According to the American Film Institute (AFI), Humphrey Bogart remains America’s #1 male screen legend, despite being little known to Americans under 30. At the outset of the nation’s entry into World War II, Bogart played the charismatic expatriate club-owner Rick Blaine in Casablanca -- the #3 film on AFI’s all-time list – and his cynical nonchalance and reluctant heroism turned “Bogart” into the postwar man-for-all-seasons. The Bogart persona was a synthesis of two Hollywood types – the urban gangster and the Western outlaw -- but the stylistic difference was that, as Raymond Chandler once said, Bogart “could be tough without a gun.” Young women of the so-called “greatest generation” loved Bogart and young men wanted to be him. Bogart was recognized around the world as a new type and as a distinctly American character: the ethical rebel loner.
Bogart was cool: no one used the word then but it’s the term everyone reaches for now. In Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960), actor Jean Paul Belmondo gazes upon an 8x10 glossy photo of Bogart at his local theater as if asking the past for a path to the future. When “Belmondo” meditates on “Bogart” in this iconic cinematic moment, it raises three questions: Is it Humphrey Bogart (the person) who is cool or is it “Bogart” (the film persona) that is cool? What is the relationship between the individual, the image, and an artist’s signature style? Does cool stem from self-expression or is it a constructed pose – a stance, an attitude – that resonates with a given moment and succeeds due to the repetition, burnishing, and marketing of a manufactured image?
These questions are at the center of American culture yet what can we say about cool besides “I know it when I see it”? We are not referring to cool as it refers to the new thing or what’s in vogue: that kind of cool is marketed by the culture industries of film or TV or music and serves up the likes of Kim Kardashian or Justin Bieber. We are not referring to cool as either a superlative adjective for a stylish object -- a cool car or a cool guitar – or the obsessive search for the next big thing, “the cool hunt,” as Malcolm Gladwell calls it. We are not referring to “cool” as an exclamation of aesthetic approval – “cool!” – although it is significant that this phrase retains its value seventy years after its inception when similar terms have enjoyed only a generational half-life and died on the vine. (Consider: “swell,” “outasight,” “peachy-keen,” “funky fresh,” “da bomb.”) The singer Tony Bennett once defined cool as “charisma without trying”: it inheres to artists and public figures with seemingly otherworldly self-confidence.
Instead this exhibition is focused on one underlying question: What does it mean to say someone is cool? And, in addition, what does it mean for a generation to claim a certain figure as cool? What qualities does this person embody at that historical moment. Are certain elements of cool constant or is it in a constant state of generational change? Is cool a relaxed state of mind or a compelling mystery? Since cool is not only applicable to famous people – everyone can point to someone they think of as cool – then is being cool only possible by never trying to be cool? Is cool just about being comfortable in your own skin, regardless of specific qualities? Or is cool only available to certain people, as if it was inborn like a talent or a gift?
These questions coalesce around a strange truth: in a secular, democratic, consumer society, we still need figures to admire and dream upon as our social betters. Cool constitutes a set of cultural aristocrats. They are analogues for lost gods (think the ancient Greeks), lost monarchy (think England) or a lost aristocracy (think “high society”). Like all peoples, Americans once thought that high-born people or nobles or religious figures were inherently better than “us plain folk.” For most of us, that era is long gone. And yet, our cool figures are almost entirely working- and middle-class, signaling that the highest levels of influence are accessible to any American child born. Cool is a sign of cultural democracy that mediates the loss of aristocracy in modernity. So is it possible that cool is the outward sign of an inner grace for a secular society?
American Cool is a photography exhibit, a history exhibit, and a popular culture exhibit. In this exhibit, the charismatic self-possession germane to cool is rendered visible. As shot by a veritable who’s-who of art photographers of the past century, in each photo, American Cool is looking right back at you.
