15 Viral Works Of Art, From Cave Paintings To Computer Hacks
In my previous essay for The Creators Project, I discussed how the possibilities of going viral have impacted how artists are making and publicizing their work online. But it’s just digital and web-friendly art that has gone viral. Visual art has always been a kind of cultural meme, with aesthetic tropes developing, spreading, and shrinking throughout history. Iconic works of art inspire followers, knockoffs, and remixes, reaching far beyond the context of their original creation.
The following list, stretching from antique sculpture to a fake internet start-up, compiles some artworks that have gone viral over the past two millennia and charts just how they got so omnipresent.
1. Lascaux Cave Paintings
The earliest art ever made was a meme that has persisted for millennia. The mysterious cave paintings at Lascaux, present art at its most elemental: possibly a form of ritual, possibly wishful symbolism, but doubtless a testament to human creativity. That the cave drawings remain lively and controversial pays testament to their viral quality—everyone from Pablo Picasso to Wener Herzog has drawn inspiration from them.
2. Laocoon Group
The Lacoon Group, created circa 160-20 B.C., is a Roman sculptural composition representing the Trojan priest Laocoon and his sons being strangled by sea serpents. What makes this antiquity interesting is that it was excavated in pieces, and Renaissance-era scholars and artists argued extensively over how it might have been composed. The story goes that Michelangelo took one look at the composition that had been previously agreed upon, and argued that it was incorrect. After further archaeological discovery, the form that he proposed was proven correct, and the work retains its iconic status.
3. Paolo Uccello’s The Battle of San Romano
Is there a more potent visual meme than three-dimensional perspective? The perspective system that we know and love lost its dominance over visual art over the early centuries of Christian culture, giving way to hierarchical space and flat, attenuated compositions. This painting has become a symbol of the resurgence of perspective during the early Renaissance: check out that grid of weapons on the ground, charting a map for the foreshortened bodies and weapons of the scene.
4. Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim
If one work of contemporary architecture can be said to have gone viral, it’s Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim, completed in 1997. The building established Gehry’s signature curvilinear style, but it has coined a new economic phenomenon in its own name. The term “Bilbao Effect” is used to describe buildings that become major tourist attractions and centers of international culture, revitalizing embattled geographic areas.
5. Cao Fei’s RMBCity
Cao Fei’s RMBCity was by no means the first work of art to take advantage of online social spaces, but it has become one of the best known. The Chinese artist appropriated the online MMORPG Second Life to create an analogue of a Chinese city, a brand new space that she called RMBCity. The city has since become a thriving social space of its own, and continues to this day.
6. Petra Cortright’s VVEBCAM
Video artist Petra Cortright’s VVEBCAM, a surreal video self-portrait enlivened with an array of familiar animated GIFs collected from the internet, netted over 60,000 views on YouTube before the company decided to take it down. The reason? Cortright used spam tags to try to draw traffic to the video as part of the project. The controversy over the video’s removal put the artwork back in the spotlight, and it has since been mirrored on Rhizome’s ArtBase archive.
7. F.A.T. Lab’s Shaved Bieber
The collective of online provocateurs known as F.A.T. Lab created a work that not only went viral but took on virality itself. Shaved Beiber is a filter that removes all mentions of teenage superstar Justin Beiber from the Internet. Despite the crew’s best efforts, however, Biebermania has persisted unabated.
8. Kyle McDonald’s Apple Store Takeover
Kyle McDonald’s hacking of an entire Apple store’s worth of computer webcams attracted not only the attention of thousands of fans online, but also the eyes of the FBI. After McDonald published his guerrilla snapshots of computer users taken while they were browsing in the store, the FBI came to his apartment and confiscated his computer.
9. OKFocus’s Fake Internet Start-Up
No one knew what rapper Kanye West’s rumored internet start-up would look like, but the guys at the online creative agency OKFocus, Jonathan Vingiano and Ryder Ripps, hazarded a guess. Their fake WHODAT.BIZ was a hilariously satirical start-up whose sole purpose was to carry out a simple computer trick to look up who owned a domain name. The fake site launch was picked up by major news outlets, with journalists initially fooled into thinking it was the real thing.
10. Zach Gage’s SpellTower
Indie game developer and artist Zach Gage’s SpellTower took on app-store giants like Words With Friends when it rose to the top of the charts following a sale and a groundswell of online support. The fact that it’s fun and extremely accessible helps of course.
11. Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa
Is it a portrait of the artist as a woman? Was Mona Lisa Da Vinci’s lover? Just another pretty face? Sometimes what makes an artwork go viral is the mystery that surrounds it, and that certainly helps with the Renaissance master’s famed portrait. The subtle painted shading and emotive expression makes for a compelling visual experience, but the excitement is also in the debate.
12. Michelangelo’s David
A single work of art has the power to energize entire nations. Michelangelo’s David sculpture did just that, providing a symbol for Florence to unite behind in their struggle against rival city-states and the domination of the Medici family.
13. Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night
Perhaps you can judge how viral a work of art has gone by how many tourists cluster around it when it’s hung in an international museum. If tourists are any judge, Van Gogh’s Starry Night (1889) is about as viral as you can get. The swirls of blue, purple, and yellow paint have even been turned into an interactive video installation.
14. Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory
The single most iconic work of surrealism, Dalí’s landscape of biomorphic rocks and melting clocks is instantly recognizable, whether seen at the Museum of Modern Art or referenced in a kids’ cartoon. I dare you to look at a pocket watch and not think about it.
15. Robert Indiana’s LOVE
To go viral, an image has to be instantly readable, have a clear, succinct message, and be repeatable and replicable, popping up in unexpected places. LOVE, which was first created by artist Robert Indiana in 1967 for a Museum of Modern Art Christmas card, has all of these qualities in spades. From its appearances as public sculpture to endless remixes with different words in different languages, LOVE is about as viral in mainstream visual culture as an artwork can get.