Will the real ICON please stand up?

From its sacred origins, the word has become a cliche through its overuse.

January 10, 2002|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

It's a person who would be an image; it's an image defying death. It's a walking vessel of a million hopes and dreams, it's a thing knocked off the altar onto the TV. It's the offspring of Jesus Christ Superstar, not to mention Andy Warhol's forecast of fame for Joe Schmoes everywhere. Isn't it iconic, don't you think?

It's all about an image like this one in a Muhammad Ali photo book: A boy of maybe 6 in Libya wears a quizzical look and a T-shirt testifying to one man's global reach, "ALI IS OUR CHAMP."

The arrival of the Hollywood biopic Ali reminds us that "icon" is the word of the day. Really, what else could Muhammad Ali be but a "world icon" (Chicago Tribune), an "icon for oppressed people everywhere" (Minneapolis Star Tribune), "an icon of strength and masculinity" (New York Times).

The Columbus Dispatch adds "unparalleled icon," which makes you go hmmm ...

What's with that "unparalleled"? Is "icon" not enough? Does it need bucking up? Has the celebrity-industrial complex chewed up another one, along with "legend" and "idol" and "star" and "superstar"? Has the very engine of so-much iconicity made the "icon" less iconic?

Small wonder, though, as we're up to our eyes in "icons."

USA Today last month referred to outgoing New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani as a "national icon." A few weeks earlier, the St. Paul Pioneer Press put Martha Stewart in the company of Mary, the mother of Jesus, as "icons of Christmastime."

Check, say, the New York Times and Boston Globe on a couple days in December and consider this parade of notable persons and things, each said to be an "icon": Carol Burnett, Julie Andrews, Yasser Arafat, Columbine High School killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, feminist Eleanor Smeal, perennial batting champ Tony Gwynn, the Jeep Cherokee, the New York County Courthouse and a Boston restaurant called Patty's Pantry.

This is omitting pop music, a world fairly infested with "icons." Those mentioned in recent newspaper reports are punk rocker Stiv Bators, Sid Vicious, T. Rex founder Marc Bolan, Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham and Plasmatics lead singer Wendy O. Williams. They all died young, which doesn't hurt in the Iconicity Dept. Live ones are also included, among them Lou Reed, who only appears in certain lighting to be made up for viewing hours.

Each is deemed an "icon," which is to suggest it's something conferred but also earned. Turns out you can work at it. A recent Boston Globe story says NHL center Vincent Lecavalier of the Tampa Bay Lightning "is hardly icon caliber, but he has the skill level to get there."

Once the word connoted divine grace, martyrdom or at least noble sacrifice in a transcendent cause, followed by transformation through imagery. Now it's merely a question of applying yourself, like getting a promotion or learning to play the bugle. Watch for the spam e-mail: "HEY, SEXY: BECOME AN ICON IN YOUR SPARE TIME!!!"

Wait a minute, what about Spam, the perennially humorous/frightening lunch "meat"? Isn't it iconic?

Sure, what the heck. It's at least as deserving as, say, Campbell Soup.

Andy Warhol saw what was going on with all this in the 1960s, seizing upon the soup can and turning out all those repetitious images of it, right alongside images of such cultural figures as Mao Tse Tung, Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Kennedy, each in the stark visual essentials of the commercial logo. It wasn't just homage to Walter Benjamin's notions about art and mechanical reproduction, it was saying that in this culture, fame gets cranked out like ad copy.

In Warhol's day it was enough to say "famous." If he were around now he'd have to update his too-much-quoted prediction to say that in the future, everyone will be iconic for 15 minutes.

So is Andy Warhol a pop art "icon" or a maker of pop art "icons"?

Perhaps both, as before our very eyes, the meaning of "icon" is either stretching nicely or evaporating grievously, depending on how you look at it.

"In the language of hyperbole, it seems to have replaced `superstar,' " says Leo Braudy, who wrote The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History, tracing the history of notions about public honor, fame and celebrity in Western culture from ancient times to the late 1990s.

Visual fame

Celebrity overload has everything to do with the proliferation of images and mass media, says Braudy. At one time you'd be doing nicely to get your face on a public statue, a painting or a coin, and otherwise rely on scribes like, say, Thucydides, to advance your radiant reputation. These days, he says, "it's almost as if now when we say fame what we mean is visual fame."

That would suit the word "icon," which, if it really matters at all, is derived from the Greek for image or likeness. For centuries, the word denoted a statue or picture of a venerated figure: a saint, for example, gazing from the gold-leaf frame of a Byzantine icon. More than a mere picture, an icon might be considered a sanctified place suited to connecting with the divine.

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