[1 November 2007]
I’m torn on my assessment of this beautifully matte behemoth. Every virtue I find in this book may be accidental and every positive element treads a razors edge, threatening at any moment to slip off into the hackneyed or the dull. On one hand, this book may be read as a cultural ontology, wielding the elements of America’s composition as tools for this very analysis. In this regard, the book is a phenomenal success, maintaining a robust sociological critique with attractive subtlety.
However, it is this very discreetness that begs the question, “Am I reading too much into the text?” Although I am making no effort to award authorial intent undue attention, I feel it is important to distinguish affection for a text from affection for one’s own analytic prowess. Perhaps Iconic America is just a pretty picture book, as vacant as the manufactured symbols which comprise its 300-some pages. Of course, its probably a little of both.
The format is simple. Every page has one to four gorgeously printed images of icons from America’s history, each accompanied by a pithy headline and a few sentences detailing the icon’s genesis and effect. The juxtaposition of the icons rarely accomplishes more than cleverness. “Oh Barbie and a coke. Similar shapes, I get it. James Brown and Marlon Brando? Godfathers…cute.” The snippets of exegesis attached to each icon are not poorly written and generally aim for a nice balance of essential information and little known factoid. However, these extended captions are more comment than commentary, avoiding anything more than a sub textual hint at what the icons’ status as such says about the country that elevated them to their immediate recognizability.
After having read through about a thousand of these text boxes I was ready to dismiss Iconic America as just another routine in cataloging rather than anything notable or progressive and smart. It was not until I put the book on my shelf and its gold foil title stared back at me for a day or two that I chanced upon a key element that I may have missed (read: until I could cook up a justification for this beautiful volume). Is Iconic America referring to the part of America that is iconic or does it label America as fundamentally built on the icon? It is entirely possible that this linguistic ambiguity holds the key to this books true message and purpose. The former reading of the title is indisputably the most obvious one as its plain composition is appropriate for such an overwhelmingly methodologically indexical book. The latter is just as plausible. Furthermore, the work’s affinity for double entendre in its text supports a double reading of its title.
In the light of this new dimension of interpretation, the book suddenly becomes redrawn and profound, although original only in format (see the past four decades of postmodernism). By assuming the standard of exposing America’s identity as thoroughly iconic, the pictures in Hilfiger’s volume transform into the sundry foundations of the country.
Tracing iconography all the way back to our founding fathers, Iconic America illustrates the nation as little more than a collage of recognizable faces, advertisements, and manufactured goods all of which surpass their individual qualities in their status as an icon. Portraits of humanitarians and presidents are butted up next to comic book characters and product labels, none more ceremonious than the other. Such equalization suggests that in America we are orientated to Teddy Roosevelt and the teddy bear alike, not as man and toy but as icons both. Perhaps this is the native character of America, the homogenizing of a wide variety of content into empty images, more advertisement than record. The centerpiece of the book, appearing on the cover, in the pages, and as an attached bookmark is an Uncle Sam wearing jeans. Merchandising enmeshed with national identity, could there be a more apt mascot for this book?
In a way, Iconic America is a direct analogue of the country it purports to characterize. One is a country that transforms people and things into icons through its cultural attunement, the other is a book that does the same thing simply by labeling these elements as icons. Viewed as such, the debate over the book’s intellectual worth becomes a debate over America’s reduction to hollow symbols. Maybe Iconic America is just a record of the memorable pictures of America’s history, and maybe the concept of America is but an amalgamation of icons, the prominence of which is more coincidence than composition.
However, perhaps Mr. Hilfiger wields cultural criticism as aptly as he does a textile and the book is a discreetly powerful assessment of America’s iconic core. We will doubtfully ever have an answer and the two possibilities should not be thought of as mutually exclusive. I suppose I will just be left to wonder if Uncle Sam in denim is meant to be a national avatar or a cute nod to the fact that Mr. Hilfiger makes jeans.
Note: In addition to being a nice coffee table piece and a potential treatise on America, Iconic America will serve as a handy guide to possible Halloween costumes. A successful costume is one that is clever and easily recognizable. What better than the icons burnt into America’s collective consciousness? Hmm, should I buy a gramophone and face paint and go as Nipper the RCA dog or polish up my sexy Santa suit for that Rockette get-up that would get some nods?