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In a given generation, cool figures emerge that embody new strategies of individuality for the cultural environment. A generation of youth feels the need for change and gropes towards it through new figures, through non-verbal gestures, through hidden transcripts. Until that moment, these aspirations are inchoate: when they take embodied form, we point at the person and say that’s so cool or she’s so cool or just “Cool!” Instantly, that figure is imitated then admired then emulated, through physical gestures and artistic expression, through style and fashion. Bogart was such a figure in 1942, just as Dylan and Muhammad Ali were such figures a generation later, and Madonna and Prince a generation after that. When James Dean first appeared on screen in East of Eden, he was the first teenager to fill the big screen with all the attendant tensions of adolescence. American teenagers of the mid-1950s flocked to see themselves represented in his tormented yearnings, his romantic brooding, his attempts to do the right thing.
A new icon of cool brings innovation and style to a field of endeavor: cool stands for a rebellious vision at first only received on the lower frequencies by youth culture or other artists. An icon of cool may transform an artistic genre (as Charlie Parker did in jazz or Lenny Bruce for comedy), or break new ground for excluded or marginalized groups through artistic innovation (as with Bruce Lee or Selena). Often such figures are transgressive and cultural authorities at first rail against them as delinquents, gangsters, or harlots, in other words, as signs of cultural degeneracy. Attacks of this kind were launched at Madonna, Ali, Parker, Brando, Elvis, Tupac, and long before them, Mae West, Jack Johnson, Louise Brooks, and Anita O’Day. History proves such cool artists to be nothing less than a cultural avant-garde.
Cool figures are the successful rebels of American culture. 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. The legendary jazz saxophonist Lester Young created and disseminated the modern usage of “cool” in the early 1940s and it had crossed over into hip circles by the early 1950s. For American Cool, we backdated the concept to reveal its existence before its modern usage. From its older use within the triad of “calm, cool, and collected,” Walt Whitman could even advise the readers of Leaves of Grass (1855),
And I say to any man or woman,
Let your soul stand cool and composed
before a million universes.
To be cool is to breach the frontier of tradition or consciousness: to be cool is to be someone who boldly goes where angels and fools fear to tread.
Here are a few men who have been dubbed “Mr. Cool” in magazine articles or on websites: Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Johnny Cash, James Dean, Paul Newman, Duke Ellington, Steve McQueen, John Travolta, Marvin Gaye, Barack Obama. With the exception of Obama, these men embody survival, strength, and sexual charisma, and each worked through a dark side either in life or in art (and often, in both). Each of these men has (or had) a signature style and bearing; each could be tough without a gun; each possessed (or projected) an inner ethical sense. Yet the fierce Romantic ethos of Miles Davis and Johnny Cash was at first a generational break from the suave elegance of Duke Ellington or Fred Astaire. Generations respond to different cool calls.
And yet it is rare to find an article, website, or blog post declaring anyone “Ms. Cool” -- along the lines of “21 reasons why Johnny Cash is cool” -- despite the plethora of cool women in this exhibit, from Dorothy Parker to Chrissie Hynde to Missy Elliott. This reveals three aspects of American cool: first, the presumed association between cool and American masculinity; second, the persistence of the double-standard where independent, sexually confident women are concerned; third, a cultural lag in attributing this supreme compliment to women.
To be cool is not to be nice or good or heroic: cool is the opposite of innocence or virtue. Cool has an edge and a dark side: to be cool is not to strive to be fabulous on the one hand (that’s a different sensibility) nor saintly on the other. To be cool is to exude the aura of something new and uncontainable. Cool is an earned form of individuality.
This exhibition is called American Cool. How and why is cool an American concept? First, new cool personae mostly trickle up through popular culture and American pop-culture has functioned as something of a global lingua franca for more than a century. Second, a set of conditions for generational cool are often forged at the intersection of youth culture, popular culture, and African-American culture, from swing to rock-and-roll to funk to hiphop, from language to dance to fashion to aesthetics. Third, cool is in large part an African-American concept. Black Americans invented the concepts of hip and cool – both traceable back to African concepts in many cultures – and the terms first crossed over from New York’s jazz culture in the late 1940s. For example, Ebony magazine ran a cover story, “Black Cool: The 25 Coolest Brothers of All Time,” in August 2009; it’s hard to imagine a comparable article for any other ethnic group.
