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iCon: Consuming the American Image​

March 19 - June 12, 2011

Herbert F. Johnson Museum, Cornell University



An icon is a social construction that functions as a representation of cultural ideology; it can assume a multitude of forms. An icon’s meaning is never predetermined but is created by the values of the culture in which it operates. Thus, an icon’s significance is transient, characterized by a relentless process of evolution and change. Over time, an icon endures, thereby becoming an essential part of a society’s inheritance from its past. In addition, an icon is symbolic of not one, but many meanings, whose often contradictory natures serve to broaden its cultural value.

The works exhibited in iCON: Consuming the American Image try to expose the plural, and at times contradictory, meanings of the images that inform and shape our individual and collective identities. Framed by our ideas of equality, industry, and fame, modern American icons assist in the self-fashioning of our nation’s image and perception. These icons act as objects of our reverence and speculation. Yet their significance and power are influenced by their commercial reproduction and display within our consumer culture.

In presenting these works alongside one another, our exhibition aims to reveal how artists and museums create, distinguish, and define the icon in art—their conscious formation and display of icons endow these authorities with symbolic status. Here, each icon stands by itself while also functioning in dialogue with the other works, creating a collective representation of national imagery.

Within our visual culture, the viewer plays an essential role in actively identifying the icon. It is through this relationship that you, as the viewer, may become an icon. We invite you to explore the selected web pages and look into the mirror to better contemplate the cultural and technological conventions that produce an icon, and how each individual contributes to that icon’s cultural significance and survival. As Roy Lichtenstein’s Untitled (1973) directly implies, it is through our reception of the visual imagery that surrounds us that we achieve iconic status ourselves.

Essay: 'Nature and the City'

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