A Charismatic Edge and a Dark Side
August 21, 2014 6:04 AM   Subscribe

The National Portrait Gallery's exhibit American Cool is both an exhibition of portraits of 100 iconically cool Americans (pdf) and a meditation on what it means to be cool and how the concept has changed over time. Among those who made the cut are Bessie Smith, Joan Didion, and Benicio Del Toro.

The Kojo Nnamdi show interviewed one of the curators (audio and transcript).

The Alt 100 (pdf) list of slightly-less-cool Americans who just missed being in the exhibit.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious (63 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'm glad I wasn't responsible for coming up with a list of "100 iconically cool Americans" because everyone's going to criticize it. That said, how does Sammy Davis, Jr. get left off both lists?
posted by octobersurprise at 6:21 AM on August 21, 2014 [9 favorites]


Madonna is not cool. Buddy Holly was dissed. These lists are ArbitraryandCapricious.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 6:30 AM on August 21, 2014 [6 favorites]


The "Roots of Cool" section is interesting but seems a bit incomplete, but then again the curators had their parameters to work inside; as making suggestions feels like the natural thing to do I'd nominate Herman Melville, as I imagine publishing "I'd rather spend the night with a sober cannibal than a drunk Christian," in the 1850s was lookin' for trouble.
posted by mr. digits at 6:31 AM on August 21, 2014 [2 favorites]


Not quite a double, but we've discussed this exhibition previously.
posted by neroli at 6:34 AM on August 21, 2014 [1 favorite]


Miles Davis gets three pictures because he actually is three times cooler than anyone else on the list.
posted by 1970s Antihero at 6:37 AM on August 21, 2014 [7 favorites]


Isn't this just a cigarette add?
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 6:38 AM on August 21, 2014 [2 favorites]


It's more an ad for heroin. (Unless you're against dying young.)
posted by inigo2 at 6:42 AM on August 21, 2014


Criticism apart, tho, it warms my soul to see Susan Sontag on there. But I probably would've sacrificed Madonna (sorry Madge!), or John Stewart, or Bonnie Raitt for Jackie Kennedy.
posted by octobersurprise at 6:43 AM on August 21, 2014


It's more an ad for heroin. (Unless you're against dying young.)

It can't possibly be an ad for heroin, because they don't have the coolest picture of all time.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 6:50 AM on August 21, 2014 [1 favorite]


Also, how the hell does Tupac make it on there, and Biggie doesn't? I bet these fools also believe Dizaster and his boys didn't ambush Math Hoffa.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 6:55 AM on August 21, 2014


Madonna is not cool.

I read it as "ironically cool" ... can Madonna be ironically cool yet?
posted by Jahaza at 6:58 AM on August 21, 2014


Miles Davis is so cool they have to have three pictures of him.
posted by Jahaza at 7:01 AM on August 21, 2014


I'm reminded of one of my favorite photographs, Irving Penn's portrait of Georgia O'Keefe.
posted by Jahaza at 7:06 AM on August 21, 2014


Isn't this just a cigarette add?

That would be the equally idiotic American Kool list.
 
posted by Herodios at 7:09 AM on August 21, 2014 [1 favorite]


Also also, there are a few candidates on the main list and several on the alternate that I'd swap for Candy Darling. Peter Hujar's "Candy on her deathbed" has probably become the most iconic, but I think I'd go with "Candy on the bus," Francesco Scavullo's mock Cosmo cover, or, best of all, "Candy and Tennessee Williams."
posted by octobersurprise at 7:16 AM on August 21, 2014 [1 favorite]


I wish they had at least one so square he's cool on the list. Like Mr. Rogers.
Maybe they meant that with John Wayne, but John Wayne was too full of John Wayne to be cool.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 7:21 AM on August 21, 2014 [5 favorites]


I sorta feel like maybe this is the list of cool people that an uncool person would come up with, but I am defnitely uncool, so I'm probably the wrong person to judge.
That said, how does Sammy Davis, Jr. get left off both lists?
In the interview, the curator said that they couldn't include the entire Rat Pack, so Sinatra is a stand-in for all of them.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:23 AM on August 21, 2014 [1 favorite]


