Research article
Issue: № 2 (10), 2017


The article is dedicated to the analysis of verbal art memes as a phenomenon of modern network communication. Based on the typology of art memes (visual, animation, verbal and synthetic) we provide the characteristics of the tools used in the construction of verbal art memes. The main method of creating art memes is the method of appropriation. The main device that creates new meanings of artistic images in verbal art memes is the inclusion of speech elements in the work of art. Unlike visual art memes, using professional art of the XX century, a verbal art meme is mass scale by its origin and understandable to a wide audience of network users and consumers of mass art content.

Art memes have become a significant phenomenon of modern network culture and a creative part of the art-content, despite the fact that neither their definitions have been worked out nor their essential characteristics have been determined. The absence of strict definitions is due to a number of reasons: In the context of art history, an art meme is not the subject of specific art criticism because of the profane nature of its creation, while in the context of cultural studies this phenomenon can be regarded as a part of the general practices of network visual communication. However, a phenomenon associated with mass appropriation of images of fine art is worth noticing within the framework of interdisciplinary analysis at the intersection of art studies, cultural studies, and linguistics.

Given that we understand art content as a collection of web content related to visual art, modified content becomes its important component. Within the framework of this content, works of fine art undergo various changes. One of the recent features is the activation of such changes on the part of a broad network audience. At that, art content is integrated into everyday space to the greatest possible extent and is associated with mass culture. Posts with interpreted works of fine art have become a way of social and political activity, a way of expressing emotions, a means of communication, a way of actualizing classical heritage.

As there is no sustainable definition of this phenomenon, it is necessary to develop it. Most accurately, the nature of this phenomenon is reflected by the concept of “art meme.” Meme is a unit of information in a networked culture, which is based on an idea or image created for the widest possible active use in network communication. For this purpose, an art meme is also known as a “cultural meme,” the main difference of which, according to R. Dawkins, is its ability to be copied and reproduced [1].

Consequently, a network art meme is a meme which contains modified art content and is the result of the Internet users’ creative activity. The appropriation of canonical artistic heritage with the subsequent deconstruction of its semantics and artistic-figurative system is at the very core of art memes. At that, it is important that the method of appropriation is successfully applied by professional artists. Profane, mass nature of art memes is their distinctive feature. In the context of this profane, mass nature the network component is brought to the forefront, while an art meme itself is regarded as a means of communication. While the method of appropriation in the fine arts of the twentieth century is the subject of scientific discourse, the appropriation of artistic heritage by means of art memes as elements of mass network culture is still marginal for art history. The authors of memes have borrowed the technology of work from avant-garde artists, representatives of modernism and postmodernism, simplifying them in accordance with the tasks of mass network communication [2].

The following types of art memes can be distinguished in the network space:

  • Visual art meme, associated with a change in the visual structure of an interpreted work. The most common method of visual art meme creation is replacing characters in a picture.
  • Animated art meme, associated with addition of multimedia effects to the picture by means of its video animation.
  • Verbal art meme, associated with the addition of text without changing the work itself.
  • Synthetic art meme based on the integrated use of artwork modification techniques.

Verbal and synthetic art memes are of interest to cultural studies scholars and linguists, since they present a way of actualizing works with the help of verbal signals – quotations, retorts or dialogues.

Let’s consider the main types of art memes with verbal elements and the technology of their construction in more detail.

It should be noted that verbal art memes are largely focused on communities with a certain language. For example, the group called “Medieval Reactions” has become the pioneer of verbal art memes mass construction in the Russian-language network space followed by another group called “Whimsical Aristocrat” [8, 9]. The English-language Internet is also actively engaged in the development of art memes based on Medieval European history and even addresses Persian miniatures [4, 5, 6, 7]. Usage of works that are largely unknown to a network viewer is an important feature of verbal art memes. Visual art memes typically turn to the interpretation of canonical works of art, familiar to everyone (works of classical realism of the second half of the XIX century, socialist realism). It is the recognition of images and the understanding of the substitution by every participant of network artistic dialogue that creates the necessary effect (for example, the replacement of the images of Tsar Ivan IV Vasilyevich or his son in “Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan” by Ivan Repin or the inclusion of unexpected characters in I. Brodsky's painting “Vladimir Lenin in Smolny”).

