Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery (NPG) presents American Cool through September 7, 2014. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines “cool” as “able to think and act in a cool way; not affected by strong feelings; excellent; all right; fashionable and hip.” American cool expresses a social charge of rebellious expressiveness, a certain type of magnetism, edgy and enigmatic. The National Gallery defines “cool” as “an original American sensibility,” and asserts that it “remains a global obsession.” The so-called cool cat always gives the impression that the situation is in hand with his signature style.
The NPG explores the cultural aspects of cool, and highlights more than 100 portraits of iconic figures, who have in some instance, interjected a singular artistic vision to American culture deemed as emblematic of a particular historic moment in time.
“The exhibit is about America’s greatest cultural export – cool – and who embodies it,” noted Kim Sajet, National Portrait Gallery director. She explained that the American Cool exhibit is different from other shows because it “offers an opportunity for a national conversation about who defines ‘cool.’”
These “cool” individuals surfaced from a selection of genres spanning music, film, art, sports, literature, comedy, and political activism. Images were taken by an inventory of well-known fine-art photographers from Henri Cartier-Bresson to Herman Leonard, Annie Leibovitz and Diane Arbus among others. American Cool also includes five movies and music clips, with jazz, blues and rock and roll music playing in the gallery spaces.
Curators Joel Dinerstein and Frank H. Goodyear III developed a historical classification system of four defining elements to decide which photographs would be incorporated into the exhibit. First, the person must have had an original artistic vision achieved with a signature style; second, the individual must have been the epitome of cultural rebellion or indiscretion for a particular generation; third, they must have had iconic significance or instantaneous visual recognition; lastly, the subject must have left a prestigious cultural legacy.
The concept of “American cool” is more of a pop-culture phenomenon that is not derived from aristocratic entitlement and is mainly identified in the traditional working class; a status that is merited versus amour-propre, according to Dinerstein and Goodyear. The selected photographs were chosen because they captured the intrinsic and complicated relationship between the actual person, his persona embraced by the media and fans, and that person’s creative work.
Where did “cool” originate? Early in 1940s, the legendary jazz saxophonist Lester “Pres” Young brought this central African-American concept into the modern vernacular. In 1948, the colloquial description became more mainstream. The New Yorker stated, “The bebop people have a language of their own … Their expression of approval include ‘cool!’” A more relaxed style of jazz was coined, “cool jazz,” according to The Bridgeport Telegram. A 1948 Life magazine article described trumpeter, Dizzy Gillespie in its title Be Bop: A New Jazz School is Led by Trumpeter Who is Hot, Cool and Gone.
Before the concept even had taken definite form, cool became a watchword in bohemian life suggesting a balanced emotional state, a set stylish indifference and a dynamic mode of performance. It was encapsulated in photographs of jazz musicians such as Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and Miles Davis.
Though the exhibit is heavily focused on celebrities and musicians such as Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood, Marlon Brando, Johnny Depp, David Byrne to name a few, the open-ended cultural concept also highlights figures like Frederick Douglass, Steve Jobs and the Hawaiian surfer Duke Paoa Kahanamoku.
In the 20th century, cool was considered “America’s chief cultural export.” Today, with the prevalence of social media, cool engages to an even larger audience. Its role in the world’s awareness of America and American’s own impression of cool has flourished. Legacies of cool have spread to become a distinct style of American expression.
The exhibit photographs are not an exhaustive list of American Cool legends, and NPG recognizes that the images merely “point up the richness and depth of American popular culture,” with the hopes that it will generate future discussions on the topic. According to the National Gallery, the American Cool exhibition is not the final dialogue on cool, but instead the first stage toward further “national conversation on this singular American self-concept.”
By Dawn Levesque