A cultural icon is an artifact that is identified by members of a culture as representative of that culture. The process of identification is subjective, and "icons" are judged by the extent to which they can be seen as an authentic proxy of that culture. When individuals perceive a cultural icon, they relate it to their general perceptions of the cultural identity represented. Cultural icons can also be identified as an authentic representation of the practices of one culture by another.
In the media, many items and persons of popular culture have been called "iconic" despite their lack of durability; and the term "pop icon" is often now used. Some commentators believe that the word is overused or misused.
A subset of cultural icons are national icons.
A web-based survey was set up in 2006 allowing the public to nominate their ideas for national icons of England and the results reflect the range of different types of icon associated with an English view of English culture. Some examples are:
- Big Ben (the nickname for the bell, but widely recognised as Elizabeth Tower of the Houses of Parliament in London);
- Cup of tea (for the British tea drinking habit);
- Red telephone box;
- Red AEC Routemaster London double decker bus;
- Spitfire, a World War II fighter aircraft.
Matryoshka dolls are seen internationally as cultural icons of Russia.. In the former Soviet Union, the hammer and sickle symbol and statues of Vladimir Lenin instead represented the country's most prominent cultural icons.
The values, norms and ideals represented by a cultural icon vary both among people who subscribe to it, and more widely among other people who may interpret cultural icons as symbolising quite different values. Thus an apple pie is a cultural icon of the United States, but its significance varies among Americans.
National icons can become targets for those opposing or criticising a regime, for example, crowds destroying statues of Lenin in Eastern Europe after the fall of communism or burning the American flag to protest US actions abroad.
Describing something as iconic or as an icon has become very common in the popular media. This has drawn criticism from some: a writer in Liverpool Daily Post calls "iconic" "a word that makes my flesh creep", a word "pressed into service to describe almost anything." The Christian Examiner nominates "iconic" in its list of overused words, finding over 18,000 "iconic" references in news stories alone, with another 30,000 for "icon", including its use for SpongeBob SquarePants.
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