America the visual

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Are we in America what we eat, wear, touch, listen to, watch on TV? Iconic America: A Roller-Coaster Ride Through The Eye-Popping Panorama of American Pop Culture (Universe/Rizzoli, 350 pages, $60), by fashion guru Tommy Hilfiger and ad man George Lois, gives us a modern look at Americana and its meaning in our everyday lives.

Iconic America

Here's a review from the Associated Press


Our world today is one of fragments, niches, products, icons — this much is obvious. Far less evident to Americans as consumers is how these fragments — bit by bit, year by year — shape and add texture to our lives.

For Tommy Hilfiger and ‘‘Superman of Madison Avenue’’ George Lois, though, the building blocks of modern American culture are not only objects of daily life but icons to be venerated visually and lusted after openly. You’ve heard of food porn? This is object porn, and the photos reveal everything from the Gettysburg address to Frankenstein’s monster to a steaming pizza.

Here, the cherry Life Saver becomes a fetish object and icon of modernism, rendered at five times its real size and shining like the fuselage of some scarlet fighter jet. The Morton Salt umbrella girl, Ted Williams, Rosa Parks, Bugs Bunny and Jiffy Lube become glossy family photos on the mantelpiece of the American brain. Faces — Mickey Mouse and Frank Sinatra, Mount Rushmore and Jimmy Durante and the Playboy centerfold (OK, maybe not her FACE) — take on profound meaning in the Chunky Soup of the American zeitgeist.

What have we come to when we look deep into the national identity and find mere object lust? You could argue that we’ve reached a pinnacle, that American society has always been about acquisitiveness and obtaining capital, and that this catalog of the American soul is a fitting tribute.

And in one vein, it could be. For it contains all that we are: idealism, snake oil, industry, architecture, design, advertising, pop art, celebrity and the exuberant sense of national adolescence that has both made America so exceptional and gotten it into so much hot water.

If you sweep aside legitimate questions about how far consumerism can and should go, Iconic America is a lovely book — the kind for which coffee tables were invented. Leaf through the pages of loving photography and clean, sans-serif capsule biographies of each object and you feel ... well, American.

Rarely has an Underwood No. 5 typewriter, scourge of so many 20th-century secretaries, looked so appealing as it does in this computer-age volume. Rarely have two photographs of faces on facing pages — Ed Sullivan in a joke Beatles wig and Andy Warhol in his ‘‘god-awful platinum-blonde fright-wig’’ — so bookended an entire era.

And rarely have three curiously juxtaposed images said so much about America as the photos on page 298 and 299: An ‘‘all-American’’ boy consuming a hamburger and a Coke while, thanks to Photoshop, he ‘‘watches’’ Ruby kill Oswald on black-and-white TV; behind him, a rural church rises from the landscape in an iconic Ansel Adams portrait.

Iconic. We keep coming back to that word — which, it’s worth noting, is just one letter away from ‘‘ironic.’’ In a country where advertising is the secular religion, Iconic America offers up a visual Bible of our age — the books of Swoosh, iPod, Lucky Strike and O.J. and so many more.

It elevates, glorifies, venerates our own creations — above even ourselves. But page after page, as it raises products to the heavens and compels us to kneel, the question unasked in all the exuberance cannot help but resonate: Are we worshipping false idols?


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This page contains a single entry by Teresa Budasi published on December 31, 2007 7:35 AM.

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