Weren’t we taught that starting with a dictionary definition of your subject is totally uncool? Or was that unscholarly, unprofessional? Joel Dinerstein and Frank Goodyear defy that classroom convention in their new book, American Cool, by taking a page from a jazz dictionary: automatic validation. The quote comes from A Jazz Lexicon, compiled in 1964 by Robert S Gold, and it is actually an inspiring start to this big book of cool, a complement to the National Portrait Gallery exhibition of the same name happening throughout most of this year:
Suggested review-reading listening:
American Cool kicks off with essays by the editors, Dinerstein tackling the history of cool’s social construction and Goodyear examining how photography is inextricable from that process. Their work is academic but accessible, with thoughtful but recognizable examples, in laid-back, informed prose. The straightforward essays are highly quotable on the subject of cool, and their writing will not only appeal to but also draw in a wide crowd. There’s a lot of fun swearing that happens (part of being cool is “not giving a shit” (15)), and the relaxed intentions fit the characters introduced. The authors come up with interesting quasi-definitions of cool (while acknowledging its indefinability), and make it clear that cool is not only relative person to person but also generationally, morally, and emotionally. John Wayne is one person’s cowboy hero and another’s hyper-traditional he-man.
For me, the text was overshadowed by an apparent assumption that their readership doesn’t have a strong grasp of the Civil Rights Movement in America, or by a fear that we still just don’t get how racist America was). Dinerstein especially spends a lot of time explaining the racial background and makeup of both the phenomenon of cool and the book; at times borderline apologetic and acknowledging the Burden. I don’t want to discourage this kind of positive revisionist history, but it sometimes read like American Studies over-compensation.
While not exactly disconnected from the subject, the authors’ otherness shows as they write platitudes like “Such are the absurdities of a racist society” and make funny word choices such as: “For all his achievements, [Frederick Douglass] remained a black man in a deeply prejudiced nation.” Dinerstein’s frustration with the rarity of the cool woman is somewhat neutralized by his description of Louise Brooks as “luminous” and Zora Neale Hurston as “sassy” (she’s black!), while their male counterpart Malcom X has fierce, steely pride and Thelonious Monk is a genius. (15) The grammatical authority exerted by capitalizing bell hooks’ name: would that have happened in an exhibition at or book from MoMA?
The outsider position isn’t necessarily detrimental; their distance allows the subject to continue to exist on its higher, unknowable plane; something we can write about, approach with logic, but maybe not really understand (which is what we like about coolness in the first place). There is other space for writing about/presenting cool in a cool way.
It is certainly an inclusive crowd filling the pages, but not a diverse one; the only cool Asian-American dude is Bruce Lee, and Selina is one of very few Latin-American persons celebrated. Dinerstein writes that black culture IS cool culture:
“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 hip-hop, from language to dance to fashion to aesthetics. …Cool is in large part an African American concept. Black Americans invented the concepts of hip and cool–both traceable to concepts in many African cultures–and the terms first crossed over from New York’s jazz culture in the late 1940s.” (13, italics in original)
The writing supports and introduces a set of striking photographs; one of the four main criteria for inclusion in this book was that the person was caught looking cool and photographed (the one exception is Walt Whitman, whose cool was etched after a daguerrotype). The visual record is necessary for an exhibition of portraits, but here is evidence that cool is so essential to certain humans that it can be captured on film–to say nothing of the photographer’s talents.
Dinerstein explains the selection process in his introduction:
“We created a historical rubric for cool*, and a given nominee had to pass the test. It has four central elements, and every figure here carries at least three: (1) originality of artistic vision and especially of a signature style; (2) cultural rebellion or transgression in a given historical moment; (3) iconicity, or a certain level of high-profile recognition; and (4) recognized cultural legacy.” (15)
Goodyear makes the case for photograph as the best means of capturing “cool”:
“Most basically, [photography] acts to mediate the public’s understanding of and engagement with these individuals. Photographic representations circulate more widely than those in any other medium. Like peepholes into another world, photographs make visible something special beyond our immediate grasp.” (44)
The photographs that follow are strictly American; they and their subjects exemplify the trickle-up, working-class cool that contrasted with aristocratic sprezzatura, sangfroid, and duende. Separated into four chronological sections, we examine the Roots of Cool (Before 1940), The Birth of Cool (1940-59), Cool & Counterculture (1960-79), and the Legacies of Cool (1980-present). Full-page portraits of various angles, poses, and viewpoints also constitute a history of photography, a medium which is itself considered cool, or something that cool people create.
