A new book on icons stretches the definition too far. Unlike the Coca-Cola bottle, true icons have power and stand at the border of forbidden thingsby Roger Scruton / August 24, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
The Christos Pantokrator of the Eastern Orthodox Church decorates a hundred ancient apses—and lives in the minds of ordinary believers. Image: © Saint Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai
The Greek word “icon” (eikon, or image) now seems to denote any thing, person, or idea that is, for whatever reason, a centre of attention, and which has acquired a significance that raises it above the flow of ordinary events. It may be difficult to put this significance into words; but the crucial thing is that an icon is common property. You and I can both refer to it, and know instinctively what we mean, even when we have no other way of saying what we mean. Such, paradigmatically, is the Christos Pantokrator (“Jesus Almighty”) of the Eastern Orthodox Church, whose unforgettable image, displayed on a hundred ancient apses, lives also in the minds of ordinary believers, and in some way gives additional reality to the Saviour whose love they pray for and whose commands they strive to obey.
For Martin Kemp, however, the religious icon is only one example of a much more widespread phenomenon, addressed in his new book Christ to Coke: How Image Becomes Icon (OUP). 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. There is the famous image of Che Guevara, adapted from a fleeting photograph taken by Alberto Korda, and used to give sex appeal to the posturing of bourgeois revolutionaries. There is the cross that gave victory to the Emperor Constantine, worn as a sign of obedience by Christians everywhere, and which is now marked out for persecution in the European courts. There is the heart, universal symbol of love, and adopted by New York City as its own special brand. There is the Coca-Cola bottle, instantly recognisable, triumphantly marketable, and never driven into second place by Pepsi, although the two products can be distinguished only by the bottles that contain them—bottles that are now made of plastic, and which are therefore joint enemies of mankind. Kemp extends his discussion to the double helix of the DNA molecule, and even to an abstract idea, the equation e = mc2, which he thinks can be meaningfully compared, in its ubiquity and associations, to the talismans that spread their aura through the lives of religious people.