ICONIC: ADJECTIVE OF THE AGE

The word “iconic”, once used sparingly, is now everywhere. Jonathan Meades traces its path from Jesus to Marmite, via Hitler, Stalin and stadium rock, and works out what it says about us


From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Spring 2009

Every era suffers a lexicon of invasive usages. Words are as subject to fashion as morals and lapels, politics and popular music. Today’s merely tiresome coinage is tomorrow’s infuriatingly ubiquitous cliché. Executives with important titles speak a pidgin of pseudo-scientific empowerment learnt from corporate directives and management apocrypha, written in a patois that has seeped into general use: pushing the envelope, thinking outside the box, tree stretching, helicopter views, vertical sausaging matrixes. Journalese, too, thrives on cliché. It is the jargon of the linguistically insentient whose job is to smother page upon page with words. And there are more pages than ever, and more screens, and thus more marginally literate word-operatives struggling to smother them.

Where would they be without the following, the props of their desperate trade? Genius, guru, hub, legend, driver (meaning cause), challenging, controversial, cool, edgy, default, diverse, holistic, multicultural, post-modern and the newly transitive verbs to impact, to source. Where, above all, would they be without iconic?

Here are some nouns and compound nouns that have been prefixed by this most dismal of vogue words. These are all found constructions of recent provenance: none is my invention.


Iconic albino, iconic assassin, iconic baby lotion, iconic brand, iconic bridge, iconic bucket, iconic building, iconic button fly, iconic camper van, iconic car, iconic cassoulet, iconic CCTV camera, iconic celebration, iconic chainsaw, iconic chair, iconic chef, iconic chimpanzee, iconic children’s entertainer, iconic clock, iconic cocktail, iconic comb, iconic combover, iconic comedy, iconic cooling tower, iconic Coventry City football shirt, iconic cricket bat, iconic crisps, iconic diaper, iconic doll, iconic dreadlocks, iconic drinker, iconic earthmover, iconic episode of “Emmerdale”, iconic escalator, iconic enema, iconic field armour, iconic film star, iconic fishing reel, iconic flat cap, iconic garden, iconic goggles, iconic gorilla, iconic grocery, iconic guitarist, iconic hairstyle, iconic halo, iconic hand cream, iconic handshake, iconic hanging laundry, iconic hazard, iconic helmet, iconic high heels, iconic hitman, iconic house, iconic ice cream, iconic icon, iconic injury, iconic injury-time winner, iconic itinerary, iconic jihad target, iconic jigsaw, iconic jingle, iconic jockey, iconic joke, iconic kitchen utensil, iconic knife, iconic knowledge, iconic lawnmower, iconic leprechaun, iconic light fitting, iconic lion, iconic lip balm, iconic mascara, iconic milkshake, iconic mittens, iconic moment, iconic moustache, iconic mouthwash, iconic movie, iconic murder, iconic noose, iconic ointment, iconic orangutan, iconic palace, iconic panda, iconic penis, iconic perfume, iconic philosophy, iconic photograph, iconic pig, iconic pimp, iconic piston, iconic playwright, iconic plumber, iconic pub, iconic pylon, iconic radiator, iconic relationship, iconic restaurant, iconic retail mall, iconic robot, iconic rodent, iconic saddle, iconic sandwich, iconic sausage, iconic shampoo, iconic shoe, iconic shoehorn, iconic shop, iconic silhouette, iconic snack food, iconic soft drink, iconic sound system, iconic steeplejack, iconic stethoscope, iconic submachinegun, iconic sunglasses, iconic surgeon, iconic taxi, iconic terrorist, iconic toaster, iconic toby jug, iconic toilet paper, iconic toilet seat, iconic tracksuit, iconic tractor, iconic treehouse, iconic trenchcoat, iconic typeface, iconic vending machine, iconic vindaloo, iconic wedding dress, iconic welder, iconic wheelchair, iconic wig, iconic wine, iconic yak, iconic yogurt, iconic zip hoodie.


