Why you should care
Because memes are worth watching as the future of political art.
Fascism is dangerous but objectively absurd. It makes promises it can’t keep, builds trust on fear and contradicts itself. That’s why one of the best weapons against it — art — is most effective when it’s even weirder. In the run-up to this year’s U.S. presidential election, internet memes similarly burst into wider public consciousness. Suddenly, people were taking bizarre cartoons very seriously, from a New York Times ode to a smiling dog in a burning room saying “This is fine” to the supposed white supremacy of Pepe the Frog.
Memes, writes Thushara Mudireddy, a curator of the blog Dadaism and Memes, have “randomness [that] makes you think outside of your everyday life.” They deliberately push at the boundaries of a genre to say something or, in some instances, say nothing at all. Meme humor, which often relies on deliberately bad Photoshopping and drawing, just doesn’t translate to many older generations.
These are social documents, rather than art with a hymn of hate as a leitmotif, and they are clever, merciless, and full of bitter humor.
But after the most political year yet for memes, some are starting to see the rise of a cutting-edge art movement. Just look to the Dadaists, who created deliberately bizarre images about the state of their world that now look surprisingly like memes. John Heartfield, one of the movement’s most explicitly political artists, would’ve been a big hit on the internet. The New York Times raved about his debut “photomontage and double exposure” exhibit. “One might say ‘triple exposure,’” the reporter added, “the third being a merciless lampooning of Hitler and Nazi excesses of all kinds.”
“These are social documents,” the review continued, “rather than art with a hymn of hate as a leitmotif, and they are clever, merciless, and full of bitter humor.” Heartfield’s exhibit hit New York in October 1938, less than a year before the outbreak of World War II. Though his work was about to become even more dangerous, he’d already spent years fighting fascism — and it showed in a cleverly nasty body of work that had finally pushed its way into the mainstream. Like meme creators, Heartfield relished weird mediums that didn’t seem like “real” art to many. Creating prints by overlaying negatives and pasting together unrelated images, he used early photo printing technology to make absurd collages.
One such work, “A Berlin Saying,” featured a roughly pasted-together face made up of a cutout trousered rear end and giant ears. Another showed Hitler’s grinning head badly photo-manipulated onto a butcher’s body, sharpening knives above a French cockerel. “Have no fear — he’s a vegetarian!” the caption reads. Some were more explicitly grim, if devastatingly effective. Today’s animal meme lovers would instantly recognize the meaning of “War and Corpses: The Last Hope of the Rich,” with its hyena in a top hat walking over dead bodies — a hard-hitting political image helped along by an absurd, cartoonish animal. Those keen to prove Pepe the Frog’s white nationalist legacy need look no further than Heartfield’s “Voice of the Swamp,” which features a bizarre swastika-emblazoned toad croaking “3000 years of incest proves the superiority of my race!”
Perhaps unsurprisingly — this was the 1930s — Dadaists didn’t always get rave reviews. But a big part of being an antifascist in the interwar years meant not letting bad press get you down. This was especially true for Heartfield, a Berliner who’d struck out as an artist after being abandoned by his parents, and made antigovernment art in the face of bans and threats. Heartfield had always gone against the grain: He dodged the draft and changed his name from Helmut Herzfeld to the deliberately English John Heartfield during World War I, when anti-English sentiment ran rampant in Germany. After the war, he made theater sets for antiestablishment playwright Bertolt Brecht and contributed to communist presses until the Nazis chased him out of Berlin after they came to power in 1933.
Like memes, Heartfield’s success lay in his ability to distribute his weird works en masse — without people thinking they had to engage with his creations as “art.” He called himself an engineer rather than an artist, and only did occasional exhibits like the one in New York. It was more important to get his striking images out via mass publication and stuck in people’s minds.
Even as the Nazis cemented their terrifying hold, Heartfield continued to tell people what he really thought with images like Hitler swallowing money and “spouting rubbish,” or bloody axes tied together to make a swastika. Ironically, it was when people started thinking of Heartfield as an artist that he lost some of his power. Though many revered him after the war, Heartfield’s status as an artist brought him under suspicion with authorities — and when he worked abroad, he presented his work in exhibitions, rather than for popular consumption.
Heartfield made a permanent place in history, though, as a firmly antifascist artist. Artists with similar aspirations could do worse than look to his methods — and his willingness to put himself outside of the art world — as a way of tackling today’s political climate.