Is it cool to curate a museum exhibition about cool people? Not according to the curators of a new exhibition on that very subject now on display at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., American Cool.
According to one of the curators—local author, jazz critic, and Tulane professor Joel Dinerstein—“Cool means rebellious self expression.” Although the exhibit purports to nonchalantly flick a cigarette butt, climb atop a motorcycle, and unflinchingly, behind dark sunglasses, examine whether being “cool” still even matters in the present day, man—how risqué! (answer: of course it does)—we doubt it enters even the realm of one of the 100 people included in the show, Steve Jobs, who is classified as “geek cool.”
But that’s not to say the idea isn’t interesting, or that one would be decidedly uncool if he or she were to attend a presentation by Dinerstein of the exhibition’s handsome catalog at 6 p.m. on Friday, February 14, at the Maple Street Book Shop (7523 Maple St.). Though, it’s pretty safe to say assume that none of the cool people, or their local or contemporary counterparts, will likely be in attendance.
From a Washington Post piece on the exhibition:
In America, at least, cool is distinctly lower or middle class, reflecting its origins in African American culture, where it was a compensation mechanism for living under the brutal regime of racism. When Lester Young said “I’m cool,” writes Dinerstein, “it meant ‘I’m keeping it together in here against invasive social forces.’” Frederick Douglass, whose oratory was fiery, not cool, merits inclusion in the exhibition because, according to [co-curator Frank] Goodyear, he used a carefully constructed photographic identity to challenge preconceptions about race and African American men. “Though he lived prior to cool’s popularization, his cultivation of this mask of stylish stoicism presaged the rebellions of others who sought to live within yet also apart from the mainstream.”
Stylish stoicism is an excellent phrase. But as the exhibition charts the historical evolution of the cool, “stylish stoicism” fits less well with the later, countercultural appropriation of the cool. Transgression becomes more important than style and talent, even directionless, purposeless, self-destructive transgression. When Marlon Brando’s character in the 1953 film “The Wild One” is asked “Hey, Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” and he answers, “Whaddaya got?” — the cool has clearly gone through a critical permutation.
One particularly evocative juxtaposition places a reprint of a 1966 photograph of Muhammad Ali with his fist thrust directly into the camera lens next to a 1971 image of Clint Eastwood, holding an enormous handgun in a visually analogous confrontation with the viewer. Clearly the concept has become elastic if it can encompass a black boxer playfully enacting an aggressive identity and a white actor appealing to working class (and often racist) fantasies of public order and vigilantism.