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From Christ to the iPhone: The supreme power of an icon
Stephen Bayley is an author, critic and curator, and co-founder of London's Design Museum. This is an edited excerpt from his latest book, "Signs of Life: Why Brands Matter," published by Circa Press.
Not for nothing does the word "icon" cross from religion to business to religion and back again. That we use it to discuss everyday goods serves to emphasize the ritual element in consumer behavior.
Indeed, not just advertising, many brands are said, sometimes carelessly, to be iconic. It was in the 17th century that the word "iconic" made its metaphorical transition, from religious usage to ordinary speech.
In English in the 1650s, "iconic" began to be used to suggest something that had the status of a painting. It has now evolved into meaning something that is either well-recognized, much-admired or has some synoptic power to suggest a larger value system.
In a 2006 survey, Big Ben, a cup of tea, a red phone box of the Scott design, a Routemaster bus and a Spitfire were all said to be iconic. Today, property developers will describe a fashionable loft apartment as iconic, usually irrespective of its true qualities. In November 2016, the New York Times carried a headline: "How the Rolling Stones became fashion icons."
There is, however, something more profound to be said about what icon means. Icon, or more properly "ikon" is the Greek word for a static visual image, most usually in Eastern Christian art. The Orthodox Holy Tradition is inspired by The Holy Spirit and they share access to the Divine Essence: the rhythms of Byzantine poetry are said to have had their origin in the Jewish Septuagint, not Greek classical metrics. Thus, closer to Jehovah than Jupiter.
The very first icon may have been the image of Jesus said to have been owned by Pilate, the prefect of Judea in Christ's lifetime, but the tradition of making icons only became firmly established three centuries later. This was when the Emperor Constantine's Edict of Milan in 313 tolerated Christianity in the Roman Empire, leading to an increased market demand for religious images: religion and business are forever curiously admixed.
Icons have, beside their astonishing, tranquil, mysterious beauty, certain definable characteristics. One, the image of Jesus tends to be a repetitive one: there was for the Byzantine artist very little scope for psychological interpretation, although several basic types allowed the expression of slightly different gestures and poses. But, essentially, like a brand, the image was firmly established and needed only refreshing from time to time.
Two, icons are objects of veneration often possessing wonder-working properties. Sometimes, icons would weep tears of myrrh. And it was in the genre of icons that the idea of a halo, an aura, first appears in art (and only later got translated into business.) Occasionally, icons came into existence in a process known as acheiropoieta, which is to say, without an identifiable human artist.
Steve Jobs' divine essence
An ikonostasis is the screen of many icons separating the sanctuary and the nave in an orthodox church: thus, it is the setting for worship. It is before the ikonostasis that the faithful say their prayers and do their prostrations. So it might be compared to the annual Apple Worldwide Developers Conference where the late Steve Jobs, possessing his own version of Divine Essence, performed magic.
To what extent it was conscious we will never know, but Steve Jobs' great achievement at Apple was not in technology and design, but rather in the creation of a perfect high-tech simulacrum of religion. For a while, this made Apple the world's most valuable company.
Apple's cathedral was this Developers Conference, first organized in San Francisco in 1995. Here, in an atmosphere of hushed reverence not at all dissimilar to that of a Byzantine basilica, revivalist meeting or perhaps a more rowdy get-together of snake-handlers in rural Georgia, Jobs presented himself as a messiah-like figure.
Just lick it
His audience was a congregation of tech-literate faithful who waited for the Word. And, of course, the Revelation. The latter came in the form of exquisitely designed products that commanded slavish devotion. Jobs additionally had a genius for the quotable, throwaway line. He explained to a slack-jawed journalist that you know a design is good if you want to lick it. In this way, Jobs introduced an element of the erotic into the purchase of a smartphone. He made going to an Apple Store a cultured event.
After Jobs died in 2011, the Apple religion was without a leader -- at least, without one of the petulant, inspired, charismatic type that Jobs so well represented. So much so that two years after his death, his biographer Walter Isaacson wrote about the Developers Conference he saw in 2013: "The event lacked Jobs' spark, as did the products. (Apple's presenters) used the word incredible so frequently that if it had been the magic word in a drinking game, the launch would have knocked cold an entire fraternity. So many things were described as 'incredible'... that it began to serve as a reminder that none of them really were."
True incredibility requires irrational visions and unreasonable behavior. When Steve Jobs died, Apple lost that precious asset. But some of Jobs' quasi-religious construct remains in Cupertino. His contrary character -- a Buddhist bully, a hippie billionaire, a sensitive sadist -- gave people the seductive impression that Apple was a commune of alfalfa-munching, zoned-out, herbivorous philanthropists. That was a subterfuge of genius. Apple is a vast, manipulative, cynical, stock-watching US corporation.
For a while, it appeared to be something much more attractive. People wanted to believe in Apple. As John Hegarty says: "A brand is the most valuable piece of real estate in the world; a corner of someone's mind."
You have the ikonostasis with the Dormition of the Mother of God and Christ Pantocrator or a slickly packaged iPhone 8. In brand terms, their power is identical.
"Signs of Life: Why Brands Matter" by Stephen Bayley, published by Circa Press, is out now.