The Meme Accounts Upending the Art World’s Class System

From @jerrygogosian to @bradtroemel, memes have become a primary method of institutional critique

Courtesy: Brad Troemel, 2020

In the decade since Instagram was launched, a slew of panels and papers has tried to make sense of the social-media platform’s impact on the art world. We’ve heard about collectors buying work via Direct Message, the rise of a new kind of ‘Instagrammable’ art that looks good on screen and artists such as Amalia Ulman using the platform as an interactive performance stage. Less well-documented has been the impact of the so-called meme account: the single-purpose Instagram handle that users follow for a steady stream of humorous posts. Such dedicated feeds usually establish their own style, inside jokes or favourite targets of derision. Some create original content while others shamelessly pilfer crowdsourced material. Although the content may change from account to account, the end goal is to make you laugh. Humour is the path of least resistance to virality.

Single-purpose meme accounts that satirize the art world have become something of a cottage industry. For instance, @jerrygogosian and @freeze_magazine have perfected the text-on-image format to lampoon art celebrities and trends and highlight the concerns of those working on the margins of the gallery system. The name @jerrygogosian slyly mashes together references to two of the industry’s power players – critic Jerry Saltz and gallerist Larry Gagosian – which is typical of the account’s ribald treatment of signature art-world institutions. A recent @jerrygogosian post aligned various police mug shots of Lindsay Lohan with ‘art-world crimes’ – from the success of the artist KAWS to art flipping and gaudy gallery openings in Chelsea, New York. 

Courtesy: Jerry Gogosian, 2020

The art world depicted by these memes is dire: artists lack gallery representation, MFA programmes deliver meagre benefits and the real-estate prices of major art capitals swallow up what little income smaller players can derive from a winner-takes-all market. If many in the art world have the growing sense that their institutions are failing and, along the way, failing them, such meme accounts provide both affirmation and comedic relief.

The viral success of meme accounts means they’re also used as extensions of larger media brands, such as the exquisitely produced The Art Gorgeous, which, in its own words, creates ‘captivating content’ through millennial-pink text overlays that read as the hyperbolic musings of an underpaid gallerina. Such feeds are remarkable for the extent to which their content is barely distinguishable from that of their followers. Like reality television, art-world meme accounts offer their audiences – savvy enough to get the references but too marginal to be the object of scorn – a combination of flattery and catharsis. 

The rare instances of institutional critique on such feeds are generally overshadowed by their aspirational fealty to a nexus of art-world influence. While power players are the butt of jokes by @jerrygogosian and @freeze_magazine, it’s clear that the creators of both accounts would be thrilled to be invited to the party. @jerrygogosian’s fixation on the ‘big four’ galleries – Gagosian, Hauser & Wirth, Pace and David Zwirner – doesn’t unseat their power; it reinforces it.

Courtesy: Freeze Magazine, 2020

For an account with a little more bite to its critiques, follow @thewhitepube, a collaborative effort of UK art writers Gabrielle de la Puente and Zarina Muhammad. Claiming to be the ‘opposite of old white men with posh accents’, @thewhitepube provides content that is woke and challenging. The account tracks with many of the signature themes in institutional critique, specifically decolonialism, as well as questions of race, class, gender equality and inclusion. A favourite meme format for @thewhitepube is the text-over-image reaction shot. A screengrab of the US comedian Mindy Kaling looking dejected is captioned: ‘Getting into the art world and thinking it’s white men you’re going to have to contend with, but then realizing it’s white women as well.’ While art-world meme accounts advance critical messages with varying degrees of success, it is rare that they deviate meaningfully from the accepted confines of Instagram’s visual format. Artist Brad Troemel’s feed, however, is a notable exception. Although many artists use Instagram to promote their practices, Troemel has adopted the platform as his primary channel of artistic production and dissemination. Along the way, he has departed from the typical viral format to create an Instagram-native output that lies somewhere between comedy routine, political cartoon and visual essay. His 92,000 followers on @bradtroemel act as a loss leader for his income-producing account on the art-sponsorship platform Patreon. His intricate satires target the MFA system, galleries, art publications and others, all of which are participants in what he calls the ‘debt pyramid scheme’. Many of his posts come in carousel form, allowing viewers to flip through them like the pages of a comic book. One from December 2019 featured bold statements countering many of the art world’s orthodox beliefs superimposed on non-sequitur images of celebrities. ‘YOU WILL NEVER BE REPRESENTED BY A BLUE CHIP GALLERY’ reads the text over a shot of the actor Keanu Reeves looking downcast, followed by several further memes encouraging artists to ignore the structures and pressures of an art world whose institutions are unfairly rigged against them.  

Courtesy: The White Pube, 2020 

While @jerrygogosian, @freeze_magazine and Troemel all use the popularity of Instagram memes as a vector for institutional satire, there is a crucial difference in the intent of their critiques. @jerrygogosian provides a kind of perverse evangelism: the account’s cheeky images function as a set of tribal signifiers that leverage Instagram’s reach such that ‘normies’ – the non-initiated – might remotely participate in the madness of the art world. Likewise, @freeze_magazine’s friendly mockery seems intended to improve this system from within, rather than wholeheartedly reject it. (One recent diptych shows Drake recoiling in disgust from the caption ‘Donations from the Sackler Family’ on one side while, on the other, the rapper gleefully approves of ‘anonymous donations’.) Troemel, however, views memes as a means to exit the circus once and for all. His brand of critique does not aim to purify institutions so they might better serve their users; rather, he advocates a new method of creative distribution in the belief that, in the digital age, the system needs artists more than artists need the system. Troemel’s Instagram practice shows that there can be another way. While social media has crippled certain institutions – art criticism, for instance, has struggled to monetize short-form writing at faster publishing speeds, and now relies massively on underpaid labour – the democratization it has enabled of some aspects of discourse and material exchange allows artists and writers to avoid the system’s largely class-based filters. The smartest memes can say as much as a long-winded critical theory essay in a graduate school textbook – and deliver their messages far more forcefully. Their economic critique of the art world lands not just because of their content, but because their mechanism of delivery exists outside the bloated system they seek to interrogate.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 211 with the headline ‘I, Meme, Mine'.

Mike Pepi is a New York-based writer on art, culture, and technology. Find him at @mikepepi

Issue 211

First published in Issue 211

May-June 2020

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