A long tail of icons: how our understanding what maketh the icon is changing as localism goes global


icons of our ages

so I finally got round to reading Jonathan Meades’ article
in Intelligent Life in which he discusses the pervasiveness of the word
‘iconic’ from Jesus to Obama (via Marmite and Beckham).  great piece
(if a little cynical for mediation’s tastes) which goes on to outline
the four conditions necessary for something to be (or be perceived as)

condition one: it affects us whether we like it or not. 
Meades suggests we – delightfully – apply the Victor Hugo test… when
Andrea Gide was asked who was the greatest French writer, he replied:
“Victor Hugo. Alas.”  Meades adds Oprah Winfrey and Paul Daniels
(amongst others) to this list.

condition two: the imagery transcends its subject.
Meades uses the example of the paintings of the Princes in the Tower. 
were they as pretty as the paintings suggest?  probably not.  but it’s
through the paintings that we know them.

condition three: the subject should be legible in a sort of visual shorthand. 
Jesus’ crown of thorns, Napoleon’s hand tucked into the greatcoat,
Churchill’s V-sign – he observes that it helps to own
cartoonist-friendly features.

condition four: immediacy of recognition. 
common in objects – the Coca-Cola bottle, the Eiffel tower, Big Ben –
but because of the demand of immutability less so in humans, unless
they’re dead of course.  Meades asks for “the visual equivalent of an
unmistakable catchphrase, such as … David Owen’s “When I was Foreign
Secretary” or Andie McDowell’s “Because I’m worth it” … if a
catchphrase is a repetitive soundbite, then an icon is a strenuously
rehearsed sightbite”.  lovely.

the lessons for brands and for
communications are clear.  what’s especially interesting however are
the observations that Meades makes at the end of the article.

an age of ever-multiplying media outlets, with images disseminated ever
more easily, there are ever more potential low-key idols … virtual
villages will increasingly make icons of figures that are peculiar to
them, just as real villages did in the distant past when the people in
the next valley paid obeisance to an alien gamut of gods and totems. 
the more the media grow, the less appropriate the prefix “mass”.  the
globalisation of localism and, beyond that, of atomisation will very
likely mean that such niche characterisations as “a living legend among
the vertical matrixing community” [or] “an iconic figure in Gremlin
Pastures” can be made without leaden irony.”

its a fascinating
observation: a long tail of idolism.  the fewer, globally recognised
icons sitting alongside the famous-to-a-few icons of our immediate
communities and social groups.  could it be that the always-on
proximity and ubiquity of the stuff we connect ourselves to is making
icons of the people and places around us?  does the immediacy of a host of personal icons devalue the idea of an icon, or add meaning and value to it?


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