The technology of creating verbal art memes is different. The main emphasis here is on the words, retorts or dialogue, the choice of works for its development is not limited. Completely unknown medieval miniatures become the basis for broad creativity, the creation of cultural memes of everyday, social, political nature.

The main methods of creating verbal art memes include the following:

  • Title method associated with the change of the picture’s name, giving it new shades of meaning.
  • Commenting when the description of an action taking place in the picture causes the effect of plot distortion.
  • Citation when a specially selected quote (preferably known to all the participants of the network dialogue) changes the meaning of the work.
  • Dialogue method that simulates the exchange of retorts between the participants.
  • Method of conveying the thoughts of a character or characters, which are often mutually exclusive. Thus a comic effect is achieved.
  • Art-education, which is characterized by ironic commentary on the content of the work in terms of the fine art history development.

Obviously, the majority of the techniques of creating art memes are borrowed from comic books that have a clear structure of visual and verbal relationships: The caption helps to communicate necessary information that cannot be conveyed through dialogues, the balloon is used for the characters’ retorts and dialogues, sound effects verbalize sounds. However, the basis of comic book is the plot component and its development in the unity of the verbal and the visual, while verbal art memes are fundamentally eclectic, not systemic and ironic. An important characteristic of art memes in general and verbal art memes, in particular, is their comic, humorous nature, which enables us to make interesting observations about their social character and semantic potential.

The nature of verbal art memes can be studied with the help of semiotic philosophical concepts, for example, the concept of deconstruction by J. Derrida [3]. The use of works with gallant scenes of the chevalier’s courtship for a beautiful lady, supplemented by rude comments of deliberately sexual content is a very common feature of verbal art-memes. At first glance, the comic effect is provided by the discrepancy between the elegant situation and offensive expression. However, this is only one aspect that has a direct effect. Anecdotalism of the situation and the effect of recognition suggest the typification of a standard situation. The verbal tool allows us to define a specific social problem. A significant number of similar art memes presented in the network space allows us to say that, in addition to the superficial comic effect, we are dealing with a system of binary oppositions with verbal art memes, where ethical boundaries are re-examined.

To no lesser extent, the creators of verbal art memes refer to medieval subjects (miniatures, icons) dedicated to the topics of holy martyrs suffering or all sorts of topics related to violence. Obscene or ironic comments turn the high pathetics of medieval works of art to ordinary, everyday situations. They have a kind of psychotherapeutic effect for users, allowing them to relieve tension. Situations of everyday life such as work, home, family, relationships appear in the visual form of a medieval miniature and verbal form of a modern language.

It is important to note that household plots are leading in the total number of verbal art memes. Political events, questions of history and culture are of less interest to creators and recipients. It is also interesting that verbal art memes are, paradoxically, more international than visual ones. In the space of the Russian-speaking Internet, visual art memes, for the most part, use works of the Russian realism and socialist realism, and are unfamiliar for users from other countries. The replacement of characters does not tell them anything, for example, for an English-speaking user it would be incomprehensible. At the same time, translations of dialogues, retorts, thoughts of the characters of verbal art memes are quite universal and ensure the popularity of this mass technology of works of art appropriation by verbal means.


  • Dawkins R. Egoistichniy gen [The Selfish Gene] / R. Dawkins. – M.: Mir, 1993. – 318 p. [In Russian]

  • Stradayushcheye Srednievekoviye [Medieval Reactions] [Electronic resource] // Vkontakte [Website] – URL: (Accessed: 29.01.2017). [In Russian]

  • Kaprizniy Aristoctrat [Whimsical Aristocrat] [Electronic resource] // Vkontakte [Website] – URL: (Accessed: 29.01.2017). [In Russian]