Everyone knows what "cool" looks like. It’s a pair of legs encased in worn jeans, slung over the sides of a Harley. A cigarette rimmed with red lipstick. The dark tint of a jazz musician’s sunglasses, which he wears onstage–at night–as his saxophone cuts through the din of a smoky club.
The term, which was first coined in the 1940s by Lester Young, the lead saxophonist in Count Basie's orchestra, has become ubiquitous in today’s slang. It’s also grown nebulous, conveying everything from a sign of explicit approval–“Cool!”–to an object’s cultural cache. But what makes a person... cool?
Together, Frank Goodyear, a curator of photography and co-director of the Bowdoin Museum of Art, and Joel Dinerstein, a professor at Tulane University, have tried to answer that question. “American Cool,” an exhibition that the two co-curated at the National Portrait Gallery, is a collection of 100 photographs of men and women who’ve exemplified “cool” throughout history.
“When we use the word cool today, especially as an adjective, we’re tending to refer to something rather than someone,” says Goodyear. “What do we mean when we say someone is cool?’”
The show explores the origins and evolutions of the “cool” persona over the course of 20th-century life. It references everyone from Walt Whitman and Frederick Douglas–the “granddaddies of cool”–to Steve Jobs and skateboarder Shaun White.
“It suggests that cool is not a static term, that it means different things to different generations, “ says Goodyear.
Dinerstein and Goodyear, who spent five years planning the exhibition, came up with a “cool rubric” to grade candidates. To be considered, individuals had to possess each of the following: an original artistic vision carried off with a signature style; generational impact; iconic power and a recognizable cultural legacy.
A total of 500 qualifiers were originally evaluated; 300 were whittled from the list. Those who didn’t land a spot among the top tier 100 were gently set aside to the Alt-100 list–cool in their own right, even if they didn’t quite make the cut. “We sometimes refer to it as the B team,” says Dinerstein. “Some days, I feel like the B team is almost as good as the A team.”
If the B team included A team-worthy players, why didn’t they, too, bat a home run in the field of cool? We asked Dinerstein to weigh in on why some beloved figures made it only to the Alt list and why some popular performers, like Beyoncé, never even passed the preliminaries.
"We only had 100 slots, and some people stand for other people," says Dinerstein, who teaches a popular class at Tulane, entitled "The History of Cool," and is currently finishing up a cultural history of the topic, The Origins of Cool in Postwar America, due out in 2015. "The reason there are a lot of jazz musicians, for example, is that jazz musicians actually brought the word and concept of cool into culture. So they’re represented—and to some extent people might think they’re over-represented. But that’s why."
“The big question that we kept asking ourselves,” he concluded, "is, did this person bring something entirely new into American culture?”
"American Cool" is currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery through September 7, 2014.
Biggie Smalls (Christopher Wallace)
"Now in hip-hop, we have four or five figures. I think at some point, they’re all good choices. It’s not that Biggie doesn’t belong. It’s that at some point you have to draw the line.
We have Afrika Bambaataa, Tupac, Missy Elliot and Jay-Z. I mean, I could’ve added three more figures from hip-hop. For a while, we were considering Dr. Dre, who I think really belongs. So to some extent, if I put in Biggie—East Coast—I have to put in Dre for West Coast, and that point you’re down the rabbit hole. I agree that Biggie is probably the first alternate of hip-hop that’s not in the exhibit. But I think hip-hop is fairly well represented."
"I think for all the wrong reasons, people confused Tina Fey with her character, Liz Lemon, while 30 Rock was on. All her cache showed up afterwards. What got her back on track was, of course, her imitation of Sarah Palin.
I thought Tina Fey would be a slam-dunk. Everybody said, 'Eh, I think Tina Fey ain’t cool.' Also, I think her book Bossypants was a misstep in a lot of ways, both in tone and in general.
If we’re talking about the next generation in 20 to 25 years? Depending on her decisions, I think she could make it into the next exhibit."
"The phrase 'charismatic self-possession' is very important. Janis Joplin is all about emotional outpouring. That’s her sensibility. She’s actually said on the record that she thought she was the reincarnation of Bessie Smith, who is in the exhibit. But the aesthetic of the blues singer is that although you are expressing an emotional experience, you are doing it in control of your art. You’re not mistaking being emotional for expressing emotion.
