Introduction | Andrea Alessi
“Icon” and its derivatives are some of the most overused words in arts writing today. We’re all guilty of bumping an artist up to “iconic” status with a little rhetorical flourish. Sure, some artists really embody the word—Warhol comes to mind—but we typically deploy “iconic” as a hyperbolic substitute for “famous,” “memorable,” “influential,” or—at worst—shorthand for “What do you mean you aren’t familiar with the oeuvre of this unsung regional hero? I’m so much cleverer than you.”
The idea to dig deeper into “Icon” came after I read a New Yorker article about the imperiled Warburg Library in London. The piece credits art historian Aby Warburg with adding “iconic” to the discipline’s lexicon, shifting the study of art history away from dates and names and onto symbols and meanings. The method was called iconology and, later, iconography. Warburg believed that certain gestures and motifs are repeated throughout the entirety of our visual history—nymphs, entwined snakes, fallen heroes—and that these can be identified, compiled, and mined for coded meaning.
Today, this idea seems charming, quaint, romantic even. Art historical readings now negotiate Marxist, feminist, queer, postcolonial, postmodern, and post-all-of-the-above theories. At the same time, the voices and platforms of our motifs and icons have changed. In this Edition, for example, Char Jansen writes about Elaine Sturtevant and her successors, artists who use and make copies, whose tools are repetition and circulation. In an image economy, when everything is an icon, is nothing an icon?
Are symbols wiped of their meanings—or are they collecting new ones? Warburg had dancing girls and births of Venuses; the 60s had soup cans and Marilyns; we’ve got a Garden of Emoji Delights. Emojis are quite literally our new icons, as mystifying and idiosyncratic as Warburg’s symbolic gestures. They’re by no means the first visual language but unlike, for example, political economist Otto Neurath and artist Gerd Arntz’s didactic “isotype” pictograms in the 1920s and 30s—a precursor to today’s infographics—they’re non-prescriptive. These readymade (emote)icons are plural, equivocal, and creative. Their meanings are acquired from usage: = penis, anyone?
Indeed, as icons become more prevalent, fighting for space in an oversaturated media- and image-scape, their meanings become less stable. Our commissioned artwork for this Edition is a new icon for our time. Daniel Lichtman rips bodies from their contexts, leaving them dehumanized in digital space, at once canonized and fallible—how you read it depends on your frame of reference.
Edo Dijksterhuis speaks to the reifying abilities of museums—their ability to market and transform artworks into potent signifiers of human achievement and history. But, he asks, might museums have the opposite effect on graffiti?
Lauren Tresp also considers the ability of art institutions to generate icons, surveying an exhibition built to question how gender imbalances in museum collections can shape art historical disparity.
Danna Lorch writes about threatened historical icons, highlighting some surprising counter-iconoclasm initiatives to reproduce them as they face destruction by the Islamic State.
Joel Kuennen examines the return of iconic figures in American politics and the dangers it poses to the practice of democracy.
Icons have persisted throughout our histories precisely because of their power to convey meaning, but as we'll learn, icons are multivocal, corruptible even; the shift from to can take place over the long arc of history, or in space of a keystroke.