Art-fly Learning

When an errant fly found itself in the national spotlight by landing on Vice President Mike Pence’s head during the 2020 Vice Presidential debate; historians, entertainers and laypersons alike, made associations between this buzzworthy happenstance and the historical relevance and symbolism of flies within our collective culture.

Connecting visual culture to current social and political events is a longstanding tradition and process that human beings have creatively adhered to. Our fixation on instantaneous thrills and memes presents a great opportunity for educators, artists and historians to incorporate a myriad of visual imagery into discussions around sociocultural, political and environmental issues. Since the image of Pence has been circulating at a rapid pace, it has inspired both serious and absurd responses. Although the occurrence ultimately overshadowed the rest of the debate, we can utilize the symbolism of the fly to circle back to some of the important issues that are at stake during this election cycle.

The likeness of flies have amazed and confounded audiences observing aesthetic renderings by artists throughout time, from Petrus Christus (Portrait of a Carthusian, 1446) to Damien Hirst (A Thousand Years, 1990) and Katharine Fritsch (Fliege, 2000). The meanings behind the inclusion of the common insect within visual art ranges from commentaries on life and death (as is the case in the work of Christus and Hirst, whose respective work could be part of the memento mori tradition) to being victims of circumstance (as is the case in Jackson Pollock’s Number 31, 1950, where an unsuspecting fly was likely encased via Pollock’s barrage of paint onto the canvas).

Unknown Artist from the German (Swabian) School, Portrait of a Woman of the Hofer Family, c. 1470. Collection of The National Gallery, London;

One of the earlier phenomena of flies being part of an art world discourse, is a 15th century portrait by an unknown artist from the Swabian School. At first glance, the painting, titled Portrait of a Woman of the Hofer Family (c.1470), is a typical example of Northern Renaissance portraiture, until one notices the very realistic looking fly on the young subject’s head covering. There are a few prominent art historical theories for the fly’s presence. The first is that, as previously mentioned, flies are used as symbolism by artists to represent mortality. This is further supported by the sprig of forget-me-nots in the noble lady’s hand. The second theory is that the artist wanted to show off his abilities as a painter in the style of trompe-l’oeil (the literal French definition is to ‘deceive the eye’). Rendering such a lifelike image through paint is hard, especially one this small. It would have clearly been as impressive to a viewer then as it is now. Another theory, which relates to the fly’s realism, could simply be that the painter wanted to fool the viewer. It is most likely that a combination of all three theories are correct.

The fly, as a harbinger of death, has a profound social, cultural and political impact in relation to Pence, who has a problematic record when it comes to responding to public health crises (see: Kalichman, 2017 and Lopez, 2020). Prior to the debate, Pence’s camp had a brush with COVID-19. Although the Vice President tested negative for the virus that has killed more than 210,000 Americans, members of his staff and President Trump, all whom he had been in close contact with, had bouts with the coronavirus. The White House and the Trump administration was responsible for a superspreader event, which made it all the more outrageous that Pence, as Chair of the Corona Task Force, stated that the Trump administration was handling the pandemic effectively (see: Qiu, 2020 and Goodkind, 2020).

Needless to say, the action of the fly appearing on Pence’s head inspired numerous memes that are still being widely circulated over social media. Memes are often employed as a lighthearted or offbeat form of cultural critique. By definition, a meme is “an idea, behavior, or style that becomes a fad and spreads by means of imitation from person to person within a culture and often carries symbolic meaning representing a particular phenomenon or theme” (via Oxford Dictionaries, Cambridge English Dictionary and Miriam-Webster Dictionary). Memes can be developed out of any media that contains symbols, words, expressions or actions, which are used to describe cultural ideas or topics. Successful memes are able to be easily replicated, shared and appropriated.

Memes can have substantial pedagogical value by using clarity, creativity and humor to draw connections between discipline specific subject matter and the culture at large. The familiarity that most school age generations have with memes, makes them a useful tool for re-presenting learned and experienced knowledge in an engaging and socially relevant manner. Students can create memes to show their understanding of any form of educational content, from Algebra to AP Art History. Memes are a refreshing way to give students agency over their work and make concepts accessible on their own terms. Math teacher, Sharon Serrano (2018), gives five examples of how educators can make memes a part of their interdisciplinary classroom culture:

  1. To facilitate creating class rules.
  2. As pre-lesson/unit icebreakers.
  3. For learning new vocabulary.
  4. Identify key points in narratives/literature.
  5. To emphasize history.

Another way of using memes is as a form of assessment. Students can be asked to summarize key points from a unit or project in the form of a meme. This task would determine their understanding of vocabulary and how they can apply academic insights to their personal lives.

