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What Memes Tell Us About The Reality Of The Art World

What Memes Tell Us About The Reality Of The Art World

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Header Image by Phillips Museum.

Confession: I love looking at art, even though it makes me feel like a fish out of water.

“Maybe if I dig deeper, I’ll understand it better,” I always tell myself, even as I’m staring blankly at yet another eccentric art installation. I mull over possible explanations as to why anyone would be willing to pay exorbitant prices just to keep them. A literal duct-taped banana sold for $120,000? Very atas. Very high SES. Very peculiar indeed. So much so that there’s even a whole discussion panel organised just to talk about it.

Even after thorough reflection, I still find myself lost in the abstraction of it all.

Kristoffer Ardeña, "Ghost Painting (Cracked Category): National Bookstore", 2020. Elastomeric paint on canvas, 176 x 306 cm, presented by Tropical Futures Institute. Photo by Toni Cuhadi, courtesy of S.E.A. Focus, Singapore.
Kristoffer Ardeña, "Ghost Painting (Cracked Category): National Bookstore", 2020. Elastomeric paint on canvas, 176 x 306 cm, presented by Tropical Futures Institute. Photo by Toni Cuhadi, courtesy of S.E.A. Focus, Singapore.
What is art, anyway? The answer changes depending on who you ask. Some focus on technicality and skill, while others (like myself) place emphasis on emotional appeal. Does it make me anxious, reflect my inner turmoil, or elicit a smile? If so, that’s art in my books.

For me, trips to the museum have admittedly never been solely for the art (*gasp*), but also for the ~cool aesthetics~ and ~insta-worthy~ photos. As an introvert, I naturally thrive in quiet spaces. These exhibitions are sanctuaries that allow escape from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Meanwhile, a classic boomer like my dad thinks art is too complicated. When asked for his thoughts on the artwork above, he says that it’s “nothing special.” After all, what makes simple dots and a few splashes of paint qualify as art?

From left to right: Hu Qiren, "#4, A Grocer's Essentials", "#5, A Grocer's Essentials", 2020, Archival pigment print on aluminum composite panel, Edition 1 of 3, 118.9 x 78.9 cm. Presented by RIchard Koh Fine Art. Photo by Toni Cuhadi, courtesy of S.E.A. Focus, Singapore
From left to right: Hu Qiren, "#4, A Grocer's Essentials", "#5, A Grocer's Essentials", 2020, Archival pigment print on aluminum composite panel, Edition 1 of 3, 118.9 x 78.9 cm. Presented by RIchard Koh Fine Art. Photo by Toni Cuhadi, courtesy of S.E.A. Focus, Singapore
From an outsiders’ point of view, the fine art world appears to be pretentious and out of reach — reserved for artsy-fartsy elites.
Image credit: Freeze_magazine
Memes about art, on the other hand, I fully get. In fact, they have provided me with a glimpse into the hidden realities of the art world.

Stripping away the pompous veneer of art

Before the internet, fancy art only belonged in museums, formal gallery spaces or hung on the walls of rich people’s homes. Thanks to social media, memes have exposed people to the latest on goings of contemporary art, culture, and the fine art industry. As such, we now have easy access to it on the go.

Not everyone is familiar with the art industry, but most are with meme culture. If you, like me, struggle to enter this vast, mysterious realm, simply turn to memes.

Image credit: The White Pube
Instagram accounts such as The White Pube, Cancel Art Galleries and Art Handler Mag exist to shed light on the eccentricities of the industry. They are also used as a primary method for institutional critique and a way to call out rampant issues of labour abuse, classism, elitism and nepotism, just to name a few.

These accounts have shaken up the art world both by exposing and humanising the purportedly frosty industry. Take a closer look and you’ll realise that those in the scene have a growing sense that it’s not easy being in the industry.

Long story short? People are frustrated and they want their voices heard. These memes simply remove the haughtiness and place prevailing issues out in the open.

Hypocrisy and drama

Image credit: The White Pube
Despite their fleeting nature, art memes provide insight into the inner workings of the industry. The White Pube, for instance, consists of ruthless writers and curators whose content shed light on the art world’s lack of representation and accessibility. Their honest reviews, essays and social media posts redefine what is deemed worthy of attention.

Take for example the one above which was used to call out the blatant hypocrisy of Western galleries and museums. With the lack of diversity in many of these institutions, their half-hearted and non-committal public support for the Black Lives Movement (BLM) is absurd, even laughable. With just a couple of IG posts, these structural problems are now openly highlighted and addressed.

Conversations about race aside, their content also touch on other significant social themes relating to class, gender equality, and inclusion.

