What Does It Take To Be Cool?

What is cool? It’s more than a place between hot and cold. Since the mid-20th century, it’s the word that has been used to describe people who have a certain something that we admire.

American Cool, an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery, uses 100 famous faces to look at the elusive concept of who is cool and what that even means. “You make a lot of compromises to live every day and take care of your family and do whatever you do. You want to have an ideal figure who you imagine does not have to do that, someone who’s radically free,” said Joel Dinerstein, the exhibit’s co-curator, explaining one way to appreciate the images in the exhibit.

In photos, jazz great Lester Young (credited with bringing the modern use of “cool” to the mainstream) is captured playing his saxophone with furious ease. Actor Marlon Brando gazes soulfully at something just out of view. Trumpeter Miles Davis looks as though he doesn’t know he’s having his picture taken at all. What makes them so cool?

“I think the visual aesthetic of the exhibit is relaxed intensity,” said Dinerstein. “You have to look as though you are self-possessed but not eager. There aren’t a lot of smiles.”

The term “cool” in its modern use comes out of the U.S. — specifically out of the African-American jazz culture of the early 1940s, according to Dinerstein. Other cultures have words to describe the stylish individuality these portraits show. The Italians have sprezzatura, the French have sangfroid. But Dinerstein said those qualities arose from aristocratic privilege. “It’s easy to walk around as if you own the world if you do own the world — or a good piece of it. Cool is specifically either working-class or middle-class, in which you carve out cultural space for individuality. … That is very American.”

Frank Goodyear, Dinerstein’s curating partner, said, “It’s not a coincidence that cool arises at a moment when photography emerges onto the global scene.” Although photographs had been around for decades, the development of hand-held cameras, flash photography and high-speed film in the ’30s and ’40s made possible intimate images of charismatic celebrities that could be spread far and wide. “Photography is the means by which the world comes to understand cool,” Goodyear said.

In large part, the exhibit describes the people who show us a way to preserve individuality in an increasingly modern and uniform world. “The figures in the exhibit,” Dinerstein said, “are those we looked to generationally and said, ‘Oh, that’s how you do it.’”

Timeline of Cool

Musician Jimi Hendrix, 1967

• “The Roots of Cool: Before 1940” looks at people who embodied the qualities of cool as we think of it today, even though the world wouldn’t have known to call them cool at the time. The images in this category reach as far back as abolitionist Frederick Douglass, poet Walt Whitman and blues singer Bessie Smith.
“The Birth of Cool: 1940–59” describes the transformation of the word “cool” from a term used by black musicians to describe an ability to stay calm and productive in spite of economic pressure or racism into a completely different word connoting a rebel sensibility embodied by jazz trumpeter Miles Davis and actors Humphrey Bogart and James Dean.
“Cool and the Counterculture: 1960–79” covers the turbulent era when rock ’n’ roll altered the culture and as many women rockers (such as Patti Smith and Deborah Harry) embodied the cool aesthetic as did men (such as Elvis Presley and Jimi Hendrix).
“The Legacies of Cool: 1980–Present” portrays the recent public figures who project a spirit of rebellious individuality, such as rocker Kurt Cobain, pop singer Madonna and rapper Missy Elliott.

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Cool Rules

What does it take to be cool? At least for the purposes of American Cool’s subjects, each one had to meet three out of these four criteria:

An original artistic vision carried off with signature style.
Cultural rebellion or transgression for a given generation.
Iconic power, or instant visual recognition.
A recognize cultural legacy.

Almost Cool

The runners-up for the 100 icons in American Cool included:

Rapper Dr. Dre
Actor George Clooney
Poet Maya Angelou
Tennis Player Serena Williams
Singer Janis Joplin
Rapper/actress Queen Latifah
Actress Angelina Jolie
Rapper Biggie Smalls
Actress Uma Thurman
Musician Questlove

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