What does it mean to be cool? The American National Portrait Gallery attempts to answer that question and more in its new exhibit “American Cool.”
It traces the evolution of “coolness” in the American psyche, from its ostensible nineteenth century origins to the modern day, ending with Jay-Z, of course.
“American Cool” starts in the pre-Jazz Age with the first hipster himself, Walt Whitman. Whitman is prominently displayed along with a first edition of Leaves of Grass, on loan from the Library of Congress. With this display, the exhibit makes a convincing case that cool can be traced back to the 1920’s.
The Smithsonian moves a few decades ahead with an incredible portrait of Billie Holiday. The photograph plays with black and white, at once blending them and contrasting them, a political statement to be sure, though one you can’t quite put your finger on. At the very least, you get a tangible sense of her effortless grace. It’s self-appropriation in every sense, reflecting the Smithsonian’s contention that “cool is an earned form of individuality.”
The third room combines bebop and 50’s Beat culture, and it features prominently (and fittingly) Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool. Davis is arguably the epitome of what the Smithsonian sees as “cool,” and he does not go unrewarded. When every other “cool” person has but one photo for a portrait, Miles gets three. His portraits are at once glamorous and crisp. To quote Davis himself, “It’s cleaner than a broke dick dog.”
The fourth room explores the cultural upheavals of the 1960’s and early 70’s. William S. Burroughs is hunched over, long shadows fallen over a sullen face. Jackson Pollock paint cans are splayed haphazardly.
There is a standout pensive portrait of Malcolm X next to Joan Didion, pen in hand. Didion is unique as one of the only journalists and essayists of American Cool. Fame seems to be the defining factor far more than actual influence over the historical and cultural understanding of cool at that point in time. In fact, the Smithsonian does not highlight “cool” when it was counterculture—only in its later stages as mass culture. The exhibition puts its greatest focus on what is “in.”
With characters like Bill Murray and Prince dominating the next room, big personalities displace the classic images of Miles and friends. Hair rock and MTV dominate the “modern” room as a computer in the corner of the room belches synth from big-haired Blondie. Perhaps because it reflects an actual shift in American cool from substantial to superficial, this final room lacks fulfillment.
To be fair, the very final portrait of Jay-Z is compelling, almost to a heartrending extent. Clad in a black skullcap, a black peacoat and black everything else, Jay-Z looks longingly at the camera, as if begging for individuality in an era of shouting conformity.
“American Cool” takes the viewer through our history, from cool’s inception as a matter of the individual to today in which the individual is suffocated to ensure that “cool” equates with mass consumption. By the time the visitor hits the modern room, it is obvious that artists have sold out. Though we start with portraits, we end with still-lifes. Hipsters everywhere will be left wallowing.
National Portrait Gallery
Feb. 7, 2014 – Sep. 7, 2014