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The Exhaustion of Icons

The Obama Inauguration was quite beautiful. It had its enormous crowds in the cold (Steven Spielberg, who was on the podium, when asked about his emotional state suggested that he would not have been able to afford to stage such a scene for one of his movies), a phalanx of political leaders and military guards, craggy oldsters (the closing benediction by Reverend Lowery was both passionate and funny), and smiling children. Obama’s speech – somewhat tough, realistic, pragmatic, without as much of the soaring rhetoric – was to the point, a wake-up call and a call for action. The issues were spelled out.

But the surrounding imagery did not reverberate with new discoveries Even the farewell to the Bushes at the helicopter, while polite, was restrained, lacking the spontaneity of the Nixon wave good-bye. It was all certainly memorable, but I would be hard-pressed to come up with any particular images that were able to frame the essence of the event. Perhaps this is a good thing – we may be on the cusp of another kind of change.

It was as if we had exhausted our ability to form new icons. Why? In large part because we are now so familiar with so much photography and video, iconic or not, that anything put before us is immediately seen in the context of all that previous imagery. And, equally important, our resistance to forming new iconic references is reinforced by a suspicion, whether or not it is conscious, that any new situation may somehow be staged to reference another one.

Did yesterday’s events look like John F. Kennedy’s inauguration? Was it supposed to? Was it meant to symbolize a multi-cultural America? Whether the answer is yes or no, and whether we are enthusiastic Obama supporters or not, it is difficult for an image-saturated society not to pose the question of this administration or of any other.

This too is a challenge for Obama, one of all too many that he has inherited. One can only hope that his administration leads with a lessening focus on referencing the icons of the past, a kind of image war, and instead with a focus on doing what it does because it has to be done. As Obama himself put it, speaking of the US government, the question is not whether it is too large or small, but whether it works. And perhaps our media will bypass the easy icons as well and instead search for the authentic. Stopping its nasty habit of being in collusion with those in power would hopefully at a minimum slow down media’s slide into irrelevancy.

The rediscovery of the actual rather than the rehearsed would be refreshing. It may be, after decades of photo opportunities and staged events, too much to ask for, but at the very least it certainly would go a long way in raising the morale of the citizenry.

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