DC at Night

DC at Night

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Cool, American-Style

What do we mean when we say someone is cool? Who are the coolest of the cool? What does it mean when a generation decides a certain figure is cool? Is coolness a constant, or does it change over time?

These are just some of the questions explored in the exhibition American Cool now on display at the National Portrait Gallery.

Exhibit curators are quick to point out that their exhibit, which includes the 1940s to the present, should be viewed as a conversation starter, not the final word on the world of cool.

In order to be included in the exhibit, the cool personifiers had to demonstrate 4 characteristics: They were:

  • an original artistic vision carried off with a signature style
  • a sense of cultural rebellion
  • instant visual recognition and iconic power
  • a recognized cultural legacy.
Using those guidelines, you get athletes like Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan, screen stars like Steve McQueen and Mae West, jazz greats like Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, journalists like H.L. Menken and Hunter Thompson, and comedians like Lenny Bruce and Jon Stewart, all of whom are among those pictured. In addition to still photos, you can also view movie clips and music videos, as well as listen to music clips from featured artists such as Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen.

Can you identify this smoking cool trio?
One of the more interesting items offered for examination is the Alt 100, a list of the 100 figures who didn't make the final showing, but received strong support from members of the curating team.

But perhaps the most telling message to be taken from the captivating look into coolness is the stark portrayal of the fact that while coolness may last, the time of the possessor of the cool is definitely finite. 

A picture of actress Lauren Bacall had been featured in the exhibit since it opened. However, yesterday the curators were required to post an addition next to Bacall's picture. Now, it reads In Memoriam as Bacall had died one day earlier at the age of 89. 

If you want to check out the cool display and see how the choices there fit in with your definition of cool, you have until Sept. 7, when the exhibition is scheduled to close.

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