It might seem strange at first to imagine internet photos of Kermit the Frog and Willy Wonka as touchstones of contemporary art culture. But that’s precisely the case freelance artist and art historian Adrienne Lee is trying to make.
Lee is teaching an “Art History in Pop Culture: How the Internet Changes How We See Art” class in July at Rollins College. The monthlong session, held at the Center for Lifelong Learning, will take a closer look at memes, the humorous and repetitive images that are enormously popular on the internet. But to Lee, they’re now quite a bit more than that.
“It taps into this idea that we all have a sense of, ‘Oh I’ve seen that painting before — I don’t know who painted it, I don’t know when they painted it, but I know I’ve seen it before,’” Lee said. “It’s almost subconscious. With memes, it plays into this idea that everybody sort of knows the reference, that’s what gives that simple image its power. And that goes back in the arts thousands of years with the idea of symbolism.”
Although some members of the art community can be reticent of the idea that repetitive online images measure up to the works of Andy Warhol and other pop artists, Lee believes they are doing themselves a disservice by ignoring online culture’s impact.
Rather than looking at pop culture art from the 20th century, the class poses a different question: What will art historians be looking at 100 years from today? Lee believes it won’t be an easy endeavor. Although much of human history has had clear, defining paths that have marked different art periods, the frenetic and ever-shifting nature of memes makes a through-line harder to track.
“When you look at scope in art history, we have to change the way you study it,” Lee said. “You could study a hundred years — the Baroque period, 1500s to the 1700s — as a block where things changed, but you could say this is what you expect. Now, it’s only three weeks that you know what to expect.”
Any child who has grown up with the internet is familiar with meme culture, but Lee will be teaching to a less-acquainted audience — adults age 50 and up. She plans to introduce her students to iconic memes and discuss their unpredictable and unexpected origins. A popular meme of Kermit the Frog sipping tea, for example, was originally a Lipton ice tea marketing campaign in 2014 that quickly shifted into a online shorthand for throwing shade today. She explains while the meme’s text is always different for various contexts, the image of Kermit gives off an attitude that’s recognizable by image alone.
“It’s almost like studying another organism,” she said. “Because their lifespans are so short and are constantly mutating and evolving, it’s almost like a germ or virus. As it gets passed along, it mutates and gets tweaked a bit and sometimes become unrecognizable.”
Lee, who has taught art classes concerning Frida Kahlo and women in modern art at Rollins since March, is looking for a handful of people to join her class. Registration is open until late June.
IF YOU GO
‘Art History in Pop Culture: How the Internet Changes How We See Art’
WHEN: July 6 to 27
WHERE: Rollins College, 1000 Holt Ave, Winter Park