What do you see when you look at Three Young Musicians, a group portrait by the French artist Antoine Le Nain in 1630? Are you struck by the rich colours, the fine brushwork – or by the fact that the three men might be a 17th-century version of Hanson, the sibling pop group from Tulsa, Oklahoma, who recorded “MMMBop”, one of the most annoying hits of the 1990s?
For Lucy Redoglia, the social media manager at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Lacma), the Hanson comparison trumped any considerations of the picture’s artistic merits. She attached the words “Mmbop, ba duba dop” – an approximation of the song’s lyric – to a photograph of the painting and distributed it on Snapchat, a social media platform whose average user is aged 18. The resulting meme was viewed more than 60,000 times on Snapchat and shared extensively on other social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.
Job done, for Ms Redoglia, who is at the cutting edge of efforts to use social media to engage teenagers with classical art. She sends out up to three “snaps” a week, each one pairing an item from LACMA’s collection of 120,000 works of art with a phrase from the pages of pop culture. A portrait of two young women by the English painter Thomas Sully (1783-1872) was twinned with the line “Stop trying to make fetch happen” – a line from the cult 2004 movie Mean Girls. The dashing Portrait of Pieter Tjarck by the Dutch master Frans Hals gained a pair of sunglasses and the caption: “Deal with it.”
Ms Redoglia, 31, admits she sometimes references pop culture from the 1990s, a decade that might seem distinctly historical to her young audience. But lines from TLC’s big 1995 hit “Waterfalls” and Billy Madison, an Adam Sandler movie from the same year, have both proved popular memes. “Not every pop culture event sits well with the collection,” says Ms Redoglia, “but I keep a careful eye on things, follow hashtags and participate when I can.”
And it’s working. While Lacma’s following on Facebook and Twitter is relatively stable, its community of Snapchat “friends” is burgeoning.
Most art galleries use social media – in the UK the Tate issues a daily forecast by tweeting a painting that seems to reflect the day’s weather. But museums taking a humorous, some would say juvenile, approach to their own art to woo a younger audience is still virgin territory. Is it innovative or another example of the dumbing down of culture?
Art historian Bendor Grosvenor says he’s “all in favour” of initiatives such as Lacma’s memes. “Why not? There’s nothing to lose, and everything to gain,” he says. “Art can’t be devalued. The Mona Lisa adorns everything from pizza boxes to toothpaste, and still it’s regarded as one of the greatest paintings of all time.”
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