From the National Portrait Gallery in Washington comes an exhibition on one of my favorite subjects: the cool. “American Cool” offers up its representative icons of cool in portraits by renowned photographers, such as Avedon, Arbus, and Henri-Cartier Bresson, who are sure to add to the alure of the exhibit, but that I don’t think necessarily give us their subjects at their – how shall I put it – coolest.
This Steve McQueen definitely does the trick.
Here is a companion Paul Newman, not part of the exhibit, atypically bearded.
According to the curators,
Cool carries a social charge of rebellious self-expression, charisma, edge and mystery.
Cool is an original American sensibility and remains a global obsession. In the early 1940s, legendary jazz saxophonist Lester Young brought this central African American concept into the modern vernacular. Cool became a password in bohemian life connoting a balanced state of mind, a dynamic mode of performance, and a certain stylish stoicism. A cool person has a situation under control, and with a signature style.
Speaking of Lester “Prez” Young:
Young may have been the daddy of jazz cool, but its epitome, of course, was Miles Davis
who gave us so many cool Milestones.
If you came of a certain age in the 1950s and were not a jazz man or woman, James Dean was probably the cool cat of your emulation or dreams.
Urban Dictionary tells us of cool that it is
American now global slang, 1950s-present
1) superior, desirable, worthy of approval
2) in or beyond the current style; in harmony with an ineffable sophistication
3) graceful despite pressure
4) relaxed, calm, low-key, mellow
6) trustworthy; not a narc
7) under self-control, despite appearances
9) above and beyond a situation
10) characterized by strange masteries and hidden resources
“Hey, be cool.”
“It’s okay, man, I’m cool.”
Even though cool walks the edge of transgression, according to Patricia Cohen of The New York Times,
Being cool embraces contradictions. It assumes authenticity and integrity, being comfortable in your own skin. Yet it is also the ultimate performance art, a posture created for the public and disseminated through media.
So someone as polished and non-transgressive as Fred Astaire was cool.
Djuna Barnes, dressed as “performance art, a posture created for the public,” was cool.
Lauren Bacall, even when – especially when – teaching someone how to whistle (“You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and — blow.”) was cool as a cucumber.
The Times’s Cohen tells us of the exhibit,
More unexpected is when “American Cool” reaches back to the 19th and early 20th century to recognize those who exemplified the ideal even before there was a word to describe it. Walt Whitman, a radical advocate of self-expression and equality, was the progenitor who created the conditions for cool to be born by exalting personal experience.
I have said that the soul is not more than the body,
And I have said that the body is not more than the soul;
And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s self is,
And whoever walks a furlong without sympathy, walks to his own funeral, drest in his shroud,
And I or you, pocketless of a dime, may purchase the pick of the earth,
And to glance with an eye, or show a bean in its pod, confounds the learning of all times,
And there is no trade or employment but the young man following it may become a hero,
And there is no object so soft but it makes a hub for the wheel’d universe,
And I say to any man or woman, Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes.
People wonder sometimes about the longevity of cool, why that word, unlike so many others after that pretended to expression of the same ineffable quality, has lasted and persists in its perfection for every time. I say that it is because while cool promises so much, it gives up, ultimately, nothing.
The essence of cool is in its root meaning, the absence of warmth. Warmth is open and emotional. It shows itself and consumes itself in heat. Cool remains hidden. It is contained. It is detached. (By the end of his career, Miles Davis was turning his back on the audience.) Cool is ironic, and irony, in its contradictory negation, is emblematic of all cool cultures. This: not this. While cool celebrities may become “hot,” the heat comes not from them, but from the burning of the public that desires them. The object of the public’s desire – the “cool” one – is like the exemplary black box, upon whose hidden mechanism is conjectured the reality-in-itself that is the nature of its workings. But black remains black. It absorbs the heat. It does not give it off. Cool people remain forever other, irreducible and apart, inexplicable. Cool is in and of itself. It is, as they say, what it is.