In art history courses, Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs (1965) is a staple. It is, to some degree, exactly what it sounds like—a piece of furniture rendered three different ways, as a physical object, a photograph of it, and a text with its dictionary definition. Typically, you can’t enjoy the comfort of being in Kosuth’s chair, but on Twitter, in one viral post from yesterday, the work finally got an unexpected sitter: Bernie Sanders.
No, the beloved Vermont senator had not actually paid a visit to museum to commune with a landmark artwork. Instead, his image had been Photoshopped in, thanks to the art writer Maura Callahan, who pulled a now-famous photograph of Sanders from Wednesday’s Presidential Inauguration in Washington, D.C., and lent it a new context. That picture features Sanders all bundled up, with his legs crossed, a mask on his face, and a pair of fuzzy mittens on his hands. It makes Kosuth’s work—a masterpiece of chilly Conceptualism—seem oddly fun.
The Sanders meme that has dominated social media over the past 24 hours came in many forms, not all of which alluded to art history. There was the Democratic Socialist inset in a still from Hustlers, where he appears to be cradled by Jennifer Lopez, herself an Inauguration Day performer. There was Sanders alongside Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis in Thelma and Louise, Sanders in the background of a sequence from Boogie Nights, Sanders joining a blindfolded Sandra Bullock for a boat ride in Bird Box, Sanders riding the MTA, Sanders sandwiched between Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith during an episode of Red Table Talk. In one meta gesture, there was even Sanders within the Distracted Boyfriend meme.
But it is the art history versions of the latest Sanders meme—he has been a social media sensation before—that appear to have made a mark. Museums were quick to get in on the action yesterday. The Phillips Collection, for example, tweeted a group of crudely edited images featuring Sanders—in the center of a gallery filled with Rothkos in one, attending Renoir’s famed boating party luncheon in another—with the text “I am once again asking you not to touch the artwork,” a reference to a different beloved Sanders meme. Even institutions across the pond took part. Today, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England, posted a famed Aelbert Cuyp painting featuring an idyllic landscape populated with animals. Next to the sitter alongside them was Bernie. “Seated Shepherd with Cows and Sheep in a Meadow. And Bernie,” the museum wrote.
A cascade of similar images soon followed. The art historian Michael Lobel made a version in which Sanders inside a moody café from Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks—itself the subject of one of the more memorable Covid-era memes—and others placed the senator within iconic works by Sandro Botticelli, Vincent van Gogh, ASCO, Joseph Beuys, and Georges Seurat. (A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grand Jatte with Bernie, anyone?) There was even a version where Sanders appeared seated atop a stylite column that appeared first in a 5th century Byzantine manuscript.
But no version of the newest Sanders joke proved more memorable than one created by the writer R. Eric Thomas, who inset him facing Marina Abramović for one famous performance that appeared at the Museum of Modern Art in 2010. MoMA picked it up, tweeting, “Bernie is present.” Something about Thomas’s rendition may help explain its charm. In most pictures of The Artist Is Present, Abramović’s steely eyes meet her viewer, almost daring anyone who sits before to look away. But in the meme version, Sanders looks away from her, his eyes cast toward the floor. In this meme, there seems to be a willful disregard of something that was construed by many as being great—an anti-establishment spirit that befits Sanders’s own views.
Of course, the Sanders memes are plain and good fun—they’re brash, silly, even a bit jarring. Yet their popularity is telling, too. At a time when all museums and the objects held within are subject to widespread critique, these images, with their anachronisms and their jokey takes on centuries-old masterpieces, wear down the aura of some of the greatest artworks of all time, rendering them anew in the process. As the first major art history meme of the Biden era, this one’s a good one.
Below, a look at some of the best Sanders art history memes.
Guys I made one
Joseph KosuthOne and Three Chairs1965 pic.twitter.com/9WmXkLGRFS
— Maura Callahan (@_maura_callahan) January 21, 2021
My favorite Byzantine saint. pic.twitter.com/H6bVkHjeGp
— Brad Hostetler (@bradhostetler) January 21, 2021
— R. Eric Thomas (@oureric) January 20, 2021
I am once again asking you not to touch the artwork.
H/T to @elissaolinsky for the #AltText lift! https://t.co/8ozv69lAh4 pic.twitter.com/zao582uPlL
— The Phillips Collection (@PhillipsMuseum) January 20, 2021
Or maybe he’s better off inside pic.twitter.com/I2MVlBd42t
— Michael Lobel (@mlobelart) January 21, 2021
Bernie is present https://t.co/r4z2cpyVc1
— MoMA The Museum of Modern Art (@MuseumModernArt) January 20, 2021
Seated Shepherd with Cows and Sheep in a Meadow.
And Bernie. pic.twitter.com/7Ix0wBNfzC
— Ashmolean Museum (@AshmoleanMuseum) January 21, 2021
— Nayland Blake (@naylandblake) January 21, 2021
I don’t know but Joel Garcia did this one pic.twitter.com/yIGn5NysF7
— Carol Cheh (@chehmazel) January 21, 2021