Its past outsiderism as an art form adds to the cachet of the medium to capture and exhibit the elusive characteristic of cool. Many of the photographs are in the National Portrait Gallery collection, but the curators also loaned from collections both public and private, creating a very interesting visual mix. All but two of the 76 pictures taken pre-1980 are black and white. This makes for easier comparison and nice continuity in the book; I can only imagine the impact in the gallery.
Oh right: clothing. It’s here; each of these historical figures uses clothing to create a persona, a personality. Dinerstein and Goodyear included a sense of style–notably not a fashion sense–as the first necessary attribute for inclusion in their Top 100. Subcultures, the fermenting pots of cool, are often identified by their clothing; it is a Bourdieuvian exercise. Everyone can identify cool, but those in the know can quickly sniff out those who are just pretending. Those on the outside, on the other hand, often stereotype or iconify a group’s sartorial markers for easy identification (leather, sunglasses; fringe, love beads; skinny jeans).
Goodyear notes: “Cool has long had its own vernacular language, but it has also developed over time its own visual vocabulary as well. The manner in which an individual wears certain clothes, styles his or her hair, and adopts a particular accessory (e.g. cigarettes, sunglasses, motorcycles, leather) suggests an allegiance to a particular code or, conversely, a disavowal of convention. Likewise, one’s expression, posture, or action can also signal the nature of a person’s relationship with a larger audience. Hard to codify, endless in their variation, yet frequently imitated and subject to incessant change, these personas are not only photogenic but also important to one’s creative expression.” (45)
Dinerstein and Goodyear make use of clothing descriptions most often to describe black celebrities’ “defiance of racism,” such as Lester Young’s sunglasses at night and porkpie hat (coupled with “impenetrable personal slang”), Monk’s glasses and beret, or Fredrick Douglass:
In particular, [Douglass] sought a sense of dignity and refinement through formal dress most commonly associated at the time with white men of stature. In this self-fashioning, he proclaimed his independence and his equality and refuted racist assumptions about black masculinity. Yet Douglass’s appropriation of white fashion did not constitute a rejections of his own blackness. (43-44)
These quotations and ideas are very important to include in a volume on self-presentation, visual splendor, and the creation of cool, but for the knowledgeable researcher these statements may echo shallowly. There’s little about how Hank Williams used his cowboy hat, for comparison. That said, no one in the book is reduced to his or her wardrobe–not even Audrey Hepburn, whose film roles and work toward redefining womanhood come before Holly’s Givenchy dress.
Like the much-admired books collecting August Sander’s portraiture, this book would be a rich visual resource for fashion and costume designers. But outside of the exhibition, where the aura of the photographic work and the impressive gallery space create a certain experience, why buy a book like this instead of searching the troves of vintage celebrity photographs on the web? The essays, certainly, which loop nicely around the chosen photographs, and the curated nature of the selections as a group. There were only a few names that might be unfamiliar to the reader; it is the context and the whole that make this book engaging. To appease those whose favorite did not make the cut, there is an “Alt-100,” an appendix of runners-up.
For a comparison study, please refer to The Impossible Cool, a tumblr that collects photographs much like these in scrollable form. Many of the faces are the same, but the range is wider and obviously less “permanent.” Dinerstein suggests that their book is “not the last word on cool, but the first one: I see this as a recuperation of cool, an attempt to provide a useful framework for an elusive concept.” (19) If American cool had lost its punch as the authors suggest, I think they give us ample proof that it still exists, and will continue to thrive and myth-make through the increasingly eternal medium of photography.
Have you been to this exhibit, or do you plan to? Do you follow any blogs, tumblrs, etc with “vintage” photos of celebrities that you want to share? What does cool mean to you, and can it be found in photographs? Let us know below!
*said no one cool, ever.
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Buckland, Gail. Who Shot Rock and Roll: A Photographic History, 1955-Present. New York: Knopf, 2009.
Gladwell, Malcolm. “The Coolhunt.” The New Yorker, March 17, 1997.
Gold, Robert S. A Jazz Lexicon. New York: Knopf, 1964.
McAdams, Lewis. Birth of the Cool: Beat, Bebop, and the American Avant-Garde. New York: Free Press, 2001.
Pountain, Dick and David Robins. Cool Rules: Anatomy of an Attitude. London: Reaktion Books, 2000.
Stearns, Peter. American Cool: Constructing a Twentieth-Century Emotional Style. New York: NYU Press, 1994.