A cultural icon is an artifact that is recognised by members of a culture or sub-culture as representing some aspect of cultural identity. Cultural icons vary widely, and may be visual, audio, an object, a person or group of people, etc.
In the media, many items of popular culture have been called "iconic" despite their lack of durability. 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:
Matryoshka dolls are seen internationally as cultural icons of Russia.
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 Stars and Stripes flag to protest about US actions abroad.
Religious icons can also become cultural icons in societies where religion and culture are deeply entwined, such as representations of the Madonna in societies with a strong catholic tradition.
Use in popular media
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.