“Cool is the zeitgeist taking embodied form.” – Joel Dinerstein
With the opening of American Cool on February 7, 2014 at the National Portrait Gallery, a debate will begin over who is cool and why he or she is cool. The qualities of cool will be discussed and some of the curatorially chosen cool Americans will be brought upon the lab table and their coolness will be dissected. As co-curator Joel Dinerstein notes, there are more questions than answers about what the ingredients of cool are:
What does it mean to say someone is cool? And in addition, what does it mean for a generation to claim a certain figure as cool? What qualities does this person embody at that historical moment? Are certain elements of cool constant, or is it in a constant state of generational change? Is cool a relaxed state of mind or a compelling mystery?
While the questions Dinerstein asks may be unanswerable, the curatorial process yielded interesting results. There were several common denominators that popped up, and though the correlations were far from definite, in several instances those correlations could not be ignored. For example, seventy-four out of one hundred people identified by the curators as cool are connected to the American entertainment industry. American Cool’s other co-curator, Frank Goodyear, explains that the public faces of entertainers give them an advantage in making the cool list. Goodyear comments, “These are people on the open road exploring new possibilities. There is a certain cool aesthetic—a certain cool look—and it is those who are performing in public space who are leading the way.”
Another common denominator among the chosen cool is the predominantly male presence. Seventy-six out of the cool one hundred are men, which begs the question, “Are women not cool, or are they less cool than men?” Goodyear states that during the 1920s and 1930s, “Cool was perceived by the larger public as distinctly male.” In his essay “The Art and Complexity of American Cool” from the exhibition catalog, Dinerstein observes:
Until the 1970s cool was a masculine sensibility represented by such intimidating figures as Miles Davis and Frank Sinatra, Clint Eastwood and Johnny Cash, Steve McQueen and Lou Reed. A quick list of the core qualities of classic cool—toughness, rebellion, detachment, self-possession, mystery, a capacity for violence—reveals a rap sheet often unavailable to women... In the next generation it is likely that women will outnumber men for lasting iconic effect and innovative artistic impact.
Perhaps the strongest link to cool is neither gender nor occupation, but heritage. Goodyear notes that of the one hundred representatives of cool selected by him and Dinerstein, the overwhelming majority of those individuals came from lower to middle class backgrounds. Affluence, it seems, is post-cool, but not cool as a point of origin.
“What we want people to take away from this experience,” Goodyear concludes, “is that this is a serious project. This is not a subjective list; we have made a serious effort to study the origins of the term ‘cool’ and to understand what the term meant for a given generation.”
--Warren Perry, Catalog of American Portraits
Image: Lauren Bacall by Alfred Eisenstaedt / 1949 (printed 2013) / Pigmented ink jet print / Courtesy Alfred Eisenstaedt / LIFE ©Time Inc.