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From Christ to Coke… What is an Icon?

Running around like crazy trying to get things sorted for a new academic year (I’m teaching full time now, by the way, so writing going to be even more stretched) – but wanted to flag up a piece in Prospect that caught my eye.

It’s a review of From Christ to Coke: How Image Becomes Icon by Martin Kemp, an art historian and world expert on the Mona Lisa.

The key question is this: what actually is an icon? There are ‘iconic’ brands and images, but are these genuine icons? As for images in general, Scruton writes:

Images lodge in the mind and remain there, influencing our thoughts and actions, governing our tastes and purchasing habits, and drawing on deep and hidden emotions for their power.

He goes through some of the many examples Kemp has in his book going-  as the title suggests – from the image of Christ through to the design of the Coke bottle, via various famous photographic images and works of art. But Scruton is critical of Kemp’s conclusion, which is that nothing really connects these images at all.

Instead, he offers this analysis:

Only what is consecrated can be desecrated, and although the Mona Lisa is not a liturgical object she is consecrated in our feelings. Her image resides in a higher realm, where our aspirations find their fulfilment. Even if the painting were destroyed, the image would remain in that realm, alongside the Venus of Botticelli and the David of Michelangelo, as a “point of intersection of the timeless with time.” Nothing like that is true, or could be true, of the Coke bottle.

In other words, an icon is something that is can be desecrated. Other things may be revered or much loved, and then smashed or abused, but desecration is a higher category of offence.

It’s something I’ll be mulling over for a while. Can a Coke bottle become an object that could be desecrated? If so, it would suggest something about our spiritual state. Indeed, one would have to think the deeper question: is consumer capitalism even capable of generating icons? And if it is, what does that say about the sorts of things we are venerating?

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1 comment to From Christ to Coke… What is an Icon?

  • Scruton sets up the “sacred” to define iconic images. He then says that the Coke bottle cannot be “desecrated”. This seems too cut and dried to me. Something can be subject to a world-wide cult, becoming iconic, but not be “sacred” in the literal sense – maybe just “revered”. One of the problems is that our language is very slippery in this area, like out feelings. I argue that the definition of an iconic image is subject to fuzziness – and there’s nothing wrong with that. Good to have the debate starting.
    MJK