As museums, galleries, and artists increasingly incorporate social media into everything they do, encouraging active participation with an exponentially accelerating online cultural cycle, the rate of cross-fertilization between the art world and the Internet ephemera known as memes will only increase. This year saw unparalleled development on this front, from hugely popular artworks that spawned memes of their own — including, we'd argue, the meme of the year, not just in the art world but in the world in general — to memes from the world of politics whose rapid propagation spilled over into the realm of visual art. Here, then, are ARTINFO's top 10 art memes of 2012. (To see our gallery of the memes, click on the slideshow.)
* Beast Jesus
By far the biggest art meme of the year, and quite possibly the greatest meme of all 2012, was triggered by an admittedly very unfortunate accident: Amateur Spanish art restorer Cecilia Gímenez's attempt to fix a damaged 19th-century “Ecce Homo” fresco at her local church in Boria spawned “Beast Jesus,” an incomprehensibly cartoonish, childlike, monkey-ish, terrifying, and vaguely vegetable-shaped likeness of the Christian savior. The ensuing propagation of “Beast Jesus” images, videos, merchandise, and pop cultural crossovers quickly made Gímenez's accidental masterpiece one of the single most iconic artworks of the recent past.
Favorite instance: “Beast Jesus” in Caravaggio's “Ecce Homo”
This hashtag meme, a text message abbreviation of the sentence “too deep for you,” has a two-fold purpose: Either to ridicule self-important and high-minded cultural artifacts that seem too complex for the common consumer or, conversely, to sarcastically mock those who aren't in on a particularly obscure or difficult-to-grasp concept, artwork, or subculture. Not surprisingly, many participants have deemed contemporary art #2Deep4U, either as a way of mocking its obtuseness, or of making fun of those who don't get it.
Favorite instance: Abstract minimalist is #2Deep4U
* The LACMA Rock
The fanfare surrounding the extraction, transportation, and installation of Michael Heizer's massive Land Art work “Levitated Mass” reached such a level during its 11-day journey through Los Angeles that it had achieved meme status long before its very own dedicated Twitter account @LACMARock began tweeting. After opening, it continued its life as a meme, with visitors to the suspended boulder coming up with increasingly elaborate poses to suggest they were holding it — like an earthworks version of Pisa's leaning tower.
Favorite instance: Jesus lifting “Levitated Mass”
* Novelty Art Fair Twitters
With the ever-increasing number of art fairs, the need for each to distinguish itself has become ever more important, while art world citizens' exhaustion at pacing through aisle after aisle has only become more acute. In May, the Twitter account @FriezeTent satirized the former trend, making a very, very big deal of incoming British fair Frieze's giant tent, one of the star attractions of its States-side debut. In December, the Twitter handle @ArtBaselProblem not only lodged its own complaints about the overfull Art Basel Miami Beach events calendar, but collected other attendees' beefs using the hashtag #ArtBaselProblems.
Favorite instance: #ArtBaselProblems
* Iconic Artwork Poses
This year two viral marketing campaigns — one for the art documentary “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” the other for MoMA's exhibition of the auction record-setting copy of Edvard Munch's “The Scream” — involved participants striking poses from famous artworks in a kind of art historical version of the popular “planking” meme. In the former case, participants gave the camera their middle finger, in an inverse homage to Ai's “Study in Perspective” series, or followed Ai in flipping off their own chosen symbol of oppressive power. In the latter, visitors to MoMA posted pictures of themselves making the same “Scream” face popularized decades ago by Macaulay Culkin in a famous scene from “Home Alone.”
Favorite instance: These guys
* Angelina Jolie’s Wayward Leg
When actress Angelina Jolie stepped out at the 84th Annual Academy Awards in her black Versace dress, the real star became her right leg, prominently flaunted through the dress’s scandalously high slit. “Leg-bombing” became a sensation on Twitter and Tumblr, and was Photoshopped just about everywhere, including onto some very famous paintings.
Favorite Instance: Angie’s Leg on da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man
* Gangnam Style, Art Style
You may not think of anything created by Korean pop star Psy as a work of art. However, artists Ai Weiwei and Anish Kapoor eventually joined the trend and made their own videos for the song, though more to make a statement than to make an ass of themselves with that stupid horse dance. Although, there was a little of that too. (And let’s not forget the gang at the Brooklyn Museum also going Gangnam Style!)
* McKayla is Not Impressed
She wasn’t impressed with winning a silver medal in the 2012 Olympics, she’s not impressed with the “Mona Lisa,” the “Creation of Adam,” or even pointillism!
Favorite Instance: McKayla’s Not Impressed expression on the Mona Lisa
* Hennessy Youngman’s Thoughtz
Hennessy Youngman, in case you didn't know, a character created by Brooklyn-based artist Jayson Musson, who takes to YouTube to dispense his one-of-a-kind art critique in a series called “Art Thoughtz.” Among other things, Musson has provided the priceless definition of Performance Art as “a pre-Internet method of annoying groups of people using your body and voice working in conjunction in order to create a compelling spectacle that heightens said annoyance.” If you haven’t already, you must check it out — Youngman's viral fame was substantial enough to score Musson a show at Salon 94.
Favorite Instance: Art Thoughtz’s takedown of Damien Hirst, by far one of the most savage reviews of that show.
* Binders Full of Women
Erstwhile Republican candidate for president Mitt Romney’s poor choice of words during the second U.S. presidential debate sparked one of the quickest full-blown Internet meme reactions we have ever seen, with thousands chiming in to riff on the phrase. The Binders Full of Women meme showed the world just how quickly Internet art can be created and shared — we can now, in effect, expect real-time art commentary on current events.
Favorite Instance: Dan “The Painter of Pancakes” Lacey’s painting “Mitt Romney With Binders Full Of Women” (2012)