Saturday, July 26, 2008

The best things in life...

You know, there are icons, and there are icons. I picked this one up on a photo shoot for the local paper this evening. It's a bit fuzzy, so I had to submit one of the other shots I took, but this one was my favorite because the stance is so perfect.

So what exactly IS an icon? Webster's online dictionary offers several meanings:

1. An image or representation; a portrait or pretended portrait.

2. A sacred picture representing the Virgin Mary, Christ, a saint, or a martyr, and having the same function as an image of such a person in the Latin Church.

3. A symbol, especially a symbol whose form suggests its meaning or the object it represents.

4. (Computers) A graphical symbol for a data object whose form suggests the nature or function of the object; especially, such a symbol as viewed on the computer screen.

5. Any object of uncritical devotion.

6. An outstanding example of something which has come to represent the class of things to which it belongs; a paragon; used of persons as well as objects.

My guess is, Elvis (or in this case, Danny Vernon as Elvis) is an icon by at least 4 of these definitions. This is certainly Danny's portrait of Elvis -- and a very effective one (Danny sings well, too). He's definitely a symbol -- of any number of things, but certainly of the 50's.

I could see from the number of groupies who showed up for this that he seems to be an object of uncritical devotion, even if he is not the real thing. And he appeared to be an outstanding example of an Elvis impersonator.

So if we agree that this person is an icon, can other people be icons? Is Barack Obama an icon? I think so. Is Hilary an icon? Probably yes, though perhaps not of the same "class of things." Can you and I be icons? I'm not sure. Because that first definition is critical: you need to portray an image, so I suspect the image must therefore be immediately recognizable.

A friend recently confided to me that she was the iconic Bainbridge Islander: a 40-something blonde driving a Prius. But then doesn't that mean that icons require some sort of generalization? And does that then tend to dehumanize the icon? Doesn't my friend become more of an object than a being if we project all that onto her? And isn't that a little bit of what happened to Elvis, and still happens to so many of our popular culture icons?

Perhaps the danger of icons is that we tend to confuse the form with the substance; maybe that's why one of the Ten Commandments specifically states:

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them.

The problem, of course, is not so much in the making of the images, but in the bowing down and the service. Something about us human beings is not content to worship an invisible God, no matter how almighty or omnipotent, and we keep getting side-tracked into worshiping and serving things that are not God at all.

Some of them are silly -- like Elvis and his impersonators -- but many of them are considerably more serious and can actually be destructive. But we keep getting off the track, caught up in things that are more manmade than godly -- countries, bible translations, religions, cultures, activities, drugs, gadgets, styles... there are lots of things out there battling for our worship and service.

The problem is, as the bumper sticker I saw last week says, "The best things in life aren't things." And sometimes that's just difficult to remember.

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