Stop Reducing Art to Memedom

From the canon of art history, there are a few artworks so over-shared, over-used, and over-imitated that they have been reduced to nothing more significant than a photo of a grumpy cat.


If I see one more iteration of Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” I’m going to scream – Edvard Munch style! (See what I did there?)

The latest offense, shared in the Washington Post’s In the Galleries section, is a new exhibition at the D.C. Arts Center called Sip and Paint: Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” where 34 artists have created variations on the original (or maybe they have made a variation on a copy, I can’t tell the difference anymore). Really though?! Don’t these 34 artists have better things to do?

If you’re not sure if an artwork falls into the too-often-imitated category, here’s an interesting litmus test: Can you have your hair colored like the painting?

This Colorist Dyes Hair to Look Like Famous Paintings.
This Colorist Dyes Hair to Look Like Famous Paintings.

The idea of artists imitating famous artworks is not new. (Feel free to read that “not original.”) Marcel Duchamp created a meme-worthy version of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa almost a hundred years ago. A significant difference between this and other imitations is the reason for doing it.

Marcel Duchamp, 1919
Marcel Duchamp, 1919

In 1919, Marcel Duchamp drew a moustache and goatee with a pencil on a post card reproduction of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, and named his work “L.H.O.O.Q.” This, when read aloud in French, gives “Elle a chaud au cul”, which means something like “She’s got hot pants” or “She has a hot ass.” He used an image, reproduced so often that it had become trite and mocked one of the most famous works in the history of painting.

Key in the quote above is that the image had been “reproduced so often that it had become trite.” If an artist’s purpose in copying a historical work is to poke fun at how often it is copied, then have at it! But reproduction is happening with less appropriate purpose, AND IN CLASSROOMS NO LESS!

Art teachers are guilty and we need to stop! If you have students create any copy of a master artwork (or if you get together with your art teacher colleagues to do the same… I’m talking to you NVAEA) make sure you are honest with yourself, and with your students. You are not creating art, you are creating a meme. And you are probably spending far too much precious instructional time reproducing something that has been reproduced a thousand times. Save the time, save the effort, use a meme generator app instead of wasting paint.



2 thoughts on “Stop Reducing Art to Memedom”

  1. Hey, so I’m the colorist who did the hair. I actually did a bunch of these, and with each was a decent sized chunk of information about the artist, the art itself, and/or the art movement they were involved with, in addition to questions for my audience regarding larger themes, such as censorship, vulnerability as an artist, selling out, etc. My background as an “actual” artist has informed my career as a colorist tremendously, and I wanted to pay homage to that. My goal was to connect a “low art” like hair color to its roots in actual art and color theory, while also educating and informing an audience that may not have known much about art before, and potentially even introducing it as a new way to approach color concepts for fellow stylists. I can appreciate your critique here, but without knowing WHY I did what I did, it’s not fair for you to assign my intent so hastily.

    -Ursula Goff

  2. Thanks for sharing your comment. I am glad readers will have the opportunity to see your perspective in your own words. My intent here is to criticize art teachers who have students copy iconic artworks and call it art education, but you are right to call me out on the way I used your work without specifically setting it apart from the argument. In fact, I appreciate your work very much BECAUSE it takes this all to a new place. It’s original and beautiful. Not something I can say about a classroom set of assigned copies. Thanks again!

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