As it happens, I just saw this show last weekend. Or walked through it anyway. It was very crowded and obviously popular, but for portraiture, I prefer John Singer Sargent. The National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum have several, including his portrait of Mrs. John Jay Chapman, whose bruised eyes are haunting. But photos are nice too I suppose.
posted by srt19170 at 7:32 AM on August 21, 2014


I think Clint Eastwood is sort of the opposite of cool. I like lots of his movies but still. I guess I agree with someone else here that Miles Davis is three times cooler than anyone else on the list so I'm OK with that. They listed the book "Leaves Of Grass" which is neither a portrait nor a person. Did they really mean Walt Whitman? Actual photos exist.
posted by lordrunningclam at 7:43 AM on August 21, 2014


In the interview, the curator said that they couldn't include the entire Rat Pack, so Sinatra is a stand-in for all of them.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious


I realize that you are only reporting, not endorsing, but that is eponyarbitrary....
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:53 AM on August 21, 2014


There are some people on this list I have not heard of. I don't know all the cool kids!!
posted by JanetLand at 8:04 AM on August 21, 2014 [1 favorite]


from David Berman's poem "Self-Portrait At 27" in the excellent collection Actual Air:
If you were cool in high school
you didn't ask too many questions.
You could tell who'd been to last night's
big metal concert by the new t-shirts in the hallway.
You didn't have to ask
and that's what cool was:
the ability to deduct
to know without asking.
And the pressure to simulate coolness
means not asking when you don't know,
which is why kids grow ever more stupid.
posted by Ian A.T. at 8:15 AM on August 21, 2014 [3 favorites]


Tom Waits is on it, so all is right with the world, but Willie Nelson and Jim Carroll wuz robbed.
posted by scody at 8:16 AM on August 21, 2014


They listed the book "Leaves Of Grass" which is neither a portrait nor a person. Did they really mean Walt Whitman?

It's a picture of the first edition of Leaves Of Grass, but they mean to direct attention to the engraving of the author (Whitman, but he published the first edition without his name on the title) on the frontispiece. It's not just a picture of Whitman, it's a picture suggestive of the author of the book as ...
one of the roughs, a kosmos,
Disorderly fleshy and sensual ... eating drinking and breeding,
No sentimentalist ... no stander above men and women or apart from them ... no more modest than immodest.
posted by octobersurprise at 8:24 AM on August 21, 2014


but Willie Nelson ... wuz robbed.

Nope, the Red-headed Stranger is on the list.
posted by mcstayinskool at 8:31 AM on August 21, 2014


This list needs some Chuck Berry and Johnny Ramone. A little Bo Diddley wouldn't hurt either.
posted by ChuckRamone at 8:34 AM on August 21, 2014


Not one middle class suburban dad. Surely this was an oversight.
posted by vorpal bunny at 8:39 AM on August 21, 2014


Nope, the Red-headed Stranger is on the list.

Whew. Goes to show you I shouldn't read anything longer than a text on my phone. (But it still means Jim Carroll wuz robbed.)
posted by scody at 9:05 AM on August 21, 2014


Tom Waits is about as cool as a dumpster fire. Good thing we can all agree on Steve McQueen.
posted by basicchannel at 9:23 AM on August 21, 2014


Madonna and sundry aren't cool because you can't be cool with too much money - that's the consolation prize for being broke but stylish.
posted by The Whelk at 9:29 AM on August 21, 2014


It would be silly to criticize this for who it leaves out (it's not "the 100 coolest" it's just "100 iconically cool Americans") but I think you can make a case against some of their inclusions. "Cool" implies a certain kind of unapproachability or, at the very least, ironic/critical distance. Sometimes they seem to be just mixing up "cool" with "popular" or "culturally resonant." I don't think Jon Stewart, for example--much as I love his work--belongs on this list (and the photo they choose is about as dramatically uncool as you can imagine an image being). Mugging for the camera is all about "please, please notice me and laugh at me"--that's pretty standard for a comedian, of course, but it's the diametric opposite of "cool." Madonna, similarly--especially from the period their photo is chosen--was all about "look at me, look at me, pay attention, pay attention" which, again, is utterly uncool. There needs to be some admixture of "you could just drop dead for all I care" in the mix for someone to be "iconically cool." That's why Miles Davis is so inarguably "cool" (because I think he really, genuinely would kinda prefer it if we all just dropped dead).

