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Posted on February 13, 2014

American CoolWhat makes someone cool? The curators of a new exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. had to grapple with this question, selecting from the museum’s hundreds of thousands of images, just 100 that embodied the charismatic nonchalance that captured the word’s meaning. The final result, “American Cool,” traces the birth of the word in the U.S. from the 1940s jazz scene through modern models of cool Jay-Z and Quentin Tarantino.

“Cool was originally all about African American culture,” says Joel Dinerstein, one of the curators of the exhibit and director of the New Orleans Center for the Gulf South at Tulane University, who has studied the cultural history of cool for almost 20 years.

This origin is illustrated with portraits of musicians like Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, and saxophonist Lester Young. Cool shifted in the 60s and 70s when the focus moved to the counterculture, nonconformity, and drug usage. From the 1980s to the present, “cool becomes commodified,” according to Dinerstein, as corporate America strove to associate its brands and products with celebrities thought of as cool.

To narrow down a list of hundreds of worthy subjects to just 100, the curators decided that each had to possess a series of characteristics, such as “charismatic self-possession,” and be considered a “successful rebel.”

“The term ‘cool’ is so ubiquitous today, that in some senses it has lost its meaning,” says Frank H. Goodyear III, former curator of photographs at the National Portrait Gallery, who co-curated the show. “We really wanted to understand from whence this persona and style emerged, and try to define what this term meant in an earlier generation or two.”

It was a tough choice to leave some individuals off, such as George Carlin and Jerry Garcia, who most would agree fit the word’s definition, but whom the curators decided could not quite make the cut. Of course, anyone cool who got cut from the list would surely be too laid back to be concerned.

Read the story in Rhapsody.

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