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  • July 30, 2014

American Cool: You’ll Know It When You See It

What does it mean to say someone is cool? Sounds like a simple question, doesn’t it? Everyone knows it when they see it, but defining what exactly makes someone cool is trickier than it seems. Is it the aloof restraint Miles Davis maintained while belting out brilliant tunes on the trumpet? Or the boundary-pushing spectacles and outfits Madonna put on? Maybe it’s the raw emotion Johnny Cash poured into his lyrics and performances?

Picture of writer Joan Didion, leaning on a white sports car
Joan Didion, 1970
Photograph by Julian Wasser

When Joel Dinerstein and Frank H. Goodyear III curated American Cool, an exhibit that’s up now at the National Portrait Gallery, they tried to identify exactly what makes for a legacy of cool.

Picture of Jimi Hendrix in the center of the frame, looking off to the side
Jimi Hendrix, 1967
Photograph by Linda McCartney

Dinerstein and Goodyear traced the evolution of cool, from its birth in the swinging jazz nightclubs of the 1940s and ‘50s, when “cool” meant staying calm and composed during dizzying social change. When restaurants refused to serve James Baldwin in the early 1950s, he wrote “there is not a Negro alive who does not have this rage in his blood.” Yet, rather than boil over, Baldwin chose stoic resistance. In the 1960s and ‘70s, cool took on clear anti-establishment connotations. By borrowing images from advertising and pop culture, Andy Warhol rejected traditional ideas about what makes art art. Bob Dylan protested the Vietnam War with poetic lyrics. In the 1980s, square became the new cool, with kids flocking to preppy styles and politics.

Picture of Elvis Presley performing on stage and reaching out into the crowd to touch his fans' hands
Elvis Presley, 1956
Photograph by Roger Marshutz
Picture of Deborah Harry in a white tank top, staring straight at the camera
Deborah Harry, 1978
Photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe

Although answering the question “What exactly is it that makes someone cool?” is a decidedly uncool exercise in semantics, it’s a fascinating one nonetheless. Dinerstein and Goodyear created a rubric with the common threads they found across the decades. For a person to pass the test of cool, he or she had to have at least three of the following: 1) possessed an original artistic vision, 2) rebelled or transgressed in a given historical moment, 3) been recognized as an icon, and 4) had a cultural legacy of at least 10 years. On top of that, the curators looked harder to measure variables, like charisma, self-possession, and just not caring what other people think. If Dinerstein had to sum up how he would describe who is cool, he’d say, “the successful rebels of American culture.” In other words, the people whose ideas or art transgressed traditional values, but whose ideas and art became accepted by society.

Picture of Benicio Del Toro against a black background with his hands folded and held up to his chin
Benicio Del Toro, 2008
Photograph by Cass Bird
Picture of Madonna wearing all black, kneeling on the side of what looks like a balcony in the city
Madonna, 1983
Photograph by Kate Simon

And of course, the person had to look cool in photographs. Why? “Photography makes cool possible,” Dinerstein says, and it has the “power to transform a person into an icon.” In the exhibition catalog, Goodyear writes that James Dean became famous not for his first starring role in East of Eden, but for the moody portraits of him by Dennis Stock that ran in Life magazine. Those portraits helped establish the idea of Dean as a troubled loner. And it is these images, rather than his film career, that has made Dean a lasting icon in American society. Although many people today may not have seen Dean in Rebel without a Cause or East of Eden, they are likely to know the famous portraits by Roy Schatt of him smoldering through a cloud of smoke.

Picture of James Dean relaxing by an open window, smoking a cigarette
James Dean, 1954
Photograph by Roy Schatt

The 100 people Dinerstein and Goodyear crowned “cool” now have their pictures hanging in matching frames from the walls of the National Portrait Gallery, tidily organized by decade. Though many of the photographs are beautiful (an image of a luminous Billie Holiday stands out in my mind), the exhibit feels too polite, too much like a text to truly portray this group of rule-breakers and rebels who stood up to discrimination, wars, and tradition. And although the exhibit isn’t groundbreaking enough to pass its own test of cool, the history of a concept we all think we know is cool enough to make a visit worthwhile.

Picture of Billie Holiday singing, her head is tilted elegantly back and to the side
Billie Holiday, 1951
Photograph by Bob Willoughby

American Cool is on display through September 7, 2014 at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

There are 22 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. DEBASREE BANERJEE
    August 20, 2014

    Cool means being comfortable with every unorthodox thing you do. Unorthodox but not unethical. Being cool means to inspire others to be like you. Being cool means breaking the realms of established ideas and creating stronger ones.

  2. ken howard
    August 9, 2014

    see earlier comment … I just want to know about responses.

  3. ken
    August 9, 2014

    what makes cool is a photographer being at the right place at the right time . Lotsa cool people who haven’t been photographed .. I think cool may only exist because a good photographer is there – wherever – to cover an event. Cool did not exist before there were photographers everywhere…. before Time and Life and Look and other magazines.

    • erbPIX™
      August 11, 2014

      As a photographer I get your drift, but to suggest that COOL is dependent on publication is like saying that a tree falling in the forest doesn’t make a sound unless there’s someone there to hear it.