Many scholars mistakenly equate American cool with similar concepts of stylish Stoicism, such as sprezzatura (Italian), sangfroid (French), or duende (Spanish). These concepts all derive from aristocratic detachment: the nonchalance of entitlement and ingrained social status and economic security. With few exceptions, icons of American cool were working- or middle-class, and built up mythic personae from scratch, talent, hard work, confidence and style. Here’s the difference. It’s easy to walk around as if you own the world if you do own the world – or a good piece of it. To have the composure to project “poise in a world where [one has] no authority,” as William Carlos Williams once wrote about Bert Williams -- now that is cool. The larger historical precedent for cool exists in West African aesthetic principles such as itutu, a Yoruba concept that translates to “mystic coolness” or “transcendental balance,” according to Robert Farris Thompson. Thompson found phrases such as “the ‘mask’ of coolness” in thirty-five West and Central African languages. For example, the Gola people of Liberia define cool as the “ability to be nonchalant at the right moment…[and] to reveal no emotion in situations where excitement and sentimentality are acceptable.”
There are also historical reasons for the emergence of American cool. On the one hand, the US was a rebellious colony born in revolution and thus lacking in traditional values; on the other, as a nation of immigrants, “America” is an arena of self-invention and self-creation by definition. Immigrants looking for how to be (and look) American often found it on the big screen and imitated stylish young actors. Hollywood is a dream factory and audiences pull its dreams down to try out new modes of being modern.
This exhibition is not our opinion of who’s cool. It can’t be, if we have done our jobs as cultural historians: cool is about reception as much as perception. A cool figure must attract a groundswell of attention during his or her lifetime and achieve critical mass soon after: these aspects are measurable through historical analysis. In addition, one person’s icon of cool is another’s corny hero. To the social radicals of the 1960s, John Wayne was the antithesis of urban cool rebellion and “the Duke” a symbol of arrogant (and even racist) patriotism. Yet for more than half the country, Duke Wayne was a bigger, Western frontier version of Bogart’s rebel ethical loner.
We created a historical rubric for cool and a given nominee had to pass the test. It has four central elements and every figure in the exhibit carries at least three:
- originality of artistic vision and especially of a signature style;
- cultural rebellion, or transgression in a given historical moment;
- iconicity, or a certain level of high-profile recognition…
- recognized cultural legacy.
There are also a few floating variables, more elusive but just as important. There is, as mentioned above, the quality of charismatic self-possession, an inexplicable synthesis of alluring strength and radical independence. There is the matter of mystery: the compelling luminosity of Louise Brooks on film, the fierce, steely inner pride of Malcolm X, the mercurial transmutations of Johnny Depp, the brutal sass of Zora Neale Hurston, the meditative melodic genius of Thelonious Monk, the coiled aesthetic imagination of Steve Jobs. Even after long study, such intensely American figures retain an inner complexity that remains opaque. Then there’s the matter of not giving a shit what people think of who you are or how you act. There’s no other way to say it.
For each cool icon, a certain triangulation of factors aligned in mysterious balance and the cultural calculus was sometimes more elusive and lyrical than mathematical. We excluded cult figures since they lacked high profile then and now, disqualifying the likes of Betty Page, Captain Beefheart, and Ani DiFranco. We invoked a “five-year rule” for figures whose cool cachet lasted under a decade and wound up placing such icons as Veronica Lake, Eddie Murphy, Clara Bow, and Joe Namath on the Alt-100 list. If we could not find a photo that captured a person’s cool, he or she was dropped. You have to be able to look cool sometime: to carry off the daily struggle of existence with style.
A new cool figure does cultural work and the communication of new generational strategies often comes first through style. It is a process of transgression, imitation, admiration, and emulation. There is a rip in the cultural fabric – the moment of transgression. There is an immediate move to imitate a voice, a gesture, a phrase, a stance. Then there is conscious admiration – an awareness that here’s someone who represents you (or your generation). Finally, there is emulation. Often enough, for an individual to focus on a new cultural figure reflects a personal desire for change, for a new image or emotional mode. Suddenly you can imagine how it might be to enjoy being in your own body, to confront your fears, to express passion and joy, to be overtly sexual, to be comfortable in your own skin.
It’s this simple: That’s who I want to be like. That's what I want to look like. That's what I want to feel like. That’s how I wish I could express myself. It is at first no more articulate than that.
