Several weeks ago, Eric Felten decried “the endless recycling of images, whether from film, photos or art, that have become—and here’s that dreaded word again—iconic. What is an icon these days but a cliché on stilts?” His Wall Street Journal article is here.
The occasion at hand was the installation of J. Seward Johnson‘s 26-foot rendering of Marilyn Monroe in Seven Year Itch. He didn’t “make it new,” according to Tom Durham: “J. Seward Johnson’s sculptures have always been bad clichés that have infuriated good sculptors.”
I’ve thought some time about this article, hoping to find some penetrating thought to add to his – how do visual clichés affect the way we write, what is the path from eye to pen?
So I raided the comments section. According to Bill Melater:
“I believe the word you’re looking for is ‘trite’. Trite art has been around forever and it’s getting more common all the time. It gets laughable and is usually driven by dollars. It eventually goes away…
“…but then it comes back! There’s usually a 20- to 30-year lag before some artist while perusing some old clip art sees the image; becomes inspired, and back it comes. You see this in all the 50’s and 60’s clip art that shows up today (e.g., line art of the quintessential 50s housewife, or the pipe-smoking man in a suit). It happens a lot in the world of type. The Indiana Jones-like display type that said Raiders of the Lost Ark was 40s and 50s vintage postcard art repurposed.”
I have to agree with James Domingo: “To take something and simply amplify it in size 100 or 1000 times requires zero creative thought. Anyone can do it. It takes no imagination, hence the ubiquity.”
It brought to mind other images past their expiration date: While in Poland, one of the nation’s leading literati wore this Warhol image on a t-shirt with a sportcoat (see right). What, exactly, is it supposed to mean, other than a social signal that one is on the inside of the inside of an unfunny joke? That one is, in fact, one of the world’s wrinkled potheads?
Felton offers this handy rule of thumb: “If an image has found its way into a Simpsons episode, you know it is past exhaustion.”
“Iconic images end up, like other recyclables, empty. Is the halter-dressed Marilyn supposed to signify anything? Perhaps she is meant to be an emblem of carefree sexuality. If so, it’s a message rather at odds with the unpleasant circumstances of the image’s creation. When director Billy Wilder shot that scene one night in 1954 at Lexington Avenue and 52nd Street, a thousand Manhattan gawkers stood around leering at Ms. Monroe’s unmentionables. Her husband at the time, Joe DiMaggio, was there, seething. His rage led Ms. Monroe to end their marriage. I rather doubt this ugly backstory is what the spokeswoman for the Chicago site’s property manager had in mind when she described the giant Marilyn as ‘art that makes people think.'”
Hmmmmm… As Chris Knop pointed out: “Anything blown up large and put in a prominent place will make us think. Frankly, the artist in charge of putting this up was just doing the old ‘counter culture’ routine. ‘Look at yourselves, people’ it says, ‘look at our collective media history and where we came from.’ The author correctly points to the use of these symbols as tacky. They are.”
Speaking of thinking, Felton adds:
“And just as the picture of old Ernesto has become a tired trademark for Revolution, pictures of crazy-haired Albert Einstein have become the universal visual shorthand for Genius. May I suggest that crazy-hair-signals-a-supercharged-brain-pan be added to the list of shopworn conventions best retired? Malcolm Gladwell, call your barber.”
What is the link between mysterious eye and pen? Jack Worthington, zen-like, didn’t explain it, but demonstrated it instead:
This is as American as it gets. It may as well be a fiberglass dinosaur on Route 66. … The bottom line is some images just bring us all together. Nighthawks was about living, Marilyn Monroe was about living, the VJ Day Embrace was about living, Che Guevara was about living, all of these images scream Live! And that’s what being an American is all about. …
How does that make Americans different from anyone else? Hmmmm… It’s that thinking thing again.