I would argue that Audrey Hepburn (and, again, it's not a value judgment--she is one of my all time favorite movie stars) is a marginal selection for a list like this. The famous Breakfast at Tiffany's image is, of course, a projection of an aura of "cool"--but the whole point of the movie is that it's a false front. And, of course, Hepburn's actual persona is being deliberately enlisted by the filmmakers to flag to us the fact that the "cool" is unreal. Hepburn reads entirely as someone who cares deeply that we don't just go drop dead--hence not really "cool."
posted by yoink at 9:33 AM on August 21, 2014


This list was obviously compiled by a very bourgeois, Baby Boomer group of former bohemians and hippies who graduated to jobs like museum curator and journalist at newspaper read by upper middle class folk.
posted by ChuckRamone at 9:35 AM on August 21, 2014 [1 favorite]


Tom Waits is about as cool as a dumpster fire.

I agree. Dumpster fires are awesome.
posted by vorpal bunny at 9:42 AM on August 21, 2014 [4 favorites]


This list was obviously compiled by a very bourgeois, Baby Boomer group of former bohemians and hippies who graduated to jobs like museum curator and journalist at newspaper read by upper middle class folk.

I think if you're implying that they ought to have selected a whole bunch of really obscure people that mainstream Americans wouldn't know about or think are particularly cool you might be both confusing "cool" with "hip" and kinda misunderstanding the whole "iconic" thing.

"Iconically cool" people are, almost by definition, going to be people that those belonging to some cutting-edge somewhere are so over. Hence the grousing in this thread about Tom Waits--who is obviously "iconically cool" in the way he gets invoked and used in movies etc., even if he seems painfully Mom, Dad and NPR-approved to you personally.
posted by yoink at 9:57 AM on August 21, 2014


From the "Birth of Cool" tab:

Being cool was a response to the rapid changes of modernity: it was about maintaining a state of equipoise within swirling, dynamic social forces. The legendary jazz saxophonist Lester Young disseminated the word and concept of cool into jazz culture in the early 1940s, and it quickly crossed over as a rebel masculine sensibility. When Young said, “I’m cool,” he meant, first, that he was relaxed in the environment and, second, that he was keeping it together under social and economic pressure as well as the absurdity of life in a racist society.

I remember reading somewhere that the modern concept of "cool" developed out of Reconstruction-Jim Crow black culture because it allowed black people, especially men looking to hold on to a sense of masculinity, to have a sense of power and control in the face of what they were experiencing when they couldn't respond aggressively without fear of terrible punishment.

This piece seems to back that up a little, but does anybody else remember reading something like this?
posted by Sangermaine at 10:06 AM on August 21, 2014 [2 favorites]


yoink: "Madonna, similarly--especially from the period their photo is chosen--was all about "look at me, look at me, pay attention, pay attention" which, again, is utterly uncool. "

You must not have been an adolescent girl in the mid-80s. Those of us who were....well, we have all kinds of embarrassing photographic proof demonstrating how very, very cool Madonna was.
posted by desuetude at 10:18 AM on August 21, 2014 [1 favorite]


You must not have been an adolescent girl in the mid-80s. Those of us who were....well, we have all kinds of embarrassing photographic proof demonstrating how very, very cool Madonna was.

Popular, admired, emulated, loved etc., sure--but not, I would argue, "cool" in the sense that this exhibit is using the word.
posted by yoink at 10:26 AM on August 21, 2014


The Baffler had its weak points, but I will always be grateful to it for planting the phrase "commodify your dissent and sell it back to you" in my mind.
posted by benito.strauss at 11:03 AM on August 21, 2014


Neil Young, Canadian.
posted by 3.2.3 at 11:09 AM on August 21, 2014


I agree. Dumpster fires are awesome.
posted by vorpal bunny at 9:42 AM on August 21 [2 favorites +] [!]


