Two dimensional art, paintings, photographs, drawings, and so on were for many years all about images. There is a lot that can be said with an image, after all, a picture is worth a thousand words. Sometimes, however, you really need words.
With the rise of the pop art movement in the 1960s more and more words started making their way into visual art. Text in art had existed before but it appeared rather sporadically in paintings like Rene Magritte’s “La trahison des images”, in pop art it became more and more common. Roy Lichtenstein’s comic book paintings used speech and thought balloons. Warhol’s “Tunafish Disaster” was covered in text from a newspaper article. But the combination of text and art wasn’t exclusive to pop art. Jean-Michel Basquait used text frequently in his paintings and Banksy commonly uses text in his street art. Ai Weiwei created a piece entitled “Names of Student Earthquake Victims Found by the Citizens’ Investigation” which is composed of the names and ages of thousands of children who perished in an earthquake in Sichuan Province when their schools collapsed, it is a piece of art composed of nothing but text.
Today we have a new form of expression that relies on mixing text with images, the internet meme. They often include fairly meaningless images with short bits of text. Alone the images or the text would probably fail to catch our attention, but together they form a synergistic union that intrigues us to the point that we endlessly share them, comment on them, and seek them out. I believe internet memes have become such an important form of communication because they fit in perfectly with the way our minds operate. The human brain demands meaning, it requires a narrative, it is most comfortable when that meaning or narrative is easily and quickly made obvious. Often times the narrative outweighs the truth in the statement, but if it is something that seems obvious to us we tend to believe it. Even if we know it isn’t true, if it is simple to absorb, we give it credence.
But what if there is no meaning? What if the image and the text are not related in any way? Will we simply allow confusion to set in? From what I have seen this is the last thing we will allow. Confusion is a dangerous state and I believe our brains have evolved to avoid confusion at all costs. We need to know how to react in social situations, when we are in danger, when we are presented with an opportunity. Confusion leaves us without the ability to react and so it is obvious why natural selection would not favor confusion. We can avoid confusion with careful thought and research and logic, but all of these things take time and effort. It is often more efficient to bypass the cognitive dissonance we might experience by simply creating our own meaning and narrative. It isn’t logical but we can make it fit with what we already think and know and believe. Our personal narratives might not save our lives or help us find a new friend but they do allow us to act. We can, hopefully, worry about the results of our actions later.
In the propaganda series I combine quotes from George Orwell’s novel, “1984” with photographs of items so common we wouldn’t think anyone would ever take a photograph of them. “1984” is well enough known that most of us will have an idea of what the words mean. The objects in the photographs are all common enough that most of us will be able to relate to them easily. But what do we do when they are combined? Did I put a specific quote with a specific photo because I think there is a meaning to be found in their combination? Maybe, then again, maybe not. That really isn’t important. What I am looking for is the narratives other people develop to explain these memes of confusion to themselves. All of these images have stories to tell, but it is up to you to write them.