It is complex to retrace a history of the internet-meme as its origins belong to a branch that is not close to that of the image; which is genetics and biology. For this reason, it is important to establish the steps that took place between the first definition of a meme given by evolutionist Richard Dawkins in the text “The Selfish Gene”[1] in 1976 to the modern idea of what a meme is.

As Dawkins states, “Just like genes spread out in the gene pool by jumping from body to body through spermatozoon or egg cells, memes spread out in the mental pool by jumping from brain to brain in a process that, in some ways, you can call imitation.”[2]  Decades after the publication of the evolutionist’s book the memetic theory developed, concerning the spread through imitation of ideas, information and expressive and behavioural patterns where memes are identified as single imitation units with the potential of playing a significant role in the transmission of culture.

The turning point happened in the 90’s, when, for the Festival Ars Electronica of Linz it was speculated that memetics could be useful to understand the evolution of the relationship between man and technology and the spread of concepts and ideas through the web. It this case, memes are called “cognitive pixels” in the vast universe of new media.

 After the publication of psychologist Susan Blackmore’s “The meme machine” and by Francesco Ianneo’s “Meme. Genetica e virologia di idee, credenze e mode” and the proceedings of the conference about Darwin’s influence on culture, curated by Robert Aunger, memes started to be pictured in a new environment; that of culture and information technology. The definition of “unit of transmission” shifts as well, its characteristics taken from genetics – that is its ability to evolve and replicate – persist. However, it is presented an additional feature that compares it to the parasite and the symbiotic organism.

For the first time it is presented the potential virality of the meme, that, today, is one of the cornerstones of its characteristics. Nevertheless, it is important to clarify that studies on memetics that are actually closer to dealing with visual culture – such as that on the relationship between memetics and Aby Warburg’s work in Mnemosyne, where meme is seen, for example, as an image unit that persists in the evolution of the history of art – are still very far away from a modern definition, as the identification of meme with an image in its totality is not yet possible.

The contemporary internet-meme has the core elements of its genetic definition. It has the characteristics of the parasitic organism as it has the ability to lodge in people’s minds and is able to replicate and spread out on a large scale. It is based on units of transmission that are not found in other images, text or thoughts, but creates a new iconological identity that is based on the fact that that particular image represents one aspect of society, expressed in an ironic form that makes it interesting and worth sharing by a large number of people.

It is no longer the common base of various aspects of culture, a permanent feature that can be found in all fields of society that is passed on from generation to generation and for which it is possible to determine a common denominator. Instead of having the ability to influence a culture, it is the highest expression of a culture translated in an image or image and text. Memes in the past were defined as “small units without an author (or without a relevant author), that establish language and behaviour families, creating strategies of diffusion and survival that go beyond the dimension of the single unit.”[3] What concerns the contemporary meme? It is the global and collective dimension to be reflected by the image and its diffusion and survival depends on the unlimited possibilities to recombine its meaning.

In this sense, it is confirmed the idea of unit. The meme is a core unit that can undergo infinite variations without losing the ability to convey a message that is shared by a number of people. One of the most important driving forces in the creation of the iconology of the internet-meme was Andrea Pinotti publishing in 2016 “La replica non indifferente. Mosse di iconologia politica all’epoca dell’internet-meme”. This work is found inside the volume “I percorsi dell’immaginazione. Studi in onore di Pietro Montani”.

Pinotti presents some famous examples of internet-memes, including Bad Luck Brian, Downfall and Doing a Lynndie. Bad Luck Brian can be identified as an image macro[4] and represents one of the first cases of an internet-meme. According to Pinotti, the meme presents a before-after reading that translates into an above-below special structure that is capable of providing a comic effect[5]. The irony is generated by the possibility of text variation that contrasts with the fixity of the image, that doesn’t change no matter the variety of linguistic scenarios that has to face.

Nevertheless, the image macro represents only one of the different kinds of internet-meme. Downfall introduces the option that the meme is also to be found in a video format. In this case, it is extracted from the film Downfall[6] the scene which dramatizes the moment when Hitler finds out that he has lost the war. The meme contains German audio and counts on a lack of knowledge of the German language from the general public and they use subtitles where it is presented different reasons for Hitler to be angry.

In this video it is possible to understand an important feature of memetic language. In addition to the lack of context typical of this phenomenon, where irony is born from the use of an image that comes from a particular environment that is put in a completely different scenario, there is the ability to transform an example of “high” culture into something very “low” and common.

Doing a Lynndie is a meme with more visual and graphic characteristics that cross with contemporary art as well. The meme is the picture shot in 2003 to the soldier Lynndie England by Charles Graner in the Iraq prison of Abu Grahib and Lynndie’s actions are replicated in accordance with the mechanism typical of reenactment, after documenting the action with photographs, with the intent of creating a comic effect given by the estranged context.

In addition to the representations of the infamous gesture of soldier Lynndie made by online communities, the strong iconological power of the photograph started a series of contributions from all parts of society’s visual culture. This ranged from Chabrowski and Amerio reenactment pictures, to an episode of the animated series American Dad!, to a painting by Dennis A. Jose, to a scene from the film American Dreamz.

In this regard, Pinotti rightfully underlines that: “The space of work that makes these contributions possible is the same space that allows the viral spread of memes that we talked about before. The subtle, yet important, differential margin that divides them, is conquered by the work of re-appropriation, and by the different history of effects, in no way guaranteed, that they will create for the public. It is that differential margin that takes place in the distance that connects and divides the replication considered as reproduction and the replication considered as an objection.”[7]

The image that becomes a meme has a double connotation. From one point of view the extraction from the context and the new meanings destroy, from an iconological point of view, the original value of the image. With the shift of context, to use Benjamin’s words, the image loses one more time its aura, its symbolic value and its original status. It is, in other words, dismantled and mocked.

