Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A Day in the Life of a Meme

What a difference a day makes -- in the life of a meme, that is.  Meme (coined from the Greek mimesis, or "imitation"), was a term within aesthetics and evolutionary biology long before it was appropriated by the Internet; some credit its use in Richard Dawkins' widely-read The Selfish Gene as its most immediate source. In this context, it carries multiple meanings -- to imitate, surely, but also to mimic, and finally to mutate into a thousand variations, each competing alongside the other for resources -- in the case of the Internet, attention.  And while Warhol's prediction that in the future everyone will have "15 minutes of fame" may now seem too generous an allotment, Internet memes do seem to have a sort of life cycle of their own.

Take the image above, for instance.  At first, it looks as though DaVinci's "Last Supper" has been taken over by a bunch of clones of "Alice the Goon" (a figure invented by E.C. Segar, creator of Popeye).  But of course, as with most online memes, there is an antecedent image, one you'd have to have seen to 'get the joke': the image of a fresco of Christ in a church in Borja, Spain, "Ecce Homo," which had been "restored" -- that is, "ruined" -- by the apparently well-intentioned efforts of an elderly parishioner, Cecilia Giménez.  It seems that Giménez had already, with the priest's permission, been retouching Christ's tunic on the fresco; the trouble started when she tried her hand at his face.  The meme got underway quickly, given the grotesque awfulness of the effort; some early efforts pasted the face of (respectively) the Pink Panther, Alf, and Michael Jackson.  This was only the beginning: soon the goonish face appeared on a piece of toast, a reference to the "Christ on Toast" apparition (here as reported by the BBC in 2004); as the face of DaVinci's Mona Lisa, superimposed on a DEVO record cover, and painted over the screamer in Edvard Münch's "The Scream."  Then came the texts: "Viva La Restoration!" (in Che Guevara-like high contrast black on a red tee), "Paint me like one of your French girls" (a nod to Kate Winslet's line in James Cameron's Titanic), "A Star is Born," "It's Cool. I Fixed it," and the somewhat cryptic "I Pray to Potato."  But it wasn't until I saw "The Last Supper" version that I laughed.  And then I couldn't stop laughing.

Why?  Because of the artful symmetry: Cecilia Giménez had been trying to fix a damaged fresco; DaVinci's Last Supper survives only in a damaged state; the Goon head is funny on Jesus and thus, perhaps, it's 12 times funnier on all the apostles.  Actually, it is.

As one would expect, there are already several websites -- Memebase and  Know Your Meme among them, that do nothing but track and evaluate memes -- the Spanish Fresco is still a bit new for them ("currently being evaluated") but already well over 600 variations have been tracked, and groups on Pinterest and Facebook formed. Want to make a meme of your own? Drop by the Meme Generator. Some of the more impressive sites, such as, are geared toward verbal memes only, but offer vivid visualizations of their rising and falling trends.

But why?  And why do we care? When I think of this phenomenon, I think of the word cliché, which originated with the "clicking" sound made by a pre-cast piece of type containing a common set of words.  Of course we always had clichés, but we didn't know what they were until the printing press, and then the linotype machine, made them so readily visible to all of us.  Before that point, in oral traditional terms, one might be forgiven for thinking that an oft-repeated phrase was somehow truer or richer for its frequent repetition.  But the printed page showed us: what was common was cheap.

Now the Internet is performing the same miracle, only multi-media style.  After all, simple visual editing tools are readily accessible; all of us can cut and paste and some of us have Photoshop and Illustrator at our command. And we can quote -- that is -- repeat -- these images and texts on our own, using any of many social media platforms.  The path from originality to dead letter has never been faster.

A few months ago, I stumbled on one meme -- a text, but graphically represented as though on a poster: "BEWARE OF ARTISTS," the text declared, "THEY MIX WITH ALL CLASSES OF SOCIETY AND ARE THEREFORE THE MOST DANGEROUS."  Nearly 90% of these images had a text attached to them, claiming that this was an "actual poster" (always a suspicious way to make such a claim -- one might call it an "authenticity cliché") issued by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s.  Needless to say, most of the people who liked this image the most were self-identified as artists.  After all, they need to feel that people care enough to be suspicious of them.

But the words rang false to me.  I tracked them using Google Books and other tools, and found that, in the age of printed memes on paper, this same phrase had often been attributed to Queen Victoria.  That sounded, if anything, even wronger (as Blackadder might say), but I gave a Google e-Book edition of the Letters of Queen Victoria a try.  And there, I found the meme's source -- a letter from Victoria's cousin, King Leopold of Belgium, written not by but to Her Majesty:
Dealings with artists, for instance, require great prudence; they are acquainted with all classes of society, and for that reason dangerous; they are hardly ever satisfied, and when you have too much to do with them, you are sure to have des ennuis — Leopold to Victoria, 10 October 1845
Delighted with my find, I eagerly posted a mimetic "correction," and a few sites, such as this one, picked up on this.

But really, I needn't have bothered; no one who shared the original version really cared; they had all moved on after the purported poster had done its all-too-brief work.  And that's the way it goes, with memes, at any rate.  Their power isn't in their truth, but in their infinite replicability.  One might as well criticize a piece of DNA.


  1. UPDATE: According to Salon, the woman who originally "restored" the fresco now wants a share of the money the church has made from the uptick in tourism!

  2. Great post, I also liked your research on this. My guess on the popularity of the meme is that it's become something we all can have a fun laugh about around the '"cyber water-cooler". A bit of flash pop culture we can have fun with until the next big thing.

  3. Yes, and like rumors at the old "water cooler," they are very hard to stamp out!