What Makes an Icon?

On Thursday, November 9, the Mosaic Film Experience hosted an event centered on one question: What makes an icon? The event was held at the Grand Rapids Art Museum and was tied into the museum’s recently-opened Andy Warhol exhibit. If Warhol, for example, is considered iconic, then what or who else is?

The evening began with a short film asking students “what/who is an icon?” Many of the students named music artists, athletes, or family members. Their responses indicated that an icon is a positive force in an individual’s life.


The panel, consisting of Hollywood-based Costume Concept Artist Phillip Boutte, Jr. and Grand Valley State University Sociology Professor Marshall Battani, discussed the concept of “icons.” As Battani pointed out, icons can also be negative as they reflect current societal trends. Phillip Boutte added that while heroes can be personal and temporary (as the students’ responses implied), icons stand the test of time.



For someone or something to be iconic, it needs to evoke a strong feeling among the masses and each generation creates their own iconography. As Battani asked, “Who’s the Marilyn of today’s generation?”

Some audience members believed that, regardless of your personal or political views, President Trump is iconic. He evokes strong emotions, reflects the nation’s political climate, and has a unique physical appearance. These traits are common ingredients of cultural icons.

As Battani and Boutte stated, modern communications technologies have changed the idea of iconography and we are now saturated with visuals that anyone can create. In the past, media companies controlled the images the general public viewed. Today, empowered by the Internet and digital media, anyone can create and disseminate images and stories to large audiences. Iconography is no longer controlled by the few.

In the end, while individuals may have their own heroes, to whom they can look up to, it was determined that icons are a part of our collective consciousness and unite us throughout time.

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