The scope here suggests that there is nothing that cannot be deemed iconic. Iconic, that is, in the sense acquired through recent abuse. Though quite what that sense is is not readily determined. The “Oxford English Dictionary” takes its earliest citation for iconic as “designating a person or thing regarded as representative of a culture or movement; important or influential in a particular (cultural) context” from Newsweek in 1976.

One might hazard a guess that it was current some years before that in the jargon-dense groves of academe where truisms are pompously dressed to lend them importance. According to Jesse Sheidlower, American editor of the “OED”, the New York Times’s usage of “iconic” has increased from 11 instances in 1988 to 141 in 1998 to 442 in 2008. He warns that this is an extremely crude gauge of a word’s currency. But if a normally scrupulous newspaper such as the New York Times employs “iconic” more than once a day, it is all too easy to figure the word’s incidence in the less linguistically prescriptive newspapers.

It is evident that the “OED” definition is no longer adequate, for this is a word whose meanings have forked and forked again in a delta formation. What the word currently signifies is fuzzily approximate. Yet, despite its promiscuous ascription to some improbable bedfellows (bucket and lion), it is far from meaningless. It seems to have a multitude of meanings: notable, celebrated, zealously promoted, revered, long established, covert, authentic, enviable, easily recognised, memorable, important, estimable, stereotypical and atypical, representative and unusual, cliquey and popular, recherché and accessible, and—like the word itself—unavoidable.

Perhaps I should withdraw that “far from meaningless”; if a word can signify anything it will eventually signify nothing. It may have already achieved that literally insignificant state. Nonetheless its very ubiquity is telling. It reveals a collective longing, a wishfulness. Like “cult” (used adjectivally), it carries a chummily sacred, cosily religiose, softly spiritual connotation.

We live in an era of incontinent celebration and exponential hyperbole. No one has given a mere 100% in years: 120% is normal and 150% far from exceptional. Everything is world-class. An innings which might once have been described as good is today awesome. Any rock band that survives narcotic depredation and managerial peculation to re-form in wizened middle age is legendary. Artisans going quietly about their business in the back of beyond, baking loaves or gutting herrings, find themselves declared food heroes.

Every city and region craves—and in the boom years received—a vainglorious building that draws attention to it, that will, with luck, put it on the map. There is nothing new about this: one need consider only triumphal arches, San Gimignano’s towers, the priapic belfries of Flanders, cathedral spires, 19th-century hôtels de ville, 20th-century skyscrapers. But these structures had some utility beside the representative and symbolic.

The architecture of the past two decades has been characterised by vacuous gesticulation. The arch of La Défense, the bathetic Spinnaker Tower in Portsmouth, the Imperial War Museum of the North by Libeskind, Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao, Calatrava’s bridge in Bilbao, Calatrava’s bridge in any city you care to mention and in many you may never have heard of—yes, if in doubt send for Calatrava. Or for Milord Foster. The majority of this work comprises supposedly photo-friendly, hopefully telegenic XXXL-size sculptures which yearn to be different yet which have, within a remarkably short timespan, achieved a wearisome normality. They are habitually referred to as beacons, as bâtiments phares, as icons…But they timidly adhere to type. And, as the recipient cities have discovered, what works in Bilbao does not work in, say, Bremen. A building self-consciously constructed to become an icon will only attain that questionable status if it distinguishes itself from other buildings harbouring the same ambition.

Every area of enterprise aspires to a grandiose awards ceremony: the Organic Semi-conductor Industry Awards, the Demolition Oscars, the Contract Cleaning Baftas, and, of course, the Awards Industry Awards. All of them strive to emulate the Academy Awards, all of them make fleeting heroes of HOD carriers or logistics resource analysts, all of them add to the sum of bathos. The lad-mag GQ lamentably names an “Icon of the Year”. The day cannot be far off when Al Jazeera hosts the Martyrdom DVD Awards—though the winner may be unable to be with us tonight.