You wouldn't happen to be in law enforcement, would you?
posted by basicchannel at 11:17 AM on August 21, 2014


I would argue that Audrey Hepburn (and, again, it's not a value judgment--she is one of my all time favorite movie stars) is a marginal selection for a list like this. The famous Breakfast at Tiffany's image is, of course, a projection of an aura of "cool"--but the whole point of the movie is that it's a false front. And, of course, Hepburn's actual persona is being deliberately enlisted by the filmmakers to flag to us the fact that the "cool" is unreal. Hepburn reads entirely as someone who cares deeply that we don't just go drop dead--hence not really "cool."

Also, Audrey Hepburn was not American.
posted by greta simone at 11:29 AM on August 21, 2014 [1 favorite]


Madonna is cool, full stop. (/period.) Miles Davis authored Birth of the Cool so he is cool x2. Not sure about x3.

FREDERICK DOUGLASS looks like a boss in that image. Angela Davis is so sexy.

Maybe we should do a poll of the best person or photo in the gallery. That could be fun.
posted by niphates at 11:33 AM on August 21, 2014


but not, I would argue, "cool" in the sense that this exhibit is using the word.

You can't say she didn't try, tho—Madonna on a roof, Madonna in rubble, even the first album cover to some degree. She was never very good at it, not nearly as good as Debbie Harry or Patti Smith, but Madonna, like Hepburn, maybe, marks the point where "cool" shades off into "glamor."
posted by octobersurprise at 11:38 AM on August 21, 2014


Madonna caused moral panic on a regular basis. Seems like a pretty basic reason to be on the list.
posted by basicchannel at 11:44 AM on August 21, 2014


She was never very good at it, not nearly as good as Debbie Harry or Patti Smith, but Madonna, like Hepburn, maybe, marks the point where "cool" shades off into "glamor."

I would argue that she wasn't--at least in the early days--shooting for "cool" at all. You're right that Debbie Harry did; look at the video for "Heart of Glass," for example, which is deliberately dead-pan, affectless. Of course, Blondie's huge success made it very hard for Debbie Harry to maintain that "cool" image--particularly because the record company wanted to package her as popstar-sexkitten. But look at the "Like a Virgin" or "Papa Don't Preach" videos to get a sense of Madonna's persona at that time. It wasn't about "cool" at all--she was always working hard to provoke a response, desperately pushing buttons left and right. "Cool" bespeaks some kind of reserve, some kind of "well, I'll just be here doing my thing, and if you want me, you know where to find me, and if you don't, I really don't care." Madonna was always all-singing, all-dancing, all-stripping, all-acting, all-dressed-up. She was "hot" rather than "cool."

Again, this isn't a put-down, it's just about cultural styles. I'm a huge Beatles fan, but I'll be the first to acknowledge that the Beatles weren't "cool" for at least the first several years of their fame. They were enormously influential, hugely popular etc. etc.--but they were far to eager to please to be "cool." The Stones were definitely "cool" to the Beatles "hot." (Things got more complicated, of course, once the Beatles stopped touring and became counter-cultural icons.)
posted by yoink at 11:55 AM on August 21, 2014 [2 favorites]


I think if you're implying that they ought to have selected a whole bunch of really obscure people that mainstream Americans wouldn't know about or think are particularly cool you might be both confusing "cool" with "hip" and kinda misunderstanding the whole "iconic" thing.


Not just that, but these people all lived in the mid- to late twentieth century.
posted by ChuckRamone at 12:53 PM on August 21, 2014


I remember reading somewhere that the modern concept of "cool" developed out of Reconstruction-Jim Crow black culture because it allowed black people, especially men looking to hold on to a sense of masculinity, to have a sense of power and control in the face of what they were experiencing when they couldn't respond aggressively without fear of terrible punishment.

