Art Works Blog

Spotlight on American Cool

Though the term “cool” became popularized in the U.S. in the middle of the last century, if the Internet is to be believed a form of the word has actually existed as an adjective since the days of Beowulf. Whether you believe its origins are in the 20th century or around the eighth, what’s indisputable is the fact that you may know cool when you see it, but it’s still a difficult state to precisely define. Yet that’s exactly the challenge taken on by grad school buddies Frank Goodyear (now the director of the Bowdoin Art Museum) and Joel Dinerstein (a professor of English at Tulane University) as curators of the American Cool exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery, a Blue Star Museum partner. 
 
As Goodyear explained, “Joel and I went to graduate school together so I knew of Joel's interest in the history of being cool in America that goes back 20-plus years. Joel is very interested in the aesthetics of cool, its history, its origins.” Goodyear’s background as a curator coupled with Dinerstein’s interest in the phenomenon of cool led to the aha! moment on Goodyear’s part that “there could be a potentially really great exhibition about the origins and evolution of cool as an oppositional persona in 20th-century American life.”
 
The Portrait Gallery exhibit explores the evolution of the popularized term through the medium of photography starting with its mid-century origins to what it means in contemporary usage. Works collected in the exhibit range from Philippe Halsman’s portrait of Humphrey Bogart to Aram Avakian’s photo of Miles Davis to Julian Wassy’s snap of Joan Didion to Martin Schoeller’s print of Tony Hawk. Some portraits are by unknown shutterbugs while others are the work of photo stars such as Annie Leibovitz, Richard Avedon, and Diane Arbus.
 
We recently had the opportunity to speak with Goodyear who gave us a behind-the-scenes look at the exhibit. In his own words, here's his take on the exhibit and what it means—at least in terms of the exhibition—to be cool.

Billie Holiday. Photo by Bob Willoughby

    

Defining cool
 
Cool. You know it when you see it and it's one of these kind of indescribable, indefinable terms. The whole task of trying to define it is a fool's errand of sorts. With the show we wanted to prompt a conversation about cool. Why is it a meaningful term? What are its origins? How does it sort of operate in American popular culture today? Why is it our chief culture export? Why is it that cool is what in a sense America has given the world? And why is it so much a part of our national identity?
 
The question that in a sense structured the entire exhibition is what exactly do we mean when we say someone is cool, as opposed to something that is cool. When you hear the word cool being used today it often refers to something. But when cool was originated back in the 1940s around African-American jazz, it referred to somebody and so we had to define what that somebody was. We came up with a definition, a list of criteria that we were going to use to evaluate whether someone merited inclusion in the collection or not. There were four really important criteria for us. They had to first of all have a certain iconicity. They had to be somebody who was really a charismatic figure that was instantly recognizable to others. They had to have a kind of perceived cultural legacy. The figures here are not simply cult figures who were popular for a specific moment and within a specific community, but they had to have national and indeed international importance. And the fourth criteria [was] the original artistic vision and a signature style.
 
What does it mean to be “American Cool?”
 
Joel and I think that [cool] is a uniquely American persona that has a specific origin and comes out of a specific place. That said, we talked about doing a show with the National Portrait Gallery in London and they could do British cool. There are all sorts of terms that are used in other sort of countries: duende in Spanish, sprezzatura in Italian, or even sort of a British reserve. But those terms tend to refer to a certain aristocratic detachment--that because you have extraordinary means you can in a sense drop out and be a dilettante. The people that we [as Americans] associate with cool tend to come from middle and lower classes on the economic spectrum. They are individuals who have had to forge their own path forward and carve out a niche for themselves in the world of music, or art, or film, or what have you. They have not been born with a silver spoon in their mouth so their rebellion is a little different than a more traditional European rebellion. 
 
Even though the term cool was first popularized in the 1940s and African-American jazz musicians used it to refer to a certain kind of persona within that world, we as historians tried to understand the origins of this distinct American persona. We ended up identifying two 19th-century individuals who we felt laid a foundation for this kind of larger rebellion that would have broad impact. We found it in Walt Whitman and in Frederick Douglass. All you have to do is look at the extraordinary portrait of Whitman [that’s in the exhibit] to notice this instantly. He is casting himself as somebody who's not working within the literary establishment. If you look at that portrait of him, he wears working man's clothes. He has a hat sort of askew at a rakish angle on his head. He has one hand on his hip thrown outwards. He is defining himself as somebody who is going to privilege experience over education. For him what was valuable about the life in this nation were the possibilities for improvisation. He is the antithesis of a Hawthorne or a Longfellow who developed their literary achievements within a very well defined tradition. 
 
