Icons and pretenders

It never seizes to amaze me how people are constantly referred to as icons. Recently I was reading an article by a well know journalist (whose name will not be mentioned in this column) I read in utter despair as she subsequently sang the praises of Khanyi Mbau. Labelling her a cultural icon. Now I have nothing personally invested in the social standing of miss Mbau. Whether she is dating this man or driving that car simply does not add any sugar to my tea.

 I am however growing increasingly concerned with the imagery that is continuously being imbedded in our collective social psyche. At the risk of claiming greater authority than my pro-Mbau collegue. I don’t think enough people know what a cultural icon is. Now pay attention what I am about to say is important.

This image of Che Guevara is one of the most iconic

 In contemporary public history over the last century I am certain that you can use no more than ten fingers to count the number of people who can be regarded as cultural icons. The Beatles, Andy Warhol, Malcom X and Che Guevara are amongst them. Because we have been wrongfully taught that we all have potential we think that everyone is great. As Fran Lebowitz once said “you be lucky in your whole life if you see the work of one genius”.  To some degree (excuse the pun) one needs to a genius to be really considered an icon.

 Whether genuinely an academic genius like an Einstein or just good at convincing the world that you are a genius like Elvis Presley.  Being an icon is not necessarily about what you achieve, its about the ability to evoke a certain persona. Sometimes good and at times bad. All things considered if you look at the career of Jay-Z he has achieved well above someone like a 2pac or  Biggie, but even Jay-z fans will be quick to admit that 2pac is more of an icon then Jigga because of his persona. 

We are at fault for mistaking bubbles of popularity and stints of influence with any long standing social significance. The key thing that makes an icon stand out from a personality is the fact that someone who is an icon actually has a unique idea.

 If you take a look at some of the people I have listed above they, on one level or another  can be attributed with giving and embedding new ideas on public culture that were not there before. Malcom X’s “by any means necessary” is a good example of this. At a time when the civil rights movement was bending over backwards in search of a peaceful resolution X came out and asked if “force” was such a bad word.

The key hurdle in sifting out real icons form the pretenders is the actual goal behind the sifting.  Our current breed of think tanks seems to be so desperate to find a pin up boy (or girl) that will define our generation, that we seem to be unwilling to concede that sometimes the role of a person can only be seen in retrospect when they are gone. The mere fact that we are within the spheres that this person is supposed to influence, makes us as critics the most unreliable source for an impartial view.

Week by week we seem to be bombarding and bombarded by headlines like “is Justin Beiber the next Michael Jackson” or “Lady Gaga is the new Madonna”. The very notion that you can build an iconic public standing based on a comparative analysis of two people’s lives is quite ludicrous.

 Recently I had to shrug my shoulders as I listened to a friend of mine tell me about the similarities between James Franco’s persona to that of Marlon Brando. I was almost instantly compelled to say “quit your ranting”.

who is an Icon Lady Gaga or Madonna? or maybe neither of them?

 I do not know of any icon that became an icon because they were similar to someone else. Bob Marley was not like anyone before him, nor was Miles Davis and neither is Nelson Mandela. If icons became iconic because they were simply better versions of someone else. That would imply that Heath Ledger was better than James Dean, because although they both were great young actors who died early in their careers Ledger actually won an Oscar award.

 It might also imply that Candy Darling is better than Monroe, in that case than the iconic pyramid I have drafted in my mind soon falls apart and I might be relegated to B status and hard liquor in Irish bars. In my own under-educated over analysing opinion, four letter words like “Icon” should exclusively be used to refer to people that actually are.

6 Responses to “Icons and pretenders”
  1. Frank Jameson says:

    Also, you’re deeply mistaken about Sartre and Camus. We don’t use them purely as a medium through which to “understand their era”. Their concepts – the absurd, existentialism, being-for-itself, the question of suicide and human agency, and the question of an ethics in the aftermath of religion – are still as vital as ever at root, and have in many instances filtered into popular discourse. The names may be worn away over time, but the ideas endure in the deep structure.

  2. Frank Jameson says:

    @ Sihle

    Simone, hey? Are we on a first-name basis here? The reason she is an icon for feminism – and I’ll grant you hooks, Irigaray, Butler, Kristeva, Cixous etc. are all iconic in their own way – is precisely because along with Wolstonecraft and even Mill, she signals a cultural shift in the way we think about essentialism and gender.

    More critically though, I don’t think this article properly addresses what in means to be a cultural icon in time and space, and how the dynamics prescribing icon(ness) – if you like – have shifted.

    • SihleMthembu says:

      your right the standards have changed–unfortunately based on what I have observed the standards have got lower—we no longer respect enduring ideas but rather we seem to be attached to fading popularity

  3. SihleMthembu says:

    @sbo like I said you need to present some new original idea that will have significant impact on your generation and generations to come

    @frank i get you—maybe Satre and Camus might have had a bit of an influence especially in the absurdist era–but today their impact is more on centered around us trying to understand their era and less so about us implemententing their ideas into the culture

    as for Simone her stock has gone down a bit–i feel there are otehr feminsits in recent history who have had more of an impact

  4. Frank Jameson says:

    Cultural icons are established, as the title suggests, in a particular culture. I can name you ten French intellectual icons right now: Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Louis Althusser, Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan and so forth.

    The point is not so much that people are ‘mis-labelling’ cultural icons, but rather that the parameters for what defines a cultural icon have shifted significantly in the last few decades, particularly with the rise of digital media, broadcast, digital photography, networks etc. Cultural don’t necessarily endure their popularity, although they often do – it’s about a particular moment in history where the information surrounding that persona is successfully mediated to various audiences in a way that develops a particular communal sense of awe.

  5. Sbo says:

    What are the requierements for the person to be labelled as an icon?

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