Updated: Aug 5, 2019
If you've spent any time on the internet, with any interest in art, you've probably read the arguments, both for and against memes being 3rd wave Dadaism, or more popularly the resurgence of Neo-Dadaism. If you haven't, hi, hello, welcome to this beautiful and terrible intersection of the Venn diagram of the internet and art history.
Before I get into defending this statement, you need to know what Dadaism actually is. In the 19teens, a bunch of artists came together to create. It was not a style of art, but a mixture of several mediums and approaches, most of which were often contradictory to each other. It was brought together by the shared aims of meaninglessness, provocation and refusal. They were against everything, and when I say everything, I really do mean everything.
"Dada is anti-Dada"
Perhaps for that very reason (among several others), Dadaism was short lived. By the 1920s a large part of the artists had moved on to surrealism, absurdism, or gone their own way. Even the name "Dada" was selected randomly from a French-German dictionary, meaning "hobby horse" french, while its German translation being "a kind of stupidity or naïvete". It also means "yes yes" in Romanian. It worked because it had resonance among different languages and cultures, but at the same time, meant nothing at all.
One of the most famous pieces of Dadaist art is Fountain, a ready-made sculpture made by Marcel Duchamp, under the pseudonym R. Mutt. All the sculpture really is is an upside down urinal. Sculptures like this were called readymades because they utilised readymade objects and turned them into art, with little or no change to the original object, and if that doesn't have the same energy as the "distracted boyfriend" meme, I don't know what does.
There are not only visual similarities but also cultural ones between Dada and meme culture. Both stem from the rejection of societal norms. Prominent Dadaist poet Tristan Tzara once said that the beginnings of the movement came not out of a desire to make art but out of a profound disgust with the world. Similarly, meme culture (or shitposting) stems from the rejection of mainstream comedy and humour.
But like with most things we create, there is always a darker side to every story. Dadaists defined their own movement as being anti-racist and anti-sexist, to the point that they almost romanticised their engagement with non-Eurocentric cultures without understanding them, and may have contributed towards the attitude that people from other cultures were something other than humans altogether, and because almost anyone with as little as basic MS Paint skills, access to stock images and an internet connection can create and post memes, a lot of racists, homophobes and misogynists do.
A few years ago the Pepe the frog meme was co-opted by white nationalists and neo-Nazis on Reddit, to show their support for Trump and his presidential campaign.
The creator of the MySpace era stoned frog cartoon, Matt Furie, went as far as holding an online funeral for Pepe, hoping that would stop the alt-right, before ultimately having to take legal action to ban the use of the frog.
Dada was not meant to last. Tristan Tzara stated that Dada was rooted in destruction, in his 1918 Dada Manifesto.
Let each man proclaim: there is a great negative work of destruction to be accomplished. We must sweep and clean. Affirm the cleanliness of the individual after the state of madness, aggressive complete madness of a world abandoned to the hands of bandits, who rend one another and destroy the centuries. Without aim or design, without organization: indomitable madness, decomposition.
As the original counter-cultural message of the Dada movement faded, many more problematic contemporaries started cropping up. In the same way, a variety of Extremely Online™ communities have co-opted popular meme templates to serve their own purposes, either to spread messages of hate, harass vocal members of marginalised communities with whom they disagree, or to spam social media threads they find unsavoury, into oblivion.
But as horrific as all of this is, it is ultimately the product of a harsh world, just like the most intricate pieces of Dada art were. Perhaps sometime soon we'll finally again be worthy of memes with context, of jokes with obvious humour, of image macros that are understandable. Political and social changes could give our big chonguses, our Ricardos, our brothers and their lööps and öats, our Shrek's and our bad graphics frogs on unicycles a future where they have a richly layered, multipart joke to tell, but for now, his tan bull will have to be constantly noble.