Image credit: Cancel Art Galleries
With an added layer of democratic input, art meme accounts serve as vehicles for heavier topics. Cancel Art Galleries, similarly, have pointed to a dire need for institutional change. 

A quick scroll through their account reveals a diverse outpouring of commentary from anonymous users — plenty of whom have called out problems that lurk beneath the surface. Interestingly, this also acts like a Glassdoor-esque reference for those curious to know more about the scene.

Image credit: The White Pube
Like the rest of the world, unequal distribution of labour and pay applies to those in the art realm as well. Sadly, there will always be those people who turn a blind eye to problems on the ground.
Image credit: Freeze_magazine
On top of being hilarious, these memes obviously succeed in approaching complex subjects that invoke positive growth. They show us that in order for the industry to move forward, people first need to solve whatever underlying drama that exists within the system; most aren’t even aware of their presence in the first place.

The viral nature of memes garners a wider network of eyeballs. When more people stumble onto such critical and honest meme accounts, this forces professionals to reflect and re-examine their current practices. Change or be cancelled!

Expectations vs Reality

Image credit: The White Pube
Another common thread portrayed amongst art memes: the life of an artist isn’t all fun and games. For starters, we learn that most artists lack gallery representation and sometimes even struggle to make ends meet.

Having said that, on-screen portrayals of artists often sit on two extreme ends that is, every person is either a struggling artist or wealthy art dealer. This is obviously misrepresented. What about the people in between? 

Image credit: Freeze_magazine
Accounts like @freeze_magazine have also perfected the use of self-deprecating humour to highlight underlying concerns. From afar, life in the art world can seem sumptuous, but it’s also very risky and a whole lot more stressful. Not all artists get to live fabulously and successfully – it comes with a ton of adversity, hard work, marketing skills, networking with the right people and perhaps a slight pinch of nepotism.
Image Credit: Freeze_magazine
It’s obvious that roadblocks are inevitable. Emerging artists struggle to navigate their way to success, sometimes even succumbing to people-pleasing, boot-licking behavior just to earn a chance at exposure. It’s a classic love-hate relationship.

But if the art world is really that bad, why do artists and art workers still stick around? 

I once posed this question to a friend, a performance artist for most of her life. With a deadpan expression, she replied: “My need to create outweighs whatever shit that comes along with it.” 

“Without art, I won’t feel whole.”  

With all that has been raised, the lesson here is that the fine art world isn’t that far off from the rest of us.  Think misery. Think endless days of relentless stress. Think the need for recognition. Turns out, our worlds are a lot more similar than they are different. And if you take a closer look and ask all the questions you have, no matter how stupid they can sound – there will be answers to the strange random dots and lines that we find in contemporary art.

From upper left, clockwise: Russel Wong, "Heliconia", "Cymbidium Orchid", "Heliconia Wagneriana", "Chrysanthemum", 2020. Photolithography on paper, edition of 12, 60 x 60 cm, presented by STPI – Creative Workshop & Gallery. Photo by Toni Cuhadi, courtesy of S.E.A. Focus, Singapore
From upper left, clockwise: Russel Wong, "Heliconia", "Cymbidium Orchid", "Heliconia Wagneriana", "Chrysanthemum", 2020. Photolithography on paper, edition of 12, 60 x 60 cm, presented by STPI – Creative Workshop & Gallery. Photo by Toni Cuhadi, courtesy of S.E.A. Focus, Singapore
Some art will make sense while some might not, and that’s completely fine – art is ultimately subjective and I guess we don’t necessarily need to fawn over every piece displayed. Dig into the minds of artists through guided tours, read more about them, or simply stare at a piece until you draw your own conclusions – they’re all valid ways of experiencing art.

At times though, the ‘right’ art will come, and you inexplicably ‘click’ with it. When this magical moment hits, you’d feel compelled to stare at it for days. There’s something about the work above that does exactly that; it resonates because it reminds me of nature, of the need to slow down and to tune out the incessant noise that surrounds us. At the end of the day, art continues to be fundamental to humanity.

Now that you’ve learned more about the art world, why not satisfy your inner artsy-fartsy soul by visiting S.E.A. Focus? A meeting point for art in Southeast Asia, the showcase brings together a curated selection of some of the finest artists and galleries across the region. Learn more about it here.
Photo by Toni Cuhadi, courtesy of S.E.A. Focus, Singapore
Photo by Toni Cuhadi, courtesy of S.E.A. Focus, Singapore
This article is brought to you by S.E.A. Focus, an STPI Project.
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Author

Eve Lock Staff writer