American Cool: From the Shadows to a Global Phonemenon

Originally appeared on Open Eye Gallery 21.04.2014

A term often dismissed as a superficial form of teen credence, the new exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery positions ‘cool’ instead as a significant indicator of shifts in generational desires, as youth attempts to rebel against the mainstream.

A rebelliousness that it articulated through signature style, dress and demeanour, photography plays a significant role in the concept of cool- one that requires witness in order to exist. Not only does it serve as a medium through which to capture the cool, it also helps in the creation and dissemination of era relevant expressions of cool via the iconicity of the celebrity.

Cool as its contemporary term of approval is traced to Lester Young, whose self-control, detached stage presence and impassive expression opposed the typical role of ‘the black entertainer’ in an oppressive, racist society. Cool was something that anybody could earn, even those on the fringes of society.

Perceiving the overbearing conformity of the ‘50’s McCarthy-era as a white equivalent to African-American oppression, artists of the Beat Generation helped disseminate jazz cool into a broader, countercultural milieu. Photographers Larry Keenen and Fred W. McDarrah, and even Allen Ginsberg himself, captured their bohemian lifestyles from within the ‘cool’ crowd. Images of their indifferent poses, unfazed gazes and air of sage authority serve as a visual catalogue of the cool aesthetic that following generations would come to revere. American cool Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery beat generation beat poets As a string of tough, stoic anti-heroes emerged from Hollywood, cool was transferred from the cultural shadows to the mainstream. Marlon Brando’s bad-boy, biker personae in The Wild One became the symbol of cool rebellion, his motorbike and leather jacket accessories that could be bought and used to create a cool identity.

The visual was, now more than ever, essential to understanding and replicating cool, with photography capturing its subtleties for others to emulate; the defiant tilt of a chin, the leather jacket slung over a shoulder, the cigarette poised at surly lips. American cool Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery marlon brando james dean hollywood cool The affluence of ‘60s Britain embraced this heightened consumerism in pursuit of cool, with Time magazine famously touting it as the world centre of style. Photographer David Bailey played a pivotal role in creating and capturing the city’s chic, fashion-centric cool, and the commercial success of his book Box of Pin-Ups reflects the public reverence of the celebrity’s image. The inclusion of the infamous East End Kray gangsters alongside the faces of Mick Jagger, Michael Cain and Jean Shrimpton added a sophisticated disregard of authority to style.

Across the country, Mods were ‘defining new ways of rebelling and putting Elvis and James Dean behind us’ (Pete Townsend), appropriating the insignia of conformity, the suit and tie, and associating it instead with brazen yet stylish rebellion. American cool Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery david bailey box of pin ups michael cain Mick Jagger Jean Shrimpton kray brothers gangsters American Cool - 4 There was a significant retelling of the cool aesthetic when, amidst the post-Watergate political turmoil and loss of faith in authority, cool itself was rejected as the youth positioned itself against the mainstream, valorising anything deemed ‘uncool.’ A feminised, angst-ridden expression of masculinity became idolised, as David Bowie and Freddie Mercury took the stage, while female artists were able to re-evaluate notions of femininity.

Yet rather than eradicating it, this rebellious dismissal of cool served only to restructure its rubric, finding a covert coolness in being uncool and allowing its return into the public discourse. American Cool smithsonian National Portrait Gallery cool female blondie debbie harry cool American Cool reveals the inherent transience of a concept so universally acclaimed. Even the raw ugliness of punk rebellion was eventually transcribed into a profitable cool that anybody could buy, reduced to a prudently gelled Mohawk and Doc Marten boots.

The attempted renegotiation of a youth yearning to express an individuality is thwarted repeatedly, as the rebel in all of its forms is capitalised on and reconfigured into a lucrative consumer. Today, when all forms of cool rebelliousness seem to have been expressed and appropriated into mainstream, Hipsters express a vapid amalgamation of them all, with only the disdain of anything popular to unite them.

Today’s cool can no longer cultivate any cultural or political affiliations with which to define itself, as trends are snapped up, shared and duplicated within seconds across the Internet. Cool is perhaps a concept doomed to fail – grounded on a group identity that ironically positions itself around radical individualism. It is perhaps only able to exist as a romanticised memorabilia of the past.

While photography is essential in documenting it for future generations, it is perhaps itself a source of cool’s inability to survive – reducing cool to a single image that allows people to believe they too can possess it with a jingle of their purse.

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