Hi kids. Another word bites the dust. We’ve seen a lot of that in recent years, and you probably think it’s some dumbing down of America or the world. Probably true in regards to facility with language.

If you follow my blog you know some of the ones that really get to me. Just a refresher, but there’s no such thing as a “random building” unless the architect rolled dice to decide how many floors, and everything else.

In the art world really abused words include radical and art. I tackled art in my last post, and I’ve been eviscerating radical for years. Note that if you put a banal object, piece of kitsch, or snippet of pop culture in a gallery or museum, that has been done for more than a century, was getting old before I was born, and is now so stale you might as well just plaster moldy pizzas on the wall of the gallery to ironically acknowledge radical is fully antiquated, while thinking you did it in a radical new way. Hint, it isn’t radical if it’s been done to death.

Let’s get on to the next sad victim.


ICONIC

I think I have never used this word in my art criticism, oddly enough. Let me do a search.

Oh shit. 16 results! Ah ha, I’ve used it, but mostly in a critical way. For example:

And I’m also guessing people later came to admire [Van Gogh] because authority said he was a master, and they’d seen reproductions of images like Starry Night hundreds of times, in which case sheer saturation of exposure creates an iconic quality.

I’ve also used it properly when talking about Alfred Kubin:

nevertheless they have an eerie, dreamlike or nightmarish quality that has the stamp of archetypal, iconic, timelessness.

Alfred Kubin, Serpent God, 1902-03

I did it again with Van Gogh:

The peasant working the land – an iconic image for Vincent. Note: I see a lot of cheese-puff “spiritual” art, but this worker is reaping the sun. The whole world is glowing and scintillating. One of the only artists whose work probably looks pretty much the same on shrooms.

OK, over 5 years of blogging I’ve used it an average of 3 times a year. I can give lots of videos where it’s used at least 3 times in each one.

It’s instructive, I think, to see some more examples of when I’ve used iconic.

And let me just point out the sick irony of declaring Koons “Balloon Dog” as “a definitive icon of the 20th century”. The iconic quality of it, the essential imagery and content, is not his own at all. He only owns the “appropriation” or re-contextualization of it in an art museum context – a wry idea several removes from the original design.

Yup.

The more a critic talks about how important an artist is, how influential, or how their work is iconic (McDonald’s double arches are iconic), the more they are trying to make up for the fact that the work itself is thin.

Uh, huh. That was about Warhol, by the way.

James Rosenquist, “President Elect”, 1960–61/1964. Oil on Masonite, 228 x 365.8 cm.

Much of what you will see in Koons’ paintings of over 40 years later can be found in the above image by Rosenquist, including images of junk food, unconnected body parts, everyday objects, and iconic American imagery.

and

There’s a kind of energy to [Jonathan Meese’s] work though: to using line for dramatic emphasis; words as iconic emblems (even if they are nonsensical); smeared and dripping paint; and childlike scribbles. I wondered about his style as I have wondered about Basquiat’s – if it is indivisible from the presumed passion with which it is rendered, or if it is just another style with its own set of techniques.

Die Canary (Ich habe zu furzen), by Jonathan Meese. 2014

A couple more…

Not that “Chop Suey” [by Hopper] didn’t sell at Christies recently for about $92,000,000. All the older art, especially anything overly familiar, and hence “iconic” [Iconic: adj. Something crammed down your throat for decades] goes for astronomical prices.

Edward Hopper’s “Chop Suey,” 1929

That last quote really gives it away. And if not, this should probably hammer it home:

This kind of shit gets called “iconic”, and I read somewhere that Warhol had the brilliant strategy of using items which were already familiar and iconic in his work in order to instantly make his work familiar and iconic. It worked! My definition of “iconic” is now: something that gets branded on your forehead.

Oops! Wrong iconic image. This one’s from my Radical New Boring Shit series. Here’s the original iconic sculpture, or an iconic box.

I think you get the idea, but let me just slam some softballs out of the infield. This is what I do. It’s pretty obvious to me, but sometimes we dare not say something that’s perfectly obvious, like that the king’s new wardrobe looks like cock and balls.

Iconic is supposed to mean something that is definitive of its kind, an exemplar, quintessential. It has a timeless quality and inevitability about it. It might set the standard or become a point of reference. But buried in this is also the notion that it deserves to be an icon, that it is of exceptional quality (though it can be very simple), that it is unique and valuable.

Iconic has come to mean, to paraphrase my quotes from above, whatever you are force-fed by the media. Quality and originality are not guaranteed in the slightest. The lowest common denominator has the greatest likelihood of success.

Iconic is a bit like fame, and you can be famous for any number of reasons, including mass shootings. If people know you from movies, you are just another level of person, a sort of immortal. People will feel compelled to notify whomever they’re with of your presence if they see you in public. They will be in awe of you, even if your role was to be the butt of jokes.