  4. Kay
    August 8, 2014

    “COOL” is many different things to many different people. What gives you that moment of “That’s cool.”

  5. wartrick
    August 8, 2014

    cool is just an attitude.

  6. Ann B. Davis
    August 4, 2014

    There’s no such thing as cool! It’s all just marketing!

    • erbPIX™
      August 5, 2014

      I disagree. That is why I said earlier that COOL cannot be faked. But Marketing certainly tries to capitalize on it, which is why there is so much shallow, venal advertising. There are exceptions. Think of serious presentations you’ve seen in which not a single word is spoken, you’re not told what to think or do, or how much the advertiser loves and cares about you. You’re on your own. Subliminal? Perhaps, but that’s getting down to it in my opinion, as far as commerce goes anyway.

  7. Wind-walker
    August 1, 2014

    I hope this yack about smoking would stop.. and you guys would look at the art … a moment captured in time… all of these people living in their life gifts to the max and inspiring others.( wow} well done.

  8. Joe Camel
    August 1, 2014

    Smoking is indeed cool,militant non-smokers are indeed not cool,people are angry because their genetically inferior immune systems cannot handle a little bit of smoke,what about all the garbage that come out of the tailpipe of a car,I’m sick of having to breath that crap and what about people in your neighborhood that use fireplaces because they think they’re romantic? And second hand marijuana smoke smells like a dumpster fire,all smoke or no smoke needs to be banned.

  9. the guy across the street
    August 1, 2014

    Michele S….Nobody cares that you get sick off of
    second hand smoke. You’re whining is the definition of what is NOT COOL.

  10. N.B.F.
    July 31, 2014

    By the “progressive” standards of the Dinersteins of the world, “cool” is always about “transgression” against the norms of “uptight, white racist” society. Uh uh. I’LL define what’s cool for a change: Competence is cool. Creativity & real beauty are cool. Facts – no matter who’s “forbidden” sacred cow they gore – are cool.

  11. erbPIX™
    July 31, 2014

    The aura of COOL defies description. You just know when you experience it.

    So I disagree with the four judgment parameters given because they are limited to public personas. I’ve met some way cool people who are not, nor ever will, be publically known.

    Of the eight people presented I’m familiar enough with only four to have an opinion. Jimi Hendrix? Absolutely! James Dean, Elvis & Madonna? No, thank you.

    One thing is certain, Cool cannot be bought or faked.

  12. Doc Anchovy
    July 31, 2014

    Furthermore, only three of these cool people are smoking.

  13. Doc Anchovy
    July 31, 2014

    Hey, you know what? This isn’t a piece about cigarettes being cool. It’s about people being cool. Do any of you anti-smoking Nazis have any bad habits? Do you drive a car? Do you burn natural gas or oil in your heaters? Thanks for the asthma, jerks.

    • erbPIX™
      August 3, 2014

      Time out! The smoking rants are way off topic and NOT COOL.

      But since sensitivities pro and con about smoking seem to have hijacked the topic, maybe someone can explain what smoking (or not) has to do with being COOL. Is it part of being artistic? Defiant? Would any of the people pictured smoking be un-COOL if they didn’t?

  14. get3coffinsready
    July 31, 2014

    Nobody cooler than Jimi, of course, but how did an a-hole like Madonna get in here?

  15. mike
    July 31, 2014

    Art Pepper – alto saxophonist

  16. Mike
    July 31, 2014

    Why does everyone have to make things like this into a political issue? Unfortunately that’s the way society was towards tobacco back in those days, it was widely accepted and everyone smoked, also this article raises the question of what defines “cool” to begin with. Smoking has been banned from restaurants unless separate air ventilation is provided, cigarette ads have been banned from television and everyone now knows about the health risks involved by now. When these pictures were taken it was a different story. They are wonderful, great pictures of great artists. Their cigarette isn’t the main subject of the photo, the person is but they so happen to be smokers. Just enjoy the art of it and remember that we live in America where people are free to make decisions regarding their health meaning they are free to smoke if they want, free to think smoking is cool, free to create this art, and free to our opinions. The cigaretts aren’t the main subject here, the people themselves are. Pay attention to what’s important here.

  17. WmSuttonJr
    July 30, 2014

    Completely different era….doctors actually prescribed cigarettes in the 1960’s…..these photos are from a different generation and are striking and stand on their own merit.

  18. mimi
    July 30, 2014

    wow, That’s what i was thinking. Somehow the american tobacco companies have ingrained the use of their products with “coolness” which couldn’t be farther from the truth. These are beautiful photographs however.

  19. Michele S.
    July 30, 2014

    I’ll tell you what’s really not cool: smoking. I’m very sick due to second-hand smoke. The World Health Organization says tobacco kills 6 million people a year–and one fifth of those didn’t choose to smoke, they were killed by other people’s decision to smoke. I’m surprised and appalled this article perpetuates the myth that smoking is cool, when it is in fact a lethal addiction, that also kills and destroys the health of innocent bystanders, including children.

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