On Friday, March 7, 2014, the National Portrait Gallery will host a daylong discussion of the current exhibition “American Cool.” The concept of “cool” is American culture’s most influential contribution to global aesthetics and style. An exemplary group of scholars will explore how two intersecting branches of cool—African American culture and popular culture—impact style, marketing, and society. The symposium will feature conversations on two related questions: what do we mean when we say someone is cool and how do icons of cool affect society for a given generation?
Exhibition curators Joel Dinerstein and Frank Goodyear will moderate the morning and afternoon panels. Both curators will also give papers, along with Donnell Alexander, William Jelani Cobb, Rebecca Walker, Thomas Frank, Alissa Quart, and Carl Wilson (see the symposium schedule). Of the exhibition and symposium theme, Dinerstein notes, “Cool is the zeitgeist taking embodied form.” Goodyear adds, “Those who are included in ‘American Cool’ are the successful rebels of American culture.”
The topics of discussion during the symposium will vary, though the choice of the subjects and the criteria for the choices will be a large part of the discourse. Some Americans in the exhibition predate the idiomatic usage of “cool,” and the earliest subject, Walt Whitman, while being the rebel described by Goodyear, is not typically associated with the modern interpretation of the word. Dinerstein notes, “Whitman remains the guiding light of American bohemia, from the Beats to Bob Dylan to the potential of every road trip.”
More widely recognized in the canon of cool are some of the twentieth-century subjects like Frank Zappa, of whom Goodyear writes in the exhibition catalog, “His flamboyant performance style and irreverent sense of humor made him widely popular though also the target of social conservatives.”
Named in honor of Edgar P. Richardson (1902–1985), this symposium pays tribute to Richardson’s significant contribution as a scholar and National Portrait Gallery commissioner. The Edgar P. Richardson Symposium was established at the museum with the generous support of Richardson’s longtime friend and former Portrait Gallery commissioner Robert L. McNeil Jr.
“American Cool” has been made possible by the generous support of HISTORY®. Additional support provided by Mr. and Mrs. Jack H. Watson, Jr., and by Peter and Rhondda Grant.