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I was told a long time ago that they do hinder boot up but not overall performance. That was by the IT guy fixing one of my families computers because he saw my dads 8 million icons. I always figured that was true
I can't see how desktop icons could affect a computers performance other than at start-up.
The Desktop is not that unique, in reality its just a folder with a background picture! Any performance issues would be insignificantly small. You can see the changes from within task manager as you click through folders.