A cultural icon is an artifact that is recognised by members of a culture or sub-culture as representing some aspect of cultural identity (theirs or others). Its form, therefore is distinct (to be recognisable), reproducible (to be pervasive), durable (for retention in the collective memory), and representing some narrative that is understood by the receptive group. Cultural icons vary widely, and may be visual (for example, an iconic photograph such as Korda's Guerrillero Heroico picture of Che Guevara), audio (the song "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" from the film The Wizard of Oz), an actual object including a building or a vehicle (the Coca-Cola bottle designed by Earl R. Dean, the Eiffel Tower), an event (Russian Revolution, Sinking of the RMS Titanic), a person or group of people (The Beatles, Mahatma Gandhi), or may be applied to less tangible concepts and ideas (an iconic journey or view).
In the media, many items of popular culture have been called "iconic" despite their lack of durability. Some commentators believe that the word is overused or misused, although an alternative view is that the very availability of the media leads to an "increase of narrative meaning between image and subject in common usage."
A web-based survey was set up in 2006 allowing the public to nominate their ideas for national icons of England and the results reflect the range of different types of icon associated with an English view of English culture. Some examples are:
- Big Ben (the nickname for the bell, but widely recognised as St. George's tower of the Houses of Parliament in London);
- Cup of tea (for the British tea drinking habit);
- Red Telephone Box;
- Red Routemaster London double decker bus;
- Spitfire, a World War II fighter aircraft.
- English eccentricity;
- Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the 1967 album by The Beatles.
Many of these may be recognisably English to other nationalities, but may have different connotations (the French use of Les Rosbifs may imply that English food is bland, while the inclusion of roast beef and Yorkshire puddings in the above survey more likely represents no-nonsense comfort food).
Matryoshka dolls are seen internationally as cultural icons of Russia. At the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games, as at other international sporting events, the opening and closing ceremonies were littered with national icons.
The values, norms and ideals represented by a cultural icon vary both among people who subscribe to it, and more widely among other people who may interpret cultural icons as symbolising quite different values. Thus an apple pie is a cultural icon of the United States, but Americans may not agree on what it symbolises. The term has varying meanings; it is described by Dr Mike Parker as the "contested and poorly defined subject area of cultural iconicity".
National icons can become targets for those opposing or criticising a regime, for example, crowds destroying statues of Lenin in Eastern Europe after the fall of communism or burning the Stars and Stripes flag to protest about US actions abroad.
Use in popular media
Describing something as iconic or as an icon has become very common in the popular media. This has drawn criticism from some: a writer in Liverpool Daily Post calls "iconic" "a word that makes my flesh creep," a word "pressed into service to describe almost anything." The Christian Examiner nominates "iconic" in its list of overused words, finding over 18,000 "iconic" references in news stories alone, with another 30,000 for "icon", including its use for SpongeBob SquarePants.
- Parker, Mike (2012). Cultural Icons: A Case Study Analysis of Their Formation and Reception. University of Central Lancashire.
- Anthony B Pinn and Benjamin Valentin, ed. (2009). Creating Ourselves, African Americans and Hispanic Americans on popular culture and religious expression. Duke University Press.
- Heard about the famous icon? We have - far too often, The Independent (London), January 27, 2007
- "Our Collection". icons.org.uk. Retrieved August 16, 2014.
- British Postal Museum & Archive: Icons of England. Retrieved 15 December 2012.
- Holloway, J Christopher; Taylor, Neil (7th Edition, 2006 (First published 1983)). The Business of Tourism. Pearson Education. p. 217.
- McManus, Erwin Raphael (2001). An Unstoppable Force: Daring to Become the Church God Had in Mind. Flagship Church Resources. p. 113.
- BBC: Tea steams ahead in icon hunt. Retrieved 15 December 2012.
- Thorne, Tony (2011). "The 100 Words that Make the English". Cuppa (Hachette Digital (e-book)).
- Jenkins, Simon; Dean Godson (editor) (October 2005). "Replacing the Routemaster". p. 7. Retrieved December 15, 2012.
- Culture24: Icons of England. Retrieved 15 December 2012.
- O'Neill, Brendan (2 April 2009). "Gulf News / Christian Science Monitor". To save a past that rings a bell. Retrieved December 15, 2012.
- Parker, Mike (2012). "Cultural Icons: A Case Study Analysis of their Formation and Reception (PhD Thesis)". Chapter 5: The Spitfire Aircraft (University of Central Lancashire). pp. 123–167.
- Bobo, Suzanna (25 December 2012). "Scuttlebutt: Wooden toy tells a story of love and industry". Kodiak Daily Mirror. Retrieved 9 April 2013.
- Jones, Jonathan (December 9, 2013). "Why smashing statues can be the sweetest revenge". Guardian.
- Laessing, ulf (September 14, 2012). "Anti-American fury sweeps Middle East over film". Reuters.
- Let's hear it for the Queen's English, Liverpool Daily Post
- Modern word usage amazingly leaves us yearning for gay, old times, Christian Examiner
- Biedermann, Hans (1994). Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons and the Meanings Behind Them. Meridan.
- Brooker, Will (2001). Batman Unmasked: Analysing a Cultural Icon. Continuum.
- Edwards, Peter; Karl Enenkel, and Elspeth Graham (editors) (2011). The Horse as Cultural Icon: The Real and the Symbolic Horse in the Early Modern World. Brill.
- Foudy, Julie; Leslie Heywood and Shari L Dworkin (2003). Built to Win: The Female Athlete as Cultural Icon. University of Minnesota Press.
- Gilbert, Erik (2008). The Dhow as Cultural Icon. Boston University.* Heyer, Paul (2012). Titanic Century: Media, Myth, and the Making of a Cultural Icon. Praeger.
- Heyer, Paul (2012). Titanic Century: Media, Myth, and the Making of a Cultural Icon. Praeger.
- Meyer, Denis C. (2010). Cles Pour la France en 80 Icones Culturelles. Hachette.
- Nelkin, Dorothy and M Susan Lindee (2004). The DNA Mystique: The Gene as a Cultural Icon. University of Michigan Press.
- Reydams-Schils, Gretchen J (2003). Plato's Timaeus as Cultural Icon. University of Notre Dame Press.
- Our New Icons by The Daily Telegraph
- Nothing and no one are Off Limits in an Age of Iconomania by The Age
- British Postal Museum & Archive: Icons of England
- Culture24: Icons of England