I spoke with Joel Dinerstein and Frank H. Goodyear III, the curators of the new National Portrait Gallery exhibition “American Cool,” about their show, the catalog and essays that accompany it, and how they came up with a workable definition of the cool. Here are edited excerpts of our conversation:
Why does the exhibition focus on celebrities? What about the “cool” among ordinary, everyday people?
Joel Dinerstein: The only way to actually examine [the concept of cool] is to look at public figures, people we all recognize. These are people who are discussed as cool, the obvious cases. There are many meanings of cool and not all of them are dealt with in this exhibit… It is not that there aren’t [everyday] cool people in your life, but I don’t know how we would address that in an art exhibit.
And why the focus on popular rather than high culture?
Frank H. Goodyear III: The goal of the exhibition was to excavate the origins of cool as an oppositional persona, to understand [how] cool originates as a slang term in jazz, first introduced in the late ’30s and early ’40s, and popular among a group of African- American jazz musicians. It has wide resonance in the world of Hollywood, and it begins to evolve in different arenas of culture life in different ways. The great majority of the people in the show are popular musicians, popular actors. [While] there is a group of writers, [these are] writers who had a wide following, whose work resonated with the wider public.
What makes this concept particularly American?
JD: Ninety-nine out of 100 figures are working or middle class. [Other similar ideas such as] sangfroid are all about disenfranchised aristocracy, people who were entitled, by their wealth or social status. They didn’t need to carve out space. They[had] it by virtue of their status. America is [all about a] willed self-invention. You create an identity different from your parents. [And we are] a nation of immigrants, people are not descended from any kind of social status. And… it is worth stating: This is a nation born in revolution, a country [that has] always valued rebellion.
FHG: We discussed the notion of what does cool look like abroad. There are distinct traditions, many of them are influenced by this American sense of cool. [But when people] are polled about who is the coolest country—such polls have apparently been done—invariably it is American musicians, American actresses and actors who take center stage. [The cool] is recognized [as] one of America’s cultural contributions.
Why are you so confident that the cool is still relevant, that it can survive commercialization and corporate appropriation? Is the concept of cool dead?
JD: I am not as confident as you think I am. Which is to say I think it is a vital, worthy question. My answer is a cautious “no” for two reasons. One is that Americans still seem to care about the concept. I can tell by students’ answers to essay questions that they still want it to be vital. People want to talk about it, who rates, and why. The larger question about commercialization? I am not sure cool will be transgressive as it was in the past, [as it] was when Hip hop first broke through. It is still an element, but it won’t be the same element. Cool has always been and [is] more than ever a certain emergent strategy of individuality for a new generation. My two examples [today] would be someone like Jon Stewart, who carved out a new space. [If people say] there is an Egyptian Jon Stewart (and there is), and a Brazilian Jon Stewart (and there is), that means [he] has carved out a new terrain. The second example is … Benicio Del Torres, [with] his synthesis of old-school film noir, African-American culture [and] a Nuevo Latino charismatic detachment. What really matters is that cool occupies the space [for] some new strategy for individuality. It is seen not [just] as celebrity, and not just wealth, but as artistic and rebellious self-expression.
FHG: The term is not a static term, it is ever evolving. The period from the ’80s to the present demonstrates the degree to which corporate America discovered the power of cool. That there were individuals who became wildly successful in this exhibition, fabulously wealthy, that was not for them being a sell-out as it might have been in a previous generation, just another indication of achievement.
The exhibition relies almost exclusively on photographs. Why?
FHG: There is a distinct cool aesthetic [and] it is one that relies heavily on photography. It is interesting that with photography that we [believe] we can know someone through the photograph, but that perception is an illusion. We feel like we are looking into a peep hole…but in fact these photographs really act as mirrors, we as the viewer see our own reflection.
We [felt] that to be in the show we had to have a good picture [of the subject], a picture in which they project cool. There were figures like George Carlin [whom we considered], but when we went looking for pictures, there wasn’t that cool public presentation that was captured in photography. As such Carlin was not in the show.
Is there a dark side to cool?
FHG: There are figures in the 20thcentury whom we regard today as saints, people like Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, Roberto Clemente, [but] these individuals are not in this exhibition. There is a certain darkness, a certain edge, a mystery that pervades many of the individuals [we did include]. There are a number of very troubled individuals, even miscreants, who had difficult pasts and in some ways were using cool to navigate the challenges in their lives.
JD: Negotiating the dark side is a necessary condition of cool. I think [the idea of the cool] crosses over [into mainstream culture] quickly because of the Great Depression and World War Two. When it first shows up in that period, there is this mask of cool as a stylish stoicism, which is about that generation facing up globally to a set of challenges that are threatening. The reason that [Humphrey] Bogart ends up the cool figure is because he looks like he has navigated and negotiated some very dark periods in his life. The reason why “Casablanca” is still the number one or two films ever [as noted by the American Film Institute], and that is also true for an actress like Barbara Stanwyck.