April 6, 2011

I Think iCon, I Think iCon …

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The latest exhibit to come to the Johnson Museum explores iconic representations of culture in art, and how the icon has helped Americans to establish their individual and communal identities. Arranged by the History of Art Majors Society, and funded in part by a grant from the Cornell Council for the Arts and a gift from Betsey and Alan Harris, we have iCON: Consuming the American Image.

The beauty of iconic art is its accessibility for the average American. The viewer’s familiarity with the images substantiates their identification with their own culture — a viewing experience that transcends a superficial and passing affiliation with the icon itself.

In this way, iconography is in stark contrast with other types of art. Rather than trying to establish familiarity by boxing in the indescribable, or by attempting to subdue an apex of existence with a canvas lasso, iconography employs a more direct route towards establishing an artist-viewer connection. With no sympathetic interpretation required, the icon is capable reaching out and grabbing even the must uninformed of observers (like me). Whether it’s a photograph of dolled up junior high girls caught unknowingly in her most awkward life-stage or an absurdly masculine, gun-wielding Marine on an emblematic military recruiting poster — the observer need not try to relate; they cannot help but relate. The observer is not merely reminded of the fleeting reaction they had while observing a similar sight — they are provided with a justification for having any reaction at all, straight from the culture-police themselves.

By presenting implicitly revered images on a space designated for explicit reverence, the artists collectivize our encounter with American life — binding us in mutual acknowledgement of a customary sight and its cultural relevance.

A recognizable icon reminds us that we experience “art” in our lives on a moment-to-moment basis and, in the iCON exhibit, items are yanked from the periphery of public awareness and underscored. The artists have put a premium on clarity and directness and seem to define their work’s artistic merit in terms of its relevance to their audience. For some of the works, I was admittedly not part of the intended audience and so their relevance to my life was not immediately obvious. However, all of the works possess a certain era-surviving relevance characteristic of more personal and emotional art. For the appropriate generation, though, iconic art encourages the viewer’s association on two levels; both the personal and the societal — from the artist, and from the era the artist has aimed, ultimately, to represent.

One of the pieces, acquired by the curators from Target (pronounced “tar-shey”) Brands Incorporated, was obviously relevant for a number of reasons. The piece is a wall mirror, which is sort of fancy-ish, I guess … but overall not unlike most standard dorm mirrors. The mirror is firstly appropriate because it is a pithy reminder of a fundamental aspect of art’s appeal: a viewer’s tendency to search for a glimpse of himself or herself in what’s before them. Viewed as a bit of commentary, the mirror gives us insight into the appeal of the rest of the exhibit: We identify with the images that, in some way or another, expose us to ourselves — as individuals, as a generation and as a society.

As a part of the art exhibit, the mirror’s commentary redirects from art to American society. Like the other iconic art in the exhibit, the hope for the mirror is that the viewer might see himself or herself in the piece. That is, the viewer might see how seeing himself or herself in a mirror allows them to see something about him or her, namely, why they see what they see. Do you see?

On the opposite wall of the exhibit from the mirror, there is a piece that, at the right angle, you can view over your own shoulder while looking into the mirror. It is a framed TIME Magazine cover declaring their annual person of the year to be “You”: the controller of the information age. I do not know if it is what the curators intended, but the dichotomy of the mirror/TIME magazine arrangement gave me a pause: the good kind — indeed, the revelatory kind.

“Wait! So I control my own influx of information?! … How selfish of me!”

With the two mirrors facing each other and me sandwiched in the middle, I found myself facing myself facing myself facing me facing myself, and could not help but acknowledge, as part of contemporary American culture, my obsession with myself. But, hey, at least I’m not alone.

Original Author: Nathan Tailleur