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Classical Art Memes: A Visual Analysis

Updated: Sep 16, 2020

Written by Adt

In his book The Selfish Gene, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins drew an analogy between the propagation of genes and the propagation of culture. He defined a single unit of culture as a ‘meme’. The word ‘meme’ comes from the Greek word ‘mimesis‘ which means ‘to imitate’. Each unit of culture or meme is so called because it can be imitated. A meme is a catchy tune that you hear a friend humming and you can’t help but hum it, too. Maybe you pass it on to someone else, and soon, there is a network of people humming it. It does not matter that every time somebody hummed the tune it is slightly different because they have a different voice, the tune itself has spread. Memes have always existed, it is how culture spreads within populations. However, with the birth of the internet, this phenomenon has become obvious and very easy to become aware of. We know internet memes colloquially as funny text, video or images. The most common format of an internet meme is an image or video that may or may not have been manipulated with added text content. The intention is usually humour and the internet meme is usually made to be relatable, which makes it imitable.

The image on the left is a painting by John William Waterhouse called ‘The Magic Circle’. It depicts a witch casting a spell. The image is of a popular and recognized piece of art. On the right is a digital imitation of it – a photograph with added text. Here, the image of the witch casting a spell is the meme, the image above. The idea or concept of the image, a witch casting a spell, is what is being replicated and put in different contexts, in the above example, the context of holding a grudge against someone who you once had an argument with. The second image was posted to an Instagram meme account called @classical_art_memes_official. The account has over six hundred thousand followers. Each share, repost constitutes as a new imitation. Eventually, the meme spreads through the virtual collective consciousness. 

For @classical_art_memes_official, the image can be a photograph of a real work of art or a manipulated version of it, but it has to resemble one of the classical styles of art we are familiar with. Text is added to give context. At the end, the joke has been produced. It is especially funny to see classical art put in humorous contemporary contexts since it’s almost bizarre to draw a relation between internet culture and classical art. But it works!

This practice of re-appropriating imagery is not contemporary. In 1919, Duchamp painted a perfect replica of the Mona Lisa which remains, even today, one of the most popular works of art in the world. Clearly, he could paint as well as a master, as well as Da Vinci himself. And clearly, he didn’t think much of this skill. Almost like a schoolboy, he painted a moustache over his reproduction of her and below it wrote the letters ‘L.H.O.O.Q’ which when sounded out say “she has a hot ass” in french.

Here, it is obvious to see the relation with modern day memes. There is a replicated image with text to provide context, a humoristic intention, and with it, a critique of society. Although Duchamp did not call himself a Dadaist, he was influenced by the works of Dada artists and in turn, influenced them. Three years before L.H.O.O.Q., Hugo Ball recited his famous Dada Manifesto at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, in which he talked about the definitions of the word: Dada is a new tendency in art. One can tell this from the fact that until now nobody knew anything about it, and tomorrow everyone in Zurich will be talking about it. Dada comes from the dictionary. It is terribly simple. In French it means “hobby horse.” In German it means “good-bye,” “Get off my back,” “Be seeing you sometime.” In Romanian: “Yes, indeed, you are right, that’s it. But of course, yes, definitely, right.” And so forth.

The manifesto goes on but doesn’t say too much. At one point, he speaks made up words. Dadaism did not want to define itself or put itself in a box. It defied any kind of authority and structure. It was irrational, random, absurdist and anarchist. Dada artists made artwork out of found images and found objects that they deconstructed and reconstructed. Their methods were unconventional and often based on chance. It was about taking a piss at life and the institution of art. Dadaism died out soon but inspired later 20th century art movements like the Pop Art movement, the Fluxus movement; it has a huge influence on contemporary art practices and meme making. The process of meme-making is similar, but in a contemporary context. Maybe meme-makers don’t take their work that seriously or think about it on so many levels, maybe their intention is just to take a piss at life and society. But memes don’t exist outside society, they influence visual culture and are influenced by it. It is important for us as artists, critics and art consumers to be aware of these influences and their effect on society.


Paul Trachtman. A Brief History of Dada. Smithsonian Magazine, May 2006. https://

Hugo Ball. The Dada Manifesto. 1916. Dada_Manifesto_(1916,_Hugo_Ball).



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