Are memes art? Is a joke on Twitter a piece of art? What about Mamma Mia 2: Here We Go Again – could that be considered art? Well yes, according to some at least. They’re all examples of a growing movement of millennial and gen z cultural touchstones which prove that we’re all throwing it back to the mid-twentieth century, and that pop culture has gone decidedly Dada.
It started with the memes. Previously – all the way back in 2012 – meme culture was a pretty ‘past it’ way of communicating, unfunny and overdone jokes superimposed with impact text, but thanks to a social media resurgence in late 2014, memes became, for millennials and gen z, a fundamental means of communication. Now shared through Twitter, Tumblr, and group chats on WhatsApp, memes became weirder and more abstract, a way of viewing everything from current events and politics to the minutiae of daily life through an uber-satirical lens. It wasn’t long before they were branded ‘Neo-Dadaist’.
...I feel like if Duchamp was alive today he definitely would have been making memes.
The idea caught on quickly. Facebook pages and Twitter accounts dedicated to the supposed Neo-Dadaist movement sprang up, and a deluge of think pieces and art criticism followed. In April 2017 a Washington Post piece, ‘Why is millennial humour so weird?’, tried to understand the phenomenon. Writing about a modern world where the meanings in humour often ‘quickly twist and then vanish’, Elizabeth Bruenig argues that: ‘A particular style of expression has spread among young people. Rather than trying to restore meaning and sense where they’ve gone missing, [absurdist memes and jokes] aim to play with the moods and emotions of an illegible world. In a way, it’s a digital update to the surreal and absurd genres of art and literature that characterized the tumultuous early twentieth century.’ The think piece was seized upon by many millennials on social media and, appropriately, quickly became a meme itself. But the idea was out there: young people were reclaiming Dadaism. Supposedly.
The Neo-Dadaism label was seized by some Instagram users, who transformed their feeds into ‘digital galleries’. One user, surrealismemes, describes their account as a ‘Dadaist meme gallery’. Their bio reads: ‘like a community art center but [with] more existential angst and less ‘encouraged donation’ boxes.’
‘It’s easy to see why Dadaism is returning to fashion,’ art writer and editor Daisy Bernard tells me. ‘It was a fun and humorous way of challenging the establishment, in the exact same way memes are now. It’s a way to vent your frustration that’s still quite witty without taking yourself too seriously. I feel like if Duchamp was alive today he definitely would have been making memes.’
But not everyone is convinced. In fact, many young people take the current ‘Dada mania’ we’re experiencing as an oversimplification of the millennial experience. ‘This fixation on Dadaism is literally my pet art hate of the moment’, says Elise Bell, writer and one-third of the art critic upstarts that make up Tabloid Art History, a collective which compares high art to pop culture moments. For Elise, the tipping point came when she read a film review of Mamma Mia 2: Here We Go Again which described the film’s zany plot, musical segues andhumour as, you’ve guessed it, ‘Dadaist’. ‘When will we stop calling everything fucking dada?’ she writes, expressing her anger with – fittingly – a meme.
‘I feel the constantly tendency to brand everything ‘Dada’ is not only reductive to millennials but it’s reductive to Dada and its legacy as a movement and aesthetic on its own terms,’ Elise tells me. ‘We are dealing with the mass proliferation of communication typically associated with young people; zine and DIY culture has been co-opted into the mainstream. Dadaism was an underground, self-started movement of artists and performers completely independent of institutions or rules. It’s a disservice to millennials to compare our humour and our experiences with the past – they’re so different. It’s not only that but a disservice to the pioneering legacy of Dada.’
And it’s not difficult to see their point. Indeed, the memes and images shared on Twitter and Facebook that are supposedly ‘Dadaist’ in their make-up are worlds apart from the original movement of the 1940s. Memes by definition have to stay within defined boundaries; they look the same, use the same language and jokes, rely on the same imagery reproduced endless times to elucidate the idea of humour. And if they were once underground, a kind of insider language for young people, that meaning is long gone. Now brands use memes, and their supposed neo-Dadaism implications have already been co-opted for the most capitalist of endeavours – a new type of art based cryptocurrency called Dada NYC. Surely not what the ultra-leftist artists of the original Dada movement had in mind when they created works that were not just a rejection of logic, but of capitalism too.
Yes, millennial humour is weird, and devoid of meaning, but sorry to say, so is millennial life.
For most pundits who brand millennial humour – which increasingly just means all jokes on social media – as Dada, their reasoning is that the political environments in which Dadaism and neo-Dadaism sprung up in are depressingly similar. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to call Max Ernst, Francis Picabia, Kurt Schwitters and the other major Dadaist players of the 1940s the world’s first internet trolls. Their anti-aestheticism and indignant rejection of all meaning played out in galleries and literary magazines, but in 2018, the same attitudes – a rejection of a world where politics are cruel, and the economy increasingly shuts out an entire generation – is frequently the discourse online, especially on Twitter and other social media platforms.
Yes, millennial humour is weird, and devoid of meaning, but sorry to say, so is millennial life. So is much of our lives in 2018. When the world around us becomes more and more ridiculous, when international politics has become akin to a plotline in a TV show, then humour is forced to become more ridiculous too. Satire is stretched to its breaking point. That might mean young people’s style of humour is more abstract, but crucially that doesn’t automatically mean it’s Dadaist (or neo-Dadaist). If we’re not careful, ‘neo-Dada’ could become just a media buzzword used to describe any new development in pop culture, and quickly oversaturated to the point where it becomes devoid of all meaning whatsoever.
Which, in a meta way, is actually quite Dada really.