be an art form most characteristic of the millennials or Gen Y.
To understand how a meme is a form of art, we need to understand other art forms. The key idea behind any art is to freeze or compress a particular thought or vision, a whole infinity into a finite space. It confronts our consciousness with matters that we miss out on due to activities essential to survival. If rendered well enough, it takes hold of our spirits and colonises it with whatever it wanted to. Consuming art is a conscious effort and has always been, until the arrival of memes. Memes have gone astray from this principle of art. Memes are consumed in an unstudied manner, seldom requiring cognition.
Memes are symbolic of millennials. They symbolise the hyperactive lifestyle of our generation. They betray the cultural degradation we are going through. A degradation that makes us ponder and say less and less and passively consume more and more. Our vocabulary is riddled with buzzwords which lose meaning with every passing day. Abundance has made us fall out of our practice of thinking. Time has shortened itself relatively, and we constantly seek to escape reality. On average, in a single day, a person goes through a hundred different thoughts, which are not his own.
We are losing the originality of thought, the creativity that we are born with. It is in the nature of words and of our human selves to make it difficult to say just about anything. It is momentous to experience the bittersweetness of struggling for words to express how we feel, to lose words just as they are clawing at the base of one’s throat. But with meme culture we lose that. My broken expression and my efforts give way to tagging my friends in memes and to what Buzzfeed tells me describes me and the culture of my generation.
The erosion of human cognition is alarming and evermore because of the manner of consumption. As mentioned before, memes are consumed quite absently not requiring a conscious effort. This leaves us unguarded, vulnerable to what the memes represent. And, as the practice of conscious thinking ebbs away, so does our consciousness towards life. We are gradually turning apathetic, normalising things that should evoke deep concern.
As Phil Kaye tells us, “If you repeat something over and over again it loses its meaning.” The words ‘climate change’ turn into a category of memes you share, people’s mental traumas become a ‘mood’ to us and bashing capitalist exploitation just something we do for the kick of feeling edgy. The outrageous loses the ability to outrage us anymore. We think we feel so much that we end up feeling very little.
A generation distinguished by a mental health crisis, an existential crisis, a crisis of faith, and a crisis of belief requires, above all, empathy and a careful understanding of the self to counter all our crises. But with the emergence of memes, the probability of countering them is plummeting. Memes that represent cultures and societies, on both micro and macro levels, qualify as phenomenal and path-breaking. Memes have helped us understand our kind better, they’ve taken away the alienation we feel.
However, memes have ended up normalising, without us realising, a lot that is worrisome. The apathy we feel towards ourselves and our actions is of grave concern. The manifestation of this apathy is seen in the increasing streak of nihilism in our generation. Memes are blurring the lines and lies constructed through fiction over the ages and slowly lifting our trust from certain systems of belief.
But enough about the villainy of memes. Memes are an extension of postmodernism. One can’t discount all of the good that memes have brought. They’ve made us aware of things we otherwise would have remained oblivious of: culture, people, politics, ideologies, sports, our favourite celebrities. Memes are reaching to form a global culture, unparalleled by any art form before. Millennials understand diversity better than any of our previous generations. Millennials are aware of and understand the climate crisis, the water crisis and in general the humanitarian crisis breathing heavily down our necks. With the hyperactivity and the pace of things, it is difficult to take time out to be aware, to seek information, but with memes, it is no longer an arduous task. The simplicity of it is probably its greatest feature. It psychologically functions on the need to remain simple. Perhaps why we keep returning to memes in the face of rising complexities.
Memes represent a milestone in the evolution of art, a point at which human art has transcended from a confrontation of our inner consciousness to an unguarded passive intake of what lies before one. For better or for worse, meme culture has a sinister ability to both reveal and shape the people who consume it the most, namely the Millennials.
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