To understand the most forward-thinking viral art, you have to understand a bit about internet art. Not all internet art is viral art, but viral art has its roots in internet art, so it’s helpful to know a bit about it. Yes, internet art is a thing, and it’s almost as old as the internet itself. Internet art is, according to Wikipedia, “a form of digital artwork distributed via the Internet. This form of art has circumvented the traditional dominance of the gallery and museum system, delivering aesthetic experiences via the Internet.” That second sentence could just as easily be describing street art or graffiti if you replace the word “Internet” with “street.” In practice though, internet art tends to deal with data and networks, as well as the nature of the internet itself. Putting some exceptions aside that I’ll get to in just a moment, all but the most recent internet art has not generally been nearly as accessible as street art, so I take issue with the Wikipedia definition on those grounds. Historically, internet artists have not been rowdy teens or artists just trying to reach the public but rather highly-educated adults with theories to test and complex ideas about art to promote among other highly-educated adult artists, which sounds like the normal art world to me. While internet art does stay somewhat outside of the commercial art world due to the difficulty (although not impossibility) of selling it, many internet artists are very familiar and comfortable with art theory, MFAs, professorships, residencies and the rest of the trappings of the esoteric spectrum of the art world.
Who comes across internet art and actually looks at this stuff? A lot of people potentially could, since there are a hell of a lot of people on the internet, but it’s no secret that normal people don’t look at internet art. The audience for internet art tends to be a smallish circle of other artists and interested parties.
One thing that street art and internet art have in common is that they are both extremely uncomfortably displayed in galleries, or impossible to display in galleries at all. As pretty much any street artist will tell you, their gallery work is not street art, and taking street art off of a wall to display in a gallery (as has been done with Banksy’s work) is generally not cool and against the very nature of the work (although in 2013 it seems that that attitude is changing with regard to Banksy’s street work, which is now significantly more socially acceptable to remove, buy and sell than it has been). Internet art can be equally difficult to display and has traditionally been even more difficult to sell. After all, what art collector wants to buy an easily copyable piece of computer code so that they can host it on a publicly accessible website? Street art (when not used as a marketing device) and internet art both go against the very nature of the art market.
There have been some instances where internet artists have tried to reach a wider audience than their fellow peers obsessed with databases or glitches. The best of those instances get a similar response to that of the best street art: They get everyday people who may not be embedded in the art world to think or care about something, or just smile or laugh or cry. Artists such as Franco and Eva Mattes, Spart, Heath Bunting, Jeff Greenspan and Jonah Peretti have made work that is undeniably internet art, but which also draws users in and can be enjoyed or at least interacted with by people who have no art background or conception of internet art. Most of this work would fall under the banner of what Peretti calls contagious media. For Peretti, contagious media is basically content made with the goal that people’s default reaction to seeing it will be “I’m sharing this.” That makes contagious media essentially a version of organic viral art with an even more intense focus on its popularity rather than just accessibility.