Bearing and forbearing -- which I imagine one can read as being synonymous with "dealing with trouble and not giving a shit" -- is the key to stoicism, and Epictetus, who formulated that, was a Greek slave in Rome.
posted by mr. digits at 1:06 PM on August 21, 2014


(I don't know about any specific connection between the latter and the former, but it's a classic theme in philosophy.)
posted by mr. digits at 1:08 PM on August 21, 2014


I think that it also owes some historical debt to the Renaissance concept of Sprezzatura. And perhaps there's some relationship to the Jim Crow / Roman slave histories you're adducing there, too--sprezzatura was, of course, the quality that Castiglione recommended for the courtier who, in the shifting, unstable and treacherous world of court politics wished to retain the grace and favor of the prince. It's a kind of ironic distance and unstudied effortlessness that allows you to fight shy of whatever the prince is killing or banishing people for today without looking like you're simply a toady--so the prince keeps respecting you as a valuable courtier. So it has in common with the Jim Crow and the Roman Slave examples above being a tactic for negotiating a position of real vulnerability while trying to keep claim to one's identity as something other than merely abject.
posted by yoink at 1:16 PM on August 21, 2014 [2 favorites]


Apparently 9/10 cool people DO NOT SMILE.
posted by Muddler at 3:12 PM on August 21, 2014


This is a much better portrait of Bambaataa than the one they picked.
posted by 1970s Antihero at 3:57 PM on August 21, 2014


Quentin Fucking Tarantino? He's made some pretty good movies, but so has Spielberg, who I doubt anybody thinks is 'cool'. Tarantino is more coked-up, flop-sweaty desperate to be cool, afaict. Coulda gone with Coppola or Scorcese, but maybe they're both too fat. But what the hell, he's not the only dubious choice, just maybe the saddest.

Tony Hawk? Is rad, is badass, seems good-hearted, goofy, and endearing. Michael Jordan? I guess if you're going strictly by dudes' demeanor while they do a sport or something, they both qualify.

It seems sad and telling that Steve Jobs is as close as the high-market-cap tech biz has to a 'cool' guy. (Obviously, Woz would be better, except that you'd have to bend the concept of 'cool' all the way out of shape to make if fit him.)

I figured it was OK to leave Leonard Cohen off for being canadian, but what, did we nationalize our strategic Neil Young reserves at some point? So no, it's not OK.

And also, I'm pretty sure I don't want to live in a world where Lee Marvin isn't on this kinda list. Not that he would care...

There is an obvious lack of recent cultural avatars or whatever on here. Maybe because 'cool' is no longer an operative concept, with the kids these days or whatever. I'm cool with that.
posted by hap_hazard at 4:37 PM on August 21, 2014


Slightly self-linky, but an essay by Kavita Das on how there are only two Asian Americans in the top 200 cool people. She also discusses the racial subtext of coolness, as a term appropriated from black jazz.

"Using photographic portraiture, history, and biography, the National Portrait Gallery’s American Cool exhibition is an attempt to nail down the singular concept of cool in the United States. However, the exhibit inadvertently demonstrates how ‘cool’ can end up a tool of exclusion. Created by African American artists as a transgressive stance against racism and segregation, it has now been widely appropriated and narrowly interpreted by mainstream American culture. The concept can now be used, then, to perpetuate the cultural marginalization of Asian Americans."
posted by johnasdf at 5:00 PM on August 21, 2014 [1 favorite]


yoink: "It wasn't about "cool" at all--she was always working hard to provoke a response, desperately pushing buttons left and right."

Where you see "desperate," a whole lot of people saw "shrewd." In that light, she was very, very cool.
posted by desuetude at 5:26 PM on August 21, 2014


Honestly, you could have filled this list with jazz folk, come on- Charles Mingus? Louie Armstrong? Eric Dolphy? Chet Baker?

