Art Culture

A Democrat democratises art: a deep dive into the Bernie Sanders meme

Bernie Sanders is, for many, one of the enduring images from the 47th Presidential Inauguration of the United States. Few though, would have predicted that on such a historic day, viral fame would be claimed by a photograph of the Vermont Senator sat criss-crossed on a fold-down plastic chair, whilst wearing an oversized parka and a disproportionately large pair of knitted mittens. Outfit-wise, he was dressed startlingly similar to a year seven British schoolboy on a snow day, if only lacking an equally inexplicably sized rucksack to match the mittens. Likewise, you’d be forgiven for thinking the photograph was snapped on the sides of a small-town football pitch on a rainy Monday afternoon, rather than at one of the most ceremonially important occasions of the year.

Yet, it is perhaps because of the ever-incongruous nature of Sanders, that this image sparked such a creative outpouring. Within minutes of being released, Twitter was awash with memes which frantically photoshopped the Senator in ever more improbable places. As with any meme, innovation quickly took place around the established format. Bernie cut onto the Friends sofa or atop the construction poles of the Rockefeller Centre, became Bernie transformed into the anime universe of Hayao Miyazaki. One American college student then created a website allowing you to drop Bernie and his Chair into any location on Google street maps and Good Magazine released a surprisingly soothing Lo-fi Bernie Sanders music video. A genre which proved particularly popular was the concealing of Bernie amid some of the most prized art pieces in the world. Special for their highly stylised matching of textures and tonality, Bernie appeared as effortlessly belonging in pieces as famous as Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande (1886) or perched upon Vincent Van Gogh’s Chair (1888). The unlikely crossovers created have firmly demonstrated the place for memes in art; with the pieces created as much a reflection of our society now as the originals were for theirs. A salient example is the photoshopping of Bernie into Edward Hoppers Nighthawks (1942) by art historian Michael Lobel. If Hoppers’ original is famed for reflecting the lonely reality of American life, then it is perhaps possible to draw parallels to the seeming solitude of Bernie’s radically progressive policies in American politics today. Having twice lost in the runoffs for the Democratic nominations in favour of those running with less progressive policies, the inauguration showed an America not yet ready to embrace the democratic socialist dreams of Biden. In the frantic and divisive reality of American politics, it is not too far flung to see Bernie as relegated to an empty late-night diner, reflecting on the loneliness of an American dream not met. Maybe it is a stretch to dig this deep into the meaning of the memes created. It’s probable, that in most cases, the artist behind the meme was simply reacting with lightning quick impulse to the trend of plonking Bernie into a scene where Bernie does not belong. For the most part too, these images were humorous and joyful, reflecting perhaps the collective sigh of a society high on the fumes of post-Trump presidential potential. Taking over whole timelines, the images were largely cathartic and cleansing, compared to the fierceness of the previous weeks of American politics, where it was images of right-wing extremists storming the Capitol which had dominated Twitter.

At their core, memes are defined as a unit of cultural information; they seek to share elements of cultural systems or behaviours. In essence, they perform the function of any other piece of art, regardless of the exact intention behind them. So perhaps it’s time we start to take them more seriously as the cultural expressions they are. One of the key values of memes is that, unlike many other artistic forms or institutions, they are a relatively democratising medium. They are widely available to view and ultimately present few barriers to artistic expression. As a result of this, they are a ubiquitous presence in our lives and the constant nature of their production means that most only have a short life span. For Bernie, this lasted longer than most, although by Thursday morning many were calling for the format to be retired. Despite this though, they also have a timelessness, which means that whilst they rapidly fall out of favour, they remain nestled away in our collective consciousness. It is because of this, that in years to come, when thinking about the historic Inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, many of us will go searching for the Memes of Bernie Sanders. And, in looking at the vast collection of images we will remember the atmosphere of the day, where of all things, it was the image of a little old man, hunched on a fold-away chair, which inspired an artistic upheaval of humour and joy.

Image: Isobel Williams for The Student

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