So Janis Joplin is simply not cool onstage. Her performance aesthetic—although she’s a great singer—is about emotional outpouring. And that’s just not – compared to Patty Smith or Chrissy Hine or Deborah Harry, she’s simply not cool. She’s much too emotional.
That’s a tough one. People bring her up all the time. Simply in terms of the iconic power and quality of her work, she would definitely qualify."
"We considered Jim Morrison for a while. To be honest, Jim Morrison has part of the same problem as Janis Joplin, but in a different way. He thought of himself as Dionysus, which is all passion, and outpouring, and being torn apart by your admirers. And so his stagecraft—although he has the mysterious and dark parts—everything else is really about this huge celebratory orgy. (I mean that more emotionally than I mean it sexually.)
If we think about James Dean, and Miles Davis, and Jack Nicholson, and Faye Dunaway, cool is about being much more subdued, and much more laid-back and relaxed. Although there are exceptions to that in the exhibit, that’s why Jim Morrison did not make the cut."
Sugar Ray Robinson
"Sugar Ray Robinson-undeniably cool, and actually an influence on Miles Davis. But we're good on boxers. We have Jack Johnson; we have Muhammad Ali.
In terms of him having a truly original persona in American life? I mean, I could make the argument that he does. But he didn't quite make it in public memory; he wasn't quite as important a boxer as Joe Lewis right before him, and Muhammad Ali right after him. He gets lost."
"Almost everyone on the list is either working class or middle class. If you were raised upper class, then you have a sense of entitlement and social status that doesn’t force you to self-invent in the way that Americans almost always have to self invent. We’re a nation of immigrants; to some extent, one has to create a sort of American self within modernity. If you come from the upper class, that’s simply not nearly as difficult, nor as necessary.
Katharine Hepburn not only comes from that, she often plays that kind of woman. So there’s a reason why, say, Barbara Stanwyck—whom she’s probably an exact contemporary with—is in the exhibit; she almost always plays a working class woman who is negotiating modernity. Meanwhile, Katharine Hepburn always has a sense of entitlement and respect that come from an upper-class sensibility.
Although people say that [Hepburn] wore pants first, and she was an assertive woman, she was never seen as a rebel in her time by anybody who thought about 'cool.'
'Cool' came from the underground; it came from jazz culture; it came from a Depression-era sense of how you survive in style. We are measuring cool by who are the avatars of rebellion in a given moment. And she doesn’t qualify as a rebel in that sense."
"Two of the rules we made to separate out people besides the rubric: one was the decade rule. Did this person’s influence last more than a decade? And the other was that we threw out all cult figures.
If cool’s about the successful rebels in American culture–which means the people who started the rebellion ended up being mainstream or transformed their field–then John Waters was a cult figure for most of his life. He’s one of the few who kind of crosses over later in his life. So he’s tricky.
The only person who’s analogous to him, who I think of a cult figure in the exhibit, is Frank Zappa, who also crossed over from cult figure status to being an absolutely central cultural icon."
"Someone who I wish was in the exhibit was George Carlin, whom I think absolutely fits, and so did Frank. But we couldn’t find a photo of him. We have to look cool some of the time; we looked at hundreds of George Carlin photos, and in front of the camera he always makes these goofball, 'class clown' photos. He pops his eyes, and he puts his face forward.
It just doesn’t work in a photography exhibit. It doesn’t have the aesthetic, which I call relaxed intensity, that’s the aesthetic sensibility of this exhibit. Almost all the artists’ photos have this relaxed intensity. We can’t put a goofball up there. It would wreck it. So Carlin’s on the alt-list, even though with a different photo he would’ve been on the main list."
"Beyonce really wants our attention. She really works hard. I like that she works hard, but she’s really needy as a performer. And neediness is the opposite of cool."
Note: Beyonce is not officially part of the"American Cool" Alt. 100 List.
"Early on, Lady Gaga came up a lot among my students. But that’s an easy one, because she’s a derivative of Madonna. She has no original artistic vision."
Note: Lady Gaga is not officially part of the"American Cool" Alt. 100 List.