The adulatory use of the word “cool” is often credited to Lester Young, the tenor sax man, but the provenance is somewhat murky. Less uncertain, however, is that the term, no matter its definition, is a description many seek: from celebrities posturing on screen and in print to the rest of us strategically oversharing everything from our musical tastes to the contents of our breakfast via Facebook and various other social media platforms that end with the letter “r.” The quest for cool is an ongoing and noxious obsession.
So you can’t really blame the National Portrait Gallery for its latest exhibit. On the second floor of Washington’s Old Patent Office Building, the word “cool,” brought to life by blue neon, beckons visitors to this glittering pictorial gathering of America’s 100 greatest antiheroes.
You might ask: What, exactly, constitutes coolness, and how does one quantify it? Is it not an entirely relative and personal matter? After all, even the oft-maligned melon-smasher Gallagher has a devoted following. Enter Joel Dinerstein and Frank H. Goodyear III, the show’s curators, who have embraced the difficult task of figuring out just who are the coolest 100 Americans of all time. To accomplish this, they asked that candidates possess an original artistic vision, be instantly recognized by the masses, leave behind a “recognized cultural legacy,” and flash the proper amount of rebellion. Add these up and, as we will see, only entertainers are capable of high-level coolness: Jonas Salk, for example, and Chuck Yeager are not cool. In any case, one gets the drift that the rebellion quotient was paramount in the selection process. “This is a nation born in revolution, a country [that has] always valued rebellion,” Dinerstein explained to the Washington Post earlier this year.
From George Washington to Susan Sarandon, we’re a nation of rebels.
Accordingly, a visit to “American Cool” can charitably be described as akin to a stroll through a three-dimensional copy of Rolling Stone, complete with echoes of that magazine’s politics. Here’s Johnny Cash, the Zeus of country music, a man who knew of “the rocky quest for redemption as walked by the fallen and disenfranchised,” posing pensively in front of Folsom Prison. And there’s Willie Nelson, that “tireless advocate for marijuana legalization.” (No mention of the Taco Bell commercials the pair cut back in the 1990s.)
Bruce Springsteen, the blue-collar bard who “considers his art a job of social leadership,” isn’t far away, looking typically earnest. A portrait of Jon Stewart, known for his “even-handed interviewing style,” is down the hall, looking typically smug. The rocker and the satirist also share the invaluable ability to transform from social commentator to entertainer when effectively challenged on their opinions.
Elsewhere we find the usual timeless icons (Brando, Bogart, Dean) and the expected lineup of acclaimed boozers (Burroughs, Thompson, Pollock), a millionaire hip-hop mogul (Jay-Z, “the synthesis of American culture’s love of outlaws who live in opposition to cultural approval”), a pop diva (Madonna, “an early activist for gay rights”), lots of other New Yorkers (Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, David Byrne), and at least one Communist (Angela Davis, whose “afro is an example of cultural politics through style”).
The inane labels underscore this exhibit’s most significant flaw: Whatever you think of the subjects, it’s undeniable that many of the photographs are striking; but the visitor learns almost nothing about the portraits themselves or the artists who created them. Instead, we are treated to the idols’ cool narratives, which alternate between prosaic, as we have seen, and ridiculous (Missy Elliott: “In her phantasmagoric videos, Elliott dances coolly in space in colorful jumpsuits”) and panting (Chrissie Hynde: “In leather jacket or muscle shirt, holding her Fender Telecaster lightly, Hynde sings out from under dark bangs and darker eye makeup”).
Sure, this may captivate some, but short of investing in the catalogue ($49.95), visitors are on their own when it comes to ferreting out the facts behind the portraits. And given that this is the National Portrait Gallery, that is unfortunate.