Let’s take a specific example – Elvis -- to show how cool works in American culture over two generations. Elvis was an excellent rhythm-and-blues singer and even scored several hits on Billboard’s Rhythm and Blues charts – “the Black charts,” as they were known -- between 1954-1957. While living in Memphis, Elvis was encouraged by Howlin' Wolf and BB King; he shopped at Mr. B’s, the city’s premiere store for African-American fashion. In Memphis, Elvis absorbed the style and stagecraft of singers such as Jackie Wilson and Arthur Crudup, the man who wrote his first hit, "That's All Right, Mama." Elvis emulated their interpretive ability, vocal style, emotional communication, and sexualized stage presence, and created his own voice by mixing in country (or hillbilly) touches along with his admiration of Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. When Elvis first saw Crudup, he must have thought to himself something like, "that's the kind of singer I want to be.” Here are his exact words: “If I ever got to the place where I could feel all old Arthur [Crudup] felt, I'd be a music man like nobody ever saw." And as a white music man “like nobody ever saw,” Elvis gave Americans cultural permission to love African-American music.
To get an idea of Elvis’ impact in a still-segregated and racist American society, consider that the first time DJ Dewey Phillips played Elvis’ first single on WDIA in Memphis – it was Crudup’s “That’s All Right, Mama” -- the phone rang off the hook. The callers loved the song and they all asked the same question: "Is this a white singer or a colored singer?" Why did it matter? What they were really asking is this: "Am I allowed to like this song?" If he was White then a white listener could admire and imitate the song and the artist. But if he was Black, then white Memphis youth could not love it – or him – in the same way: they would be acting black; it meant they loved African-American art or music; it meant they wanted to admire or emulate an African-American. Such are the absurdities of a racist society. For the next few weeks, Memphis teenagers greeted each other with Elvis’ scat-singing from this song -- “dee dee-duh dee dee de-lee-dee” – as if it was a generational call to arms.
Up in New York City, Paul Simon first heard Elvis on the radio live from the Louisiana Hayride and it changed his life, his music, and his style.
“The announcer came on and said, 'Here's a guy who, when he appears on stage in the South, the girls scream and rush the stage.' Then he played 'That's All right, Mama' ... I thought for sure he was a Black guy.”
In response to Elvis, Paul Simon first changed his hairstyle, then his musical style, his stage persona, and even his clothes. “I grew my hair like him, imitated his stage act - once I went all over New York looking for a lavender shirt like the one he wore on one of his albums.” Simon’s musical style seems to have little in common with Elvis’ early rocking but that misses the point: Elvis was the rupture in the fabric. Bob Dylan set Elvis’ example at an even higher pitch: "When I first heard Elvis's voice, I just knew that I wasn't going to work for anybody and nobody was going to be my boss.... Hearing him for the first time was like busting out of jail."
Transgression, admiration, imitation, emulation: this is how the transference of charismatic pedagogy works. Cool is a major agent of cultural and generational shifts. And often enough, cultural rebellion precedes social change.
This exhibit is an attempt to provide a useful framework for an elusive cultural concept. Too many cultural observers have focused on what’s cool when the more important cultural pattern to explore in American history is who’s cool. “The key to coolhunting,” as Malcolm Gladwell learned, “is to look for cool people first and cool things later.”
As for the future of cool, it will continue to depend upon new cultural syntheses and generational needs. Missy Elliott boogies through a relaxed sonic cloud dispending ethical advice and sexual (and sonic) boasts, phantasgamoric blasts of a fierce womanist hiphop. Jon Stewart creates a canny mix of politics, satire, and goofiness shrouded in the corporate mask of a suit-and-tie to carry off a daily half-hour of dead-serious innovative journalism. Benicio Del Toro reads Walt Frazier’s Rockin' Steady: A Guide to Basketball and Cool at 15 in Puerto Rico, takes it seriously, synthesizes film noir with African-American culture, and manages to update the old-school half-lidded stoicism of Robert Mitchum into a Nuevo Latino street-charisma. It is out of such powerfully strange mixtures that new artists still pierce the pop fluff of the commercial culture industries.
Cool has a history and a framework, yet it is a sensibility that changes over time. Writers have wondered for the past generation: Is cool dead? The answer is no, not so long as Americans take the word and concept seriously.