Memes are a large part of visual culture, which plays an integral role within contemporary art education. Arts educator, Kerry Freedman, asserts that visual culture, which includes (and sometimes blurs the lines between) popular culture and fine art, is socially constructed and influences the way we think, act and perceive ourselves (Freedman, 2003). Because of this, we see a lineage between modern and contemporary art and popular social trends, including memes.

René Magritte, The Treachery of Images, 1928-29, oil on canvas. Collection of LACMA © C. Herscovici/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Artists have been creating memelike work long before the digital age. One of the most famous examples of this is René Magritte, who was a Belgian Surrealist famous for his interplay of linguistics, signs and symbols. Magritte’s work questions our perception of reality as well as how we understand and convey information. By re-presenting images and words, Magritte’s work heightens our awareness around how we perceive meaning and communicate symbolically. His painting, The Treachery of Images (1928-29), depicts a tobacco pipe, with the phrase “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” which is French for “This is not a pipe.” When asked whether the painting is a pipe, Magritte retorted: “the famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture ‘This is a pipe’, I’d have been lying!” Therefore, Magritte is challenging us to approach this painting through an understanding of linguistics, aesthetics, and the existential purpose of a painted object versus the actual object the painting re-presents. Without the physical ability to stuff the pipe with tobacco and smoke it, is it truly a pipe or just an aesthetic concept? One thing that can be said with some degree of certainty, is that Magritte was differentiating an artistic object (a painting) from the object it represents (a pipe) by employing a creative reproduction of materials and intertextuality (the relationship between texts, especially literary ones), in order to compare and contrast the qualities of both a physical object and a replicated depiction of that object.

Joseph Kosuth, One and Three Chairs, 1965, wood folding chair, mounted photograph of a chair, and mounted photographic enlargement of the dictionary definition of “chair”, Chair. Collection of MoMA.
© Joseph Kosuth.

36 years after The Treachery of Images, American conceptual artist, Joseph Kosuth, explored semiotics of art, language and culture through proto-memelike works such as One and Three Chairs (1965). In this conceptual work of art, a photograph of a chair, a dictionary definition of a chair and the actual chair from the photograph are all on display together. Because the photograph depicts the chair as it is actually installed in the room, this work of art changes each time it is installed in a new environment. Like Magritte’s The Treachery of Images, One and Three Chairs compels us to consider the connections between tangible objects, reproductions and language. This example of differentiation is helpful for students to understand how an object can be re-framed through divergent processes and materials while still carrying the same meaning (essentially). Kosuth addressed this concern in 1970, stating:

“I used common, functional objects – such as a chair – and to the left of the object would be a full-scale photograph of it and to the right of the object would be a photostat of a definition of the object from the dictionary. Everything you saw when you looked at the object had to be the same that you saw in the photograph, so each time the work was exhibited the new installation necessitated a new photograph. I liked that the work itself was something other than simply what you saw. By changing the location, the object, the photograph and still having it remain the same work was very interesting. It meant you could have an art work which was that idea of an art work, and its formal components weren’t important.”

Other examples of contemporary artists who incorporate visual culture in a memelike framework are Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, The Guerrilla Girls, David Shrigley and John Baldessari (see: Leonardos, 2016).

Works by the aforementioned artists exemplify the expression of semiotics and the philosophical term mimesis (meaning a replication of something from nature into art, design or literature). Students can go deeper into the exploration of intertextuality and symbolism by creating their own ‘treachery of images’ memes in an activity that combines English Language Arts, art history and visual culture.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Freedman, Kerry. 2003. Teaching Visual Culture: Curriculum, Aesthetics, and the Social Life of Art. New York: Teachers College Press (Columbia University).

Goodkind, Nicole. “Mike Pence, head of the coronavirus task force, struggles to answer questions during debate.” Fortune, 7 October 2020.

Kalichman, Seth C. “Pence, Putin, Mbeki and Their HIV/AIDS-Related Crimes Against Humanity: Call for Social Justice and Behavioral Science Advocacy.” AIDS and behavior vol. 21,4 (2017): 963-967. doi:10.1007/s10461-017-1695-8.

Leonardos, Julia. “Art Has Its Own Memes.” Indiewalls, 14 October 2016.

Lopez, German. “How Mike Pence enabled Donald Trump’s botched Covid-19 response.” Vox, 7 October 2020.

Qiu, Linda. “As Cases Surge, Pence Misleads on Coronavirus Pandemic.” The New York Times, 26 June 2020.

Shifman, Limor. 2015. Memes in digital culture. CRC Press.

Serrano, Sharon. “5 ways to use memes with students.” ISTE, 20 February 2018.


    1. Tumblr is such an incredible platform. Its pedagogical implications should be universally explored across the educational sphere. I’ve definitely found inspiration for my blog and for learning segments via Tumblr posts. I’m excited to delve into the two links you’ve suggested here.


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