African-American men in the mid-19th century were largely invisible. They were faceless, enslaved figures. They did not have the opportunity to have a distinct public face. Frederick Douglass, who is one of the most photographed Americans of the 19th century, in all of his photographs is conveying this kind of fierce dignity, this extraordinary sense of racial pride, not trying to downplay his blackness but trying to create space for a distinct African-American masculinity. He's countering all of the kind of racist assumptions that had adhered to black masculinity over the previous centuries and his work as a writer, as an orator, as a journalist was about confronting those and trying to upset them. He does this through a very kind of cool, detached, but deeply independent manner that will have wide resonance to both political and cultural leaders, African-American leaders in the 20th century.

Frederick Douglass. Unidentified photographer

    

The aesthetics of cool
 
It's really photography that mediates our understanding of cool. Photography in fact is influential in helping to construct a kind of distinct cool look, a distinct cool aesthetic. It's the medium through which we come to understand and encounter these individuals. 
 
Black-and-white photography really is the dominant visual medium at the middle of the 20th century. Color photography really isn't popularized until the 1960s and 70s. So the pictures of those early actors, musicians, artists, writers, those individuals are pictured in black and white. The kind of darkness and shadows that are ever present in film noir definitely become a part of the kind of cool look. Here is a figure that is not going to directly confront the viewer. Here she's going to work in the shadowy margins and those are things that photography makes real. 
 
We determined early on in the process that the show was only going to have 100 people but we had all of these different names and we had to make a determination of who really exemplified the successful rebels of American culture. One of the things that was really important was we had to find a good picture of that individual. We had to find the historic evidence that suggested that they were this perceived rebel and that they had a certain presence in public life. There were plenty of people that we thought about. For instance, George Carlin, the famous 60s- and 70s-era comedian, was extraordinarily transgressive and yet every picture that we found of George Carlin, he looked more goofy than he looked cool. He never really embraced this distinct cool aesthetic that we associate with this distinct persona. Likewise, from an earlier era, the great dancer Isadora Duncan, again a very rebellious figure especially for a woman in the first quarter of the 20th century, yet every picture that we saw of her seemed more like a kind of bohemian from an earlier Victorian time than the truly modern creative artist that she was. So Isadora Duncan fell out because we didn't find a good picture of her. In looking to see who was going to be in the show and the pictures that were selected, we looked closely at their biographies, we looked closely at their larger cultural legacy, and we looked to find the right picture of them because there were a distinct set of attributes associated with this cool persona that were really important to us.

Steve McQueen. Photo by William Claxton

    

The evolution of cool
 
If you look at the people who are in the final section of the exhibition, which chronicles the last 30 years or so, you'll see that all of these individuals have a certain iconicity. They are extraordinary leaders in whatever their particular field is, but they're also remarkably successful whereas perhaps an earlier anti-authoritarian figure might reject materialism, might reject that kind of pursuit of financial success. All of a sudden being successful financially and otherwise becomes cool so that some of these remarkable individuals, whether in sports like Michael Jordan, in music like a Jay-Z, in technology like Steve Jobs, it was okay to all of a sudden be fabulously successful. Certainly, it was during this period that Madison Avenue and American advertising came to understand that cool could help to market any number of different products. These individuals rather than running away from Madison Avenue embraced it and said, "You know what? I can be independent and I can live at arm's length from the cultural main streams but I can also be tremendously successful." That's I think symptomatic of how cool or at least part of cool has evolved over time. It is true that cool definitely has a distinct underground presence whether in the world of somebody like a Jean-Michel Basquiat or Tony Hawk who basically makes skateboarding and the X Games something that merits wider cultural attention and allows somebody like a Shaun White to have tremendous success. It's all built on the kind of transgressive athletic achievement of a guy like Tony Hawk.
 
Interested in reading about other Blue Star Museums partners? Check out our visit to the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle!
 

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