Given the collective appetite for idolatry, it is apt that “iconic” should be the adjective of the age. For although “icon” derives from a Greek word signifying no more than a likeness, a portrait or an image, it has for centuries been indissolubly linked to Christian images of Jesus, Mary, the agony, the deposition and so on. Such images were the targets of the original iconoclasts, aghast at the temerity of those who dared give visual form to the Trinity. Even before it was first adopted by the Eastern church, the word icon was tainted by association with the superstitions that humans fortify themselves with. The Anatolian city of Konya was formerly known as Iconium. It supposedly got that name from the shrine erected there either to its alleged protector Ares, the merciless god of war whose Roman incarnation was Mars, or to Perseus who decapitated the gorgon Medusa—her dead serpentine head was transformed into a sort of amulet whose representation is called a gorgoneion, ie, gorgon icon.


Implicit in the modern use of “iconic” is the perhaps deliberate, perhaps unwitting aspiration to invest things and people with properties which render them miraculous and superhuman, magical and godlike. It is today’s expression of humankind’s perennial bent towards aggrandisement and worship of other humans, of human inventions, of things: rocks, clouds, forests, tides, charms, relics. And if those, why not E-types or Zippos? Or footballers whose narcissistic celebrations when they score a goal invite the question: “why don’t they just masturbate?”

Why not rock stars (whose debauches are puny beside those of Greek or Hindu gods)? But no matter how puny, how could the insipid, anodyne, milk-and-one-sugar-please God of the Anglicans—a figment of that atypical period when Britons were reserved and stoical—have competed with such antic Pans as Jagger, such dionysiac groins as Robert Plant’s? Farrokh Bulsara’s decision to call himself Freddie Mercury was prescient, he became a mythic prophecy he had to fulfil. If churches can’t provide appropriate gods, we must make our own. Or allow ourselves to be seduced into worship of self-appointed gods and antinomian furies.

One of the dafter ideas propagated by the credulous is that the tyrannies of the 20th century owe their enormities to their atheism. The Third Reich, Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China were theocracies whose dependence on the iconic was as great as their dependence on terror, on neighbours grassing each other up, on lies as gross as those of any established faith. Dictators routinely attempt to kill God so that they may usurp him, then act like malevolent forces of nature, wreak divine vengeance, massacre innocents. They sack churches, raze temples, burn texts. The next steps on the road to genocide are all art direction and liturgical choreography.

Until his triumph in the Great Patriotic War, after which he was depicted as a genial orphaned absolutist, Stalin would often be shown in paintings as a peripherally positioned member of a group of equals or as Lenin’s acolyte—as though Lenin was the father in heaven and he the mere son doing his father’s will on Soviet earth. The implication was exculpatory: the living son’s errors might actually be the dead father’s. The largely illiterate population of his empire knew Stalin only pictorially, through “accessible” icons. The iconic figure and the man were indivisible.

Hitler was more audacious. His appearance was as measured as his rehearsed ranting. He reduced himself to a few pictorial marks and gestures—the salute, the moustache, the bang of hair. So no matter how protean he might be, no matter whether he was represented as a teutonic knight, a little guy fighting for his people’s entitlement, a reliable provincial station master, a mountain visionary or a revolutionary vanguard, he was instantly recognisable. The modern world’s Appolyon turned himself into something literally picturesque, something iconic.

The swastika was a logo. But it was neither an abstraction nor a theft from Jainism. It was a calculatedly didactic icon, pregnant with meaning. In German it is the hakenkreutz, the hooked cross: a graphic twisting of Christianity’s paramount symbol. The Nuremberg rallies were rites that underlined the link between the martial and the sacred. As terrifying as an Aztec ceremony and as hokey as amateur operetta, they remain indelibly fixed on the retina that witnesses them.

Their decor lives on in the stadium-rock stage sets designed for the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd et al by Mark Fisher, who is among Albert Speer’s understandably few apostles. These shows are mock-heroic while aspiring to be heroic tout court. And they’re pompous—altars for flashy pasteboard messiahs. Yet the tawdry grandeur is potent, just as cheap music is meant to be; the spectacle can rouse us, despite ourselves. Here is the very quality that is Condition A of the truly iconic. It affects us whether we like it or not.

