Clubhouse Capitalism: Memes in the age of immaterial reproduction

By Darius Sabbaghzadeh

Since when did art memes become vessels of professional aspiration? Was it because of Online Viewing Rooms, the NFT craze, or COVID-19 forcing the salons of gossip to go online for a limitless series of Clubhouse talks? Hito Steyerl observed this hellscape of art world profligacy in her 2019 book Duty Free Art: Art in the Age of Planetary Civil War:

Public support swapped for Instagram metrics. Art fully floated on some kind of Arsedaq. More fairs, longer yachts for more violent assholes, oil paintings of booty blondes, abstract stock-chart calligraphy. Yummy organic superfoods. Accelerationist designer breeding. Personalized one-on-one performances for tax evaders. Male masters, more male masters, and repeat. Art will take its place next to big-game hunting, armed paragliding, and adventure slumming. 

To discuss art memes would first require a quick reflection on what memes are, which must be understood within the greater dynamics of the circulation of social media. First coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, “memes” were outlined as memetic ideas capable—and ideally suited for—spreading like a virus. “When you plant a fertile meme in my mind,” Dawkins writes, “you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell.”

Memes are now utilized for their capacity to express a wide array of complex emotions, thoughts or feelings without the need for explanation. They are fundamentally communicative devices defined mainly by their capacity to serve as vehicles to transmit ideas or information, similar to Jodi Dean’s observations of circulation in her 2005 work Communicative Capitalism

…How a contribution circulates determines whether it has been accepted or rejected. And, just as the producer, labor, drops out of the picture in commodity exchange, so does the sender (or author) become immaterial to the contribution. The circulation of logos, branded media identities, rumors, catchphrases, even positions and arguments exemplifies this point. The popularity, the penetration and duration of a contribution marks its acceptance or success.

Memes are cool; they are edgy, provocative, humorous, bizarre, cringe or just funny. They exist to be shared. Yet it seems like a growing amount of meme discourse has just become another form of marketing or PR. It has been a bit tragic to watch art meme accounts, in particular, starting to sell merch, do interviews to promote their “practice”, or even piggybacking on their success to literally push the account owner’s real-world career further. The recent proliferation of discourse around Non-Fungible Tokens, or NFTs, is the sad terminus of this ever-growing commodification of circulation, and a poorly thought-out way to limit the illimitable.

NFTs are, in theory, a great idea, offering a blockchain-guaranteed way of leveling the playing field of both art creation and art acquisitions through a digital certificate of authenticity. Yet it’s telling that the biggest proponents of NFTs already come from the highest levels of celebrity, entertainment and finance. NFTs, in practice, not only have little evidence of any tangible resale value, but they also represent an attempt to individuate and create scarcity within the illimitable medium of the internet. Art memes that once satirized the vulgar commodity exchange of the art world are themselves now objects of a new commodity to speculate on.

Though it should be mentioned Steyerl is currently investigating NFTs with students at the Royal College of Art, she writes in Duty Free Art to remind us that art itself is an encrypted language, not requiring the blockchain to contain, signify or express value:

Art is encryption as such, regardless of the existence of a message with a multitude of conflicting and often useless keys. Its reputational economy is randomly quantified, ranked by bullshit algorithms that convert artists and academics into ranked positions, but it also includes more traditionally clannish social hierarchies. It is a fully ridiculous, crooked, and toothless congregation and yet, like civilization as a whole, art would be a great idea.

As communicative technologies and financialization play an ever-greater role in the future of the art industry, perhaps the art world deserves to be beaten up a bit more than celebrated. After all, the art world’s aim is to perpetually encrypt art’s meaning in order to maximize exchange value, and it utilizes an entire division of labor through galleries, publicists, curators, advisors and auctioneers to ensure such encryption, while also ensuring the industrial-scale reproduction of the encryption of art. Here, it would be best to be reminded that sometimes it is better to throw a wrench into the art world’s gears rather than become its agents of resale value.

–– Darius Sabbaghzadeh