At the same time, with its new meanings that are acquired with each reincarnation, the image becomes widespread and confirms its iconographical status in people’s minds in a permanent way. These three memes are emblematic of the possible forms a meme can be shaped into. It is important to underline that in comparison with the beginnings of this practice there has been an evolution.

The internet-meme was born in specific communities, mainly reddit and 4chan[8]. Reddit is a social news and media aggregation platform that contains posts submitted by registered users where it is possible to leave a comment and upvote if you like what is being shared and downvote for the opposite. 4chan is similar, but inside this community the image is more important as it is an image-based bulletin board. Both reddit and 4chan have different categories that are useful to diversify the content that is shared.

Nevertheless, today memes propagate in a different environment and have different forms. In the shift from popular phenomenon (but still restricted inside a community of people subscribed to a platform) to mass phenomenon, the decisive role has been played by social networks, Instagram and Twitter in particular. In this case, categories and differentiations no longer exist and are replaced by the temporal relevance of the meme in a specific social contest (tv show, sports event, etc.). Moreover, it has been shaped into forms that are more and more different from the image macro, with a preference for video and gif formats, where loop, better universality of the image and less comprehension time increase its virality.

No matter the platform considered, today there is a division between “normie memes”, more refined and, according to hipsters, with a higher level of comedy, and “danks memes”, highly shared on social media and considered cliché, not funny and highly based on relatability with the situation described and generally of a low level.

What determined the entrance of the phenomenon in to a mass dimension was the use of the format of meme inside advertising campaigns such as the tv ad of Fiesta snack, where it is clear that the medium used is not fully comprehended, or the better ad of Buondì Motta that looks perfect for the creation of memes. Another example is the Gucci campaign thought out by creative director Alessandro Michele in 2017 for the promotion of a new watch. For the occasion, some meme creators were asked to produce original memes to promote the new product.

In this case we have for the first time a particular importance given to meme creators. The meme phenomenon seems not to have many points in common with contemporary art, nevertheless, it is possible to find certain elements that seem to have inspired some artists to emulate the effects of this kind of image. These aspects are attributable to, as defined by visual culture, “the power of the image”[9], that is the iconic power that a certain kind of image has that makes it stick in people’s minds.

As brought up by Domenico Quaranta in an article published by Flash Art in 2012[10] the work of Maurizio Cattelan contains numerable examples of uses of memes as a starting point for his works. The perpetrated theft consists of the translation into sculptures or images if we think about Toilet Paper, of viral images treated as ready-mades ready to become the center of an artwork.

The same intent is found in the typology of contents posted after the creation of an Instagram profile by Cattelan, called “The Single Post Instagram” where there are only viral pictures or videos.  Eva and Franco Mattes too have produced a series of work founded on the appropriation of other’s images and two sculptures in particular (Catt and Ceiling Cat) reflect on mechanisms under the use of memes. It’s not a coincidence that they were the one to suggest Domenico Quaranta the ideas for the Flash Art article that I talked about above.

In 2010 they had the idea of exhibiting a sculpture called Catt with a cat trapped inside of a bird’s cage, while the latter watches it from above. The work was advertised as art by Maurizio Cattelan. The reaction from the public and the art world in general was enthusiastic. The image was actually inspired by a popular meme that pictured the same situation described in the sculpture, from the series “epic fail”.

After this show, the image acquired a new wave of popularity online and was again retouched using this time the sculpture and not the original meme, using different kinds of text. Cecilia Azcarate, on the other hand, in relation to the new software by Google Arts and Culture that allows the pairing of images inside a database based on visual similarities, creates memes using images from XVI century artworks. In this idea it is possible to read an attempt to extract from a context an iconography so universal that it still has the power of diffusion.

These examples show that today the appeal of the memetic image is in part the possibility already experimented with in early examples of Net Art to take something exterior and external and to reinstate it in the media circuit (or artistic circuit in this case) with infinite possibilities of replication. The contemporary internet meme can offer a reflection on today’s power of the image.

If in the past art was one of the few channels where it was possible to observe an image, today we are at the point where an image without an author, with entertaining purpose, replicated indefinitely with slight variations has a power so great as to start a competition with authorial contemporary art images. Therefore, it is possible to state that, it will be interesting to observe the future developments of internet memes because, today more than ever, the horizontality of the web is putting different kinds of images on the same level.

This has positive effects for what concerns the end of differentiation, especially in art theory, between official artistic image and image online and negative outcomes for what concerns the possibility of a better symbolic and iconological variety inside the contemporary visual world.


[1] – Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1976.

[2] – Idem, p. 201.

[3] – Antonella Sbrilli, La miniera memetica di Warburg. Collegamenti tra Mneme, memi e capelli mossi, “Engramma”, Novembre 2004, (translation from Italian to English by the author).

[4] – The “Image Macro” is an image with two lines of text above and below a picture. Usually the font used is “Impact” and the central picture doesn’t change, but each time it is presented with a new text.

[5] – Andrea Pinotti, La replica non indifferente. Mosse di iconologia politica all’epoca dell’internet-meme, 2016.

[6] – Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004

[7] – Andrea Pinotti, La replica non indifferente. Mosse di iconologia politica all’epoca dell’internet-meme, 2016.

[8] See, in this regard, knowyourmeme and 9gag as well.

[9] See, in this regard, David Freedberg, Il potere delle immagini, Einaudi, Torino, 2009.

[10] Domenico Quaranta, “When an Image Becomes a Work. Premesse ad un’iconografia di Cattelan”, in Flash Art Online, 25 January 2012.