We should apply the Victor Hugo test. When André Gide was asked who was the greatest French writer, he replied: “Victor Hugo. Alas.” This useful suffix can be applied to toilers in a multitude of endeavours: Andrea Palladio, Pablo Picasso, Paul Daniels, Pele, Oprah Winfrey, Charlie Parker, Shane Warne, Michael Schumacher, Auguste Escoffier...

Condition B is that the image transcends its subject. The Great Gallery of Holyrood House in Edinburgh is hung with more than a hundred portraits of Scottish kings executed by Jacob de Wet at the behest of Charles II.  No one, including the artist, can have had any idea in the late 17th century of the actual facial details of these mediaeval thugs, scoundrels, fratricides and thieves. De Wet, then, tactfully rendered them as variants of his patron. And so, to this day, that is what the various Donalds, Malcolms and Girics look like. Similarly, were the Princes in the Tower quite as poutingly pretty as Victorian history painters rendered them? Unlikely. But it is through the medium of such paintings that we know them in their bewildered agony.

Condition C is that the subject should be legible in a sort of visual shorthand. Jesus’s faces may be those of painters’ catamites, but the crown of thorns and outstretched arms are unmistakable. Napoleon is a silhouette and hand tucked into his greatcoat. Churchill is a V-sign. Chaplin is a walk, a bowler, a moustache. Tommy Cooper is a fez. Jagger is a pair of lips bloated as Dalí’s Mae West sofa. Dalí is another moustache. Mae West is an inflatable. It helps to own cartoonist-friendly features: de Gaulle but not Coty, Blair but not Kinnock, Depardieu but not Auteuil.

Condition D is immediacy of recognition. This demands immutability, a quality readily achieved in the inanimate—hunting pink, the Coca-Cola bottle, the Taj Mahal, the Eiffel tower, the old Parisian pissoir, the old British phone box, Big Ben, a Vespa. It is less common in humans, unless they are dead—Che Guevara, Jimi Hendrix, Marilyn Monroe or James Dean, a film star who made only three films, always playing himself. An actor who is a chameleon (Peter Sellers, Alec Guinness, Meryl Streep) is unlikely to become an icon.

The icon has to be the visual equivalent of an unmistakable catchphrase, such as La Pasionaria’s “No pasarán”, or Lord (David) Owen’s “When I was foreign secretary”, or Jean-Marie Le Pen’s “France: aimez-la ou quittez-la” or Andie MacDowell’s “Because I’m worth it”. Nicolas Sarkozy will forever be associated with two intemperately spoken words: racaille and Kärcher. If a catchphrase is a repetitive soundbite, then an icon is a strenuously rehearsed sightbite.

The people and things that observe these conditions are few, far fewer than the prevalence of the word “iconic” would have us believe. And they are becoming fewer still. The half-century of television’s predominance has brought the gradual decline of oratorical expansiveness, of theatricality, replacing them with naturalistic discourse. And now, in an age of ever-multiplying media outlets, with images disseminated ever more easily, there are ever more potential low-key idols. The hegemony of the big beasts is already dissipating, except in isolated spots like North Korea and Turkmenistan whose Stalinist statuary seems laughably dated.

More typically, 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”, “a myth in the Sutured Albino thread”, “an iconic figure in Gremlin Pastures” can be made without leaden irony.

Now, ironic—when did that word come to mean coincidental? 


Picture Credit: Getty; mike52ad, Gavin Gilmour (both via Flickr)

(Jonathan Meades writes and broadcasts on culture, architecture and food. He discussed this piece on "Start the Week" on BBC's Radio 4. In the summer issue of Intelligent Life magazine he dubbed Zaha Hadid "the first great female architect". His last story for Intelligent Life was on Le Corbusier.)