Martin Kemp, Christ to Coke: How Image Becomes Icon (2012) – Review by A.T. Coates

Kemp’s lavishly illustrated art history text grapples with an important question for studies of religious visual cultures: what makes an image an icon? Though he offers a definition of “icon” near the beginning of the book, Kemp chooses his materials idiosyncratically and avoids analytical precision intentionally. There is no one definite criterion, no single necessary cause, that makes a “merely famous” image into an icon—but we all know an icon when we see one. He writes, “an iconic image is one that has achieved wholly exceptional levels of widespread recognizability and has come to carry a rich series of varied associations… across time and cultures, such that it has… transgressed the parameters of its initial making, function, context, and meaning” (3). So, what kinds of images does Kemp consider icons? He examines 11 varied examples: Jesus, the cross, the heart shape, the lion, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, the head of Che Guevara, Nick Ut’s photograph “Villagers Fleeing Along Route 1” (napalmed and naked), the American flag, the Coca-Cola bottle shape, the double-helix shape of DNA, and the formula e=mc2.

If this seems like a motley crew, it’s supposed to. The book reads like an extended thought experiment: Are Jesus, the Mona Lisa, and e=mc2 all icons? If so, are they icons in the same way? If the medium, type of image, time period, and original function/purpose/intent of the image can vary dramatically from icon to icon, what makes one image iconic and another simply famous? In the conclusion, Kemp proposes that the term “icon” refers to a fuzzy set: much like “too hot” and “too cold,” no single set of characteristics defines the term “icon.” Nonetheless, some characteristics do seem to cluster around icons, and some images are much more likely to be counted as icons than others. Not all icons share a given set of characteristics, but we do seem to know an icon when we see it.

This is a beautiful, highly readable book with much interesting food for thought—but its “fuzzy” approach often seems to beg for more rigorous analysis from religious studies scholars. If I were to assign this to a class, I would have them read only the chapters on Mona Lisa, Che, the American flag, and the Coke bottle. In these chapters, the author’s art historical method proves quite illuminating—if somewhat lacking. Mona Lisa’s life as an icon has been quite different than the Coke bottle’s, but both demonstrate superb design and execution. But even in the chapter on Mona Lisa, the only icon from Kemp’s area of specialization as an art historian, his analysis practically begged for the input of a religious studies scholar like David Morgan. My favorite moment came when Kemp described his first private, close-up encounter with the Mona Lisa—outside its usual prison of extra-durable glass, velvet ropes, and pushy tourists. Having been specially invited to view the painting during its annual cleaning/inspection, the Oxford professor resorts to language that sounds frankly religious to describe the encounter with “the real thing.” He describes it as “spine-tingling in a way that is difficult to describe without sounding pretentious. Great art encountered in the flesh can produce sensations that go beyond visual stimulation” (142). After regaining his composure and talking about Da Vinci’s application of paint, the use of “incident and reflected light,” and his own process of viewing the image, he concludes in the worshipful mode: “And, of course, there is always her (Lisa’s) uncanny presence. I have never experienced a stronger feeling of presence in a work of art. . . . she is not just looking. She is overtly reacting, smiling, with a knowingness that is perpetually engaging and even disconcerting” (145). Here, the esteemed art historian sounds more like a religious devotee. Though he mentions the notion of presence (see 342), we do not get a good sense of what “presence” entails. More troublingly, this book tells us very little about how people encounter and negotiate the “presence” of their icons. The image of an ancestor demands food and acts of obeisance. The presence of Jesus in a doorway offers protection over the home. The presence of Our Lady in a statue heals the sick. The cross pendant around an evangelical’s neck reminds of Jesus’ presence in daily life and serves as a reminder to avoid sin. Each of these instances could be considered encounters with an “icon.” But they are also very different kinds of religious activities. Some of these “icons” seem more like amulets, apotropaic symbols, power objects, or tutelaries. Most importantly, people engage them in very different ways. Though he offers superb readings of the making of icons, Kemp’s analysis would have benefitted from more attention to their reception. By exploring the subtleties of how people engage with icons, Kemp’s fuzzy category might have come into sharper focus.