‘Bogart was cool: no one used the word then, but it’s the term everyone reaches for now,’ writes the literary scholar Joel Dinerstein in American Cool, which he co-authored with photographic scholar and curator Frank H. Goodyear
Besides Bogie, the reach of those who make cut in this sleek book of photographs interspersed with essays includes Johnny Depp, civil rights protestors, Miles Davis as he appeared on the cover of Ebony, Elvis, Robert Mitchum, Jack Kerouac, Amiri Baraka, Bob Dylan, Anita O’Day, Madonna, Tupac Shakur, Susan Sontag, Selena, and sundry others.
For years, cool fell into the gray zone of semantics like that on which a Supreme Court justice meditated in consideration of pornography: he admitted that he could not define it, but he knew it when he saw it.
We should hope that the Supremes will attend the American Cool exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. (American Cool is the catalog for that exhibition.) This show is an impressive exercise in semantics and a grand slice of national history; the photographs are thoughtfully orchestrated, the ideas behind the concept argued with intelligence and flash.
We can picture the quickening pulse of political and news celebrities in the pagan city on the Potomac, milling about the gallery, wondering why the photographs show none of them. (The Obamas are only mentioned in the text.) But in a city where politics has degenerated into a tawdry suburb of celebrity, the edgy outsider nature of cool doesn’t sync with democracy as reduced to a muddy floor show on the nightly news.
‘Cool figures are the successful rebels of American culture,’ writes Dinerstein, the James H. Clark Endowed Chair in American Civilization at Tulane University. ‘To be cool is to have an original aesthetic approach or artistic vision—as an actor, musician, athlete, writer, activist or designer—that either becomes a permanent legacy or stands as a singular achievement.’
That explains Brando, Duke Ellington, Greta Garbo, Muhammad Ali and of course James Dean. Obama seems to have edged into the text by virtue of being dubbed ‘Mr. Cool’ in a magazine article. The president’s charisma lands him, at least in passing prose, on the same page with an image of Walt Whitman and the front page of Leaves of Grass.
Men far outnumber women in American Cool. ‘It is rare to find an article, website, or blog post declaring anyone ‘Ms. Cool,’” writes Dinerstein, “despite the plethora of cool women in this book, from Georgia O’Keefe, Bessie Smith, and Dorothy Parker to Patti Smith, Chrissie Hynde, and Missy Elliot.’
Walt Whitman ‘first carved out a space for cool by valuing personal experience and bearing over education and experience.’
The gender tilt lies in “the presumed association between cool and American masculinity,” he notes, and “the persistence of a double standard where independent, sexually confident women are concerned.”
Double standards, of course, are made to be exposed.