But also
Jim Jarmusch
Chuck D
Schooly D
Maureen Tucker
Richard Hell
Joey Ramone
John Doe and Exene, together or separately
Alex Chilton
Dr. John
Irma Thomas
James Booker
Captain Beefheart
Amiri Baraka
Darlene Love
Dion
Tina Turner (well, and Ike too, he was a terrible person but also 'cool')
Sly Stone
Bootsy Collins, fuck, for that matter where's George Clinton?
Richard Feynman
Harry Smith
John Fahey
Robert Johnson
Ice Cube, Ice T (but only if they both disappeared in about 1995)
Werner Herzog (fuck off, he's at least as american as Neil Young by now)
If Garbo, why not Bardot?

Having a lot of trouble thinking of 'cool' asian-americans, (from the list in the linked article- yeah Maya Lin, probably George Takei. Margaret Cho seems like a stretch, and Mindy Kaling, it seems a bit early. If her , why not Aziz Ansari, or even Danny Pudi?) If it's just 'asians', it's no trouble at all, though they're pretty much all film-related. Basically anybody who's ever been in a Wong Kar Wai movie (except Norah Jones and Jude Law, obviously.) Takeshi Kitano. Jet Li. Chow Yun Fat. Takeshi Miike. Park Chan-wook. Choi Min-sik. And thats without even thinking about it very hard...
posted by hap_hazard at 5:57 PM on August 21, 2014 [2 favorites]


Where you see "desperate," a whole lot of people saw "shrewd." In that light, she was very, very cool.

I agree absolutely with you that Madonna was amazingly shrewd in the way she pushed those buttons--and that has absolutely nothing to do with my argument. You still seem to think that I'm secretly offering some kind of value judgment here--I'm really not. I'm not saying there's an elite "cool club" and she doesn't "deserve" to be let into it. I'm saying that her persona was not one that traded on this particular cultural construction of "cool."
posted by yoink at 6:20 PM on August 21, 2014


If I were knocking people off the Cool List, I'd start with Jon Stewart, Kurt Cobain, and Neil Young. Stewart does funny voices, which is never cool, while Cobain and Young share a kind of earnestness that doesn't seem to work with this exhibit's kind of cool.
posted by betweenthebars at 7:15 PM on August 21, 2014


I think part of the issue here is that the idea of cool got less specific over time. So in the earlier era, it specifically meant a kind of defiant emotional reserve, whereas by the '80s or '90s, it meant something more general, kind of like being fashionable or desirable. In the interview, they make the point that in the '50s, hip and cool were totally distinct concepts, and now the two words mean pretty much the same thing. So Madonna and Kurt Cobain weren't cool by the 1950s definition, but arguably by the time they hit the scene, the concept had expanded enough to potentially include them.

I definitely think that the list gets weird after about 1980, but that might be because that's the stuff that I experienced first-hand.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:39 PM on August 21, 2014


Yeah, Cobain can go, Stewart... well, other than Bruce and Pryor, no, comedians aren't fuckin' cool. (Well, maybe Red Foxx.) The 90's were definitely a bad decade for it, too. Who the hell even was cool at all in the 90's, other than Matt Dillon's character in Singles?

Oh yeah, I know who. Kim Fucking Gordon, that's who. Aaaaand... Q-Tip? David Lynch? Beavis? I have no idea what 'cool' means anymore, and I think it started back then.
posted by hap_hazard at 8:19 PM on August 21, 2014


Dumpster fires are awesome.

Until it's the dumpster squatting directly beneath your bedroom window that's ablaze.
posted by Pudhoho at 8:20 PM on August 21, 2014


Kim Fucking Gordon can take the Cobain spot, after that, I don't know...

They totally should have ranked the Alt 100 list and given the #1 Not Quite Cool spot to Norman Mailer. The Ghost of Norman Mailer would be sad about this, but would acknowledge that it was fair.
posted by betweenthebars at 8:44 PM on August 21, 2014 [1 favorite]


Cool is relative, man.
posted by Vibrissae at 10:21 PM on August 21, 2014


This exhibition was designed for me. I instantly recognized everyone (and each location pictured) for what it was, and why. Christ, I'm old.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 5:06 PM on August 22, 2014


« Older relative Pitch   |   You will also sense the life... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments