Introduction to Iconetics

Only a few years ago, a class like this would not have been possible. Convincing the department that iconetics is a real subject has been the labor of my career. Even now, it would not be possible were it not for the emergence of several high profile examples of iconetics in the wild. With iconetics quickly becoming a requirement for the survival of society, the time has come to take this subject seriously.

This is Iconetics 101: Introduction to Iconetics.

Lesson 1: Iconetics vs. Iconography

Most of you are already familiar with the concept of an icon. However, you probably don’t have a firm grasp of what “iconetics”, as a science, even is. And it is highly likely that you currently believe iconetics to be the same thing as iconography.

This is the first thing I must unteach you.

I’ll grant that if you are a longtime student of iconography, you will likely have an easier time grasping the fundamentals of iconetics. These two subjects are not unrelated, in the same way that a class on painting and a class on art appreciation are also not unrelated. They tackle the same underlying philosophy, but from two different directions.

However, no amount of instruction on iconography can establish you as an expert on iconetics. I must unfortunately inform those students who have already completed their doctorates in iconography that none of those credits are transferrable to this program. You are sharing this class with freshmen who have no prerequisites in any subject. All of you must start from the ground floor together.

But I still owe you an answer: what is the difference between iconetics and iconography?

No, don’t raise your hands. This is not a discussion. This is, in the classical sense of the word, a lecture. You may engage in debate among yourselves outside of class. Class time is devoted to delivery of the material.

The difference between iconography and iconetics is divided thus:

  • Iconography is the examination, appreciation, and categorizing of icons that already exist.
  • Iconetics is the procedure by which new icons are created, allowing individuals to deliberately engineer never-before-seen icons on par with the greats of history.

The purpose of iconetics is, therefore, to achieve greatness. And not by accident. The iconeticist sets out with the intent of becoming a household name. He knows that greatness is not a matter of luck or timing. He engineers the circumstances by which he forever loses his obscurity, intentionally and with a large degree of control over the process.

The iconeticist does not hope that his work finds an audience. Instead, he knows that a large percentage of all audiences will gravitate to his work.

How is this possible? By the end of this course, you will have an understanding.

Lesson 2: What is an Icon?

Perhaps the biggest disadvantage of this class is that it is being taught in one of the most ambiguous languages ever invented—a language which, through a series of near-miraculous events, has come to dominate the entire world, despite being developed by a minute island nation with a small population.

That language is English: spoken heritage of Shakespeare, James Dean, Yogi Berra, and Pauly Shore alike.

And bulldogs. We mustn’t forget bulldogs.

And, in English, the word “icon” is festooned with multiple meanings. Too many meanings, honestly. It’s the kind of thing you’d think that the most broadly spoken language in the world could, at some point, fix.

As such, some clarification is needed. When I say “icon”, I am not referring strictly to religious portraiture.

Nor do I mean “logo”.

And I certainly am not referring to those little gridbound images on your computer’s desktop that open applications when you double-click on them.

No, when I say “icon”, I am specifically talking about certain pieces of art that possess an unusual kind of specialness. This unique quality elevates and gives significance to that artwork in a way propels it beyond the stratosphere. There are millions of artworks in the world, and quite a few of those are “good enough” for their purpose, or even “excellent” in the eyes of most people.

But that’s not what icons are. Icons are the artworks so attention-grabbing, so overarching, that a new word is needed to describe them. This is why we call them “icons” and not (unless we mean to insult them) “art”.

Iconetics is the study of how to engineer these.

Lesson 3: Features of an Icon

There is, naturally, a degree of subjectivity in distinguishing the difference between icons and other artworks. As with so many things in this world, the answer is not a binary “is or isn’t” situation with clear parameters. This can even trip up professional iconographers, who, to this day, have a hard time pinning down icons such as Leonardo’s Mona Lisa.

Everyone agrees that Mona Lisa is an icon now. But for most of its history, it languished in obscurity. Only after it was stolen in a scandalous heist did anyone start paying attention to it. This has introduced a harrowing question: at one point in time did the painting become an icon?

Was it somehow always an icon? It shouldn’t be possible for an icon to languish in obscurity—such forgettability would undermine the iconetics of any image. Yet it is not unheard of for great artworks to vanish for centuries at a time, only to reappear in the most unlikely of places. Perhaps the art critics of previous epochs, who ignored this painting until it was stolen, were simply blind to its qualities. Perhaps the thief was more enlightened than them all.

Or perhaps the attention raised by the theft transformed the painting into an icon. One day it was a simple portrait, and then suddenly it became art royalty. But this troubles iconeticists, who seek to create icons through their own power. If, after adding the last brush stroke to Mona Lisa, Leonardo was left with something that was not an icon, how could its nature have possibly changed four hundred years after the fact?

A third option exists: perhaps Mona Lisa never was, and still isn’t, an icon. Perhaps its current adoration is mere hype, caused by a string of high-profile historic events. Perhaps the art critics of yesteryear were right to ignore it, and the iconographers of here and now are wrong to exalt it. If this is true, then we can expect Mona Lisa‘s significance to fade with time. If it is not an icon, the world will eventually realize it. Yet it has been more than a century since that theft. If this painting were doomed to fade from the public consciousness, surely it would have done so by now.

Mona Lisa demonstrates how much of iconetics are still unknown, even by the experts. I bring it up only to give an example of the hardest questions our subject still has to answer. However, in almost all other instances, recognizing which artworks are icons is relatively easy. Still subjective, but certainly clearer.

The next few lessons will detail the method of identifying an icon.

Lesson 4: Icons Are Representative of a Larger Body of Work

This is something that artistic icons have in common with those little gridbound symbols on your desktop. When you double-click a symbol on your desktop, it opens a kind of portfolio—an opus that the symbol represents.

In much the same way, a single work of art can serve as a stand in for a wider and deeper body of work. Consider, for example, a movie poster.

Some posters contain actual still images that are found within the movie. But if a poster is iconic enough, it can represent the entire movie—including themes and messages that are not spelled out by the narrative but still punctuate the film—without showing a single frame of runtime. Some posters are so iconic that just glancing at them gives you a distillation of the entire movie. Those are the most powerful of their kind.

Similarly, some individual art pieces can become a figurehead that represents an artist’s entire catalogue, and—beyond that—their indivisible personality, outlook, and identity.

Guernica is an icon because it is Picasso. It is somehow every Picasso painting, and it serves as a gateway to the rest of his works and to a study of his life. The iconographic value of Mona Lisa may not be certain, but the iconographic value of Guernica is well established, and would be extremely difficult to disprove.

As such, one of the first assays we should undertake when trying to identify an icon is determining what other works of art and creativity are represented by it. If clear examples exist, then we likely have an icon on our hands. If no examples exist, then we can with near certainty reject the artwork’s claim to iconhood.

Lesson 5: Icons Are Roots for Other Artworks

In math, all non-prime numbers can be represented as a product of two or more primes. This is why prime numbers are considered to be the roots of number theory. All other numbers grow up and outward from these shared foundations.

In much the same way, icons inspire and instigate other works of art. Icons are the prime numbers of art’s intellectual domain, its quantum field within the universe of thought. And this can lead to many syncretic, synergistic, and even derivative artworks.

It can also lead to outright parodies.

I’m not saying that the existence of a derivative parody proves the iconographic value of the original artwork (though I am also not not saying that). Parody has its place, and holds value as syncretic and derivative work, albeit with a strong comedic bent.

But one thing that icons do frequently is get copied and permutated throughout a culture. Homages and tributes will undoubtedly be made. And while those derivative works seldom achieve the level of stardom enjoyed by the original icon, they nevertheless prove how much that icon has permeated the social consciousness.

Culture is full of references and allusions to iconic works. There’s no avoiding it. And the existence of such references is a good determinant of what is an icon versus what isn’t.

Lesson 6: Icons Are Timeless

The one thing everyone already knows about icons: they have staying power.

Some have been delighting or perplexing us for decades. Some have remained bright and relevant for centuries. Others are even older.

And, as I hinted before, some have only recently been rediscovered.

This is what drives iconeticists: the creation of something that will last forever. Some artists may be satisfied with the appreciation of a single generation, or just a close circle of friends. There is a possibility that these artists may create an icon by accident. It has happened frequently enough to merit consideration.

But iconetics is primarily concerned with creating these timeless works deliberately. Still, one reliable assay for judging an artwork’s iconographic value is time. How long has this artwork been cherished, and how long (realistically) could that adoration continue? Many artists won’t even know they have created a ten-thousand year icon. They won’t live to see their work come into its own.

Lesson 7: Using German Expressionism as a Guide

Though the study of iconetics has only recently been formalized (by me), the principles behind it can be found in all significant art movements throughout history.

However, there is one art movement that enshrined almost all of iconetics’ qualities, perhaps accidentally. Tell me, how much do you know about German expressionism?

“I didn’t realize I would be graded on thiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiis!”

Whether accidental or intentional, German expressionism led to the creation of many icons, and seems to be strangely adept at it. If it was cognizant of the iconetic principles it was employing, then it certainly learned them from older movements in the art world, yet somehow it concentrated what had previously been fragments found here and there.

A comprehensive guide on German expressionism is not possible within this class. But you should be prepared to see lots of it if you continue your study of iconetics.

Which brings me to my last point.

Lesson 8: What You Will See in the Advanced Classes

We’ve barely touched this subject. And you still don’t have the resources needed to build your own icons. I wish it were possible to give you all the necessary tools in a single class. Alas, iconetics is not so easily condensed.

But for those of you who elect to take the higher-level classes (and I encourage all of you to consider majoring in this study), know that the next class will go beyond mere theory and appreciation of iconetic ideas.

If you choose to continue with these courses, you will be instructed on the mechanics of engineering new icons. Your grades will be determined by how well adapted you are as a practitioner of iconetics. The rewards will be much greater than anything I have offered in this elective class, but the more intensive courses will not provide you with the easy ‘A’ that this introduction has given some of you.

There is much more to learn about this topic, for those who are dedicated.

Finals Week!

Wow, this semester has just flown by. But we’ve made so many memories together. If nothing else, I hope I’ve instilled a love of iconetics that you will find helpful in your other studies—whatever those are.

Stay safe during the break, and don’t party too hard. Remember: the new semester starts next week. And I have a lot of these classes to teach.

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