Artists figured this out a long time ago. If all great art is what you see on museum walls and on pedestals, than whatever is on a pedestal or on museum walls is great art! Hence:

Much of 20th century art and soon to be a couple decades of art of the 21st century subscribes to this grand philosophical insight.

A problem is that it’s a logical fallacy. I’m not sure offhand which fallacy it is [they have names], but here’s the example I learned decades ago to illustrate it [and never forgot].

If all spotted dogs bark, then all barking dogs are spotted.

So, no, just because we find masterpieces in the museum doesn’t mean that if you crumple up a piece of A4 paper and display it in a museum it’s a masterpiece.

Martin Creed. Work No. 294 A Sheet of A5 paper crumpled into a ball , 2003

Same goes for cheese graters, vacuum cleaners, animals preserved in formaldehyde, balloon dogs, and the rest. Like I said, I’m just hammering home softballs, but, it’s taking successive waves of art critics and audiences more than a century to recognize that art which is a prop for a philosophical argument or insight can also be a prop for a philosophical fallacy.

Recently  I’ve heard iconic used in loads of YouTube videos about music. Y’know, Deep Purple’s guitar riffs for Smoke on the Water are iconic. I can’t watch a video about a past piece of music without hearing the word iconic in it. But because there is no necessary connection between iconic and quality, originality, or interest, I resent being told something is iconic. Any song that gets stuck in your head, and which you hate, is F’ing iconic. Here’s some iconic shit I can’t stand. OK, these are from the 80’s, when I was in highschool. Whenever these songs came on the radio, I’d sprint to turn it off.

  • “I Want a New Drug” by Huey Lewis and the News.
  • “I Can’t Drive 65” by Sammy Hagar.
  • “Centerfold” by the J. Geils Band.
  • “Bang Your Head” by Quiet Riot.

They are all iconic and they all suck! [Hey, share some of your own most hated songs that make you grit your teeth in the comments.]

There are things that should be icons, and things that shouldn’t. Nowadays what is an icon is primarily determined by marketing strategies, politics, the status quo, the powerful elite, and the lowest common denominator. True, some of the best stuff rises up to iconic status, but that can take a long time, and may not even happen in the lifespan of the artists in question. We tend to prefer the stupid, accessible shit that in the long run becomes nauseating.

Well, unless I’m going to point out another misuse of the word, I can now scratch off iconic, along with radical, from my vocabulary list when talking about art. Those terms are as meaningless as random or literal.

The Agony and the Extraterrestrial, by Eric Wayne.

What’s the difference between the image above, by yours truly, and an iconic painting? Nothing. This is a difficult one to un-see, so it’s got a leg up in potential for lodging in your memory. If it were produced a shit-load of times, critics would be saying it’s iconic.

Incidentally, the two most iconic images I’ve ever produced — the most seen — are:

and

The first is just a visual aid I made for one of my English classes [about hoaxes] when I was teaching English at a university in China. I provided it as visual evidence that KFC uses mutant chickens, but then revealed that I made it myself in Photoshop. The message was to not trust photographs easily. Somebody nicked this image from my blog and it is the #1 image associated with the global KFC mutant chicken hoax. I would not be surprised if millions of eyes have seen it.

Oh, shit, just did a Google image search and, well:

About 25,270,000,000 results (0.84 seconds)

It can’t be that many! Must be the result for the associated text, and not just the image, but, for every result more than one pair of eyes have seen it. It’s safe to say at least a million people have seen that image.

Not only is it disgusting, it’s not even intended as art! [It also was not intended to showcase my Photoshop skills, so zip up your pants.] I knocked it out as fast as possible as a mere prop, ironically to help my students NOT fall for urban legends. Note that despite how widely this image has been reproduced, I have not made a penny off of it. True, I wasn’t trying to, and am NOT a part of the hoax, but, just sayin’.

The second image is a faux Basquiat portrait of Warhol which I did in Photoshop as well. In the quote I shared about Meese, I mentioned, “I wondered about his style as I have wondered about Basquiat’s – if it is indivisible from the presumed passion with which it is rendered, or if it is just another style with its own set of techniques.”  I wanted to see if I could pull off a passable Basquiat. It’s also done in Photoshop, and is part of my rather extensive body of works examining the full range of what the hell can be done using the computer. This one’s fooled a looooooooot of people. I couldn’t test if it was passable if I told people on the front side it was a fake. They’d just automatically denounce it. Instead it’s received more praise than all my other art combined. Fun Fact!

I guarantee hundreds of people who believe this is by Basquiat (it’s been reproduced all over the net) think it’s iconic as all hell. [Shhhh. That Meese painting in this article was also made by me. I just used it because it’s more iconic that most his shit.]

But, feel free to use those words however you want. The damage is already done. There can even be a radical building that is iconic because it’s just so random. And if you want you can believe that mutant chicken is real.

~Ends

One thought on “Runaway Rant: “Iconic” is overused to meaninglessness

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