Creative memes

March 20, 2007

Robert Genn

Memes are like genes--they carry characteristics from one
generation to the next. Unlike genes, memes don't hang out in
chromosomes, they live and thrive within the culture and
environment. In studies of various religions, for example, we
find that faiths are generally passed from one generation to
the next. If your parents and community happen to be Mormon,
there is a high likelihood that you, at least at first, will
also be one. Social scientist Richard Dawkins has noted,
"Different schools and genres of art can be analyzed as
alternative memeplexes, as artists copy ideas and motifs from
earlier artists." In other words, the subject matter we choose,
the style in which we work, the attitudes that we hold, are
based on our environment, history and familial prejudices. In
the wild and wonderful world of art, what we do is somewhat

Just as with religious people, we artists are inclined to
measure our preferences against what we habitually know. Unless
one is very broad-minded indeed, the schools we choose will
often be in line with our memetic beliefs.

In a Darwinian sense, where you have natural selection
happening, art evolves from generation to generation at glacial
speed. This is okay, honouring as we do the traditions of care,
craftsmanship and technique. On the other hand, mutant artists,
like the statistical ten percent of Mormon kids who go astray,
may become the pioneers of new ways of looking at things.
Mainline or mutant, it's survival of the fittest.

It's been my observation that the artistic pot doesn't get
stirred nearly enough. This is one of the reasons I'm so much
in favour of artists trying to understand and appreciate all
art forms. It can't be heresy for a fixated floral painter to
expose herself to the joys of conceptual art. In my books,
"comparative art" should be part of the personal curriculum.
It's exhilarating and it's liberating.

At the same time, labeling what you are is not a bad idea, even
when the label may soon be peeled away. The value of labeling
is that you can more easily see outward to areas of
fertilization and growth. Wider understanding gives creative
power. This may even lead to finding a specialty that is, as
they say, "truly you." It's the fit that counts. As you broaden
your mind, you are likely to thrive in your more natural pew.

Best regards,


PS: "Tread softly, because you tread on my memes." (Richard

Esoterica: The British Virgin Islands, from which I've just
returned, form a relatively isolated artistic memeplex. The
going memes of painting and sculpture include the gay colours
of Caribbean tradition--craftwork with heavy emphasis on
brilliant lizards (there's a variety of them running wild),
fish, birds and briny beasts. As well as the inevitable
swashbuckling patch-eyed, parroted pirates, there's a healthy
supply of palm-shaded beaches graced with hip-swinging natives
in calypso mood. "Stylized" and "naive" might be words you
could use to describe this art.

By contrast, where I am now in St. Barts, a department of
Guadalupe and France, the wealth meme is evident. In this
jet-set playground, the memes of Paris, New York and London
grace gallery walls and luxury villas. I'm trying not to use
the word "sophisticated." Let's just say that the wealth meme
travels and makes art homogenous.