Thursday, February 20, 2014

Cool cats in D.C.? Yes, in a museum -- Feb. 20, 2014 column


“You can’t fake true cool,” Bob Dylan said in his Chrysler Super Bowl commercial as a photo of James Dean flashed on the screen.

Dylan, selling cars at 72, and Dean, the “Rebel Without a Cause” actor who died in 1955 at the age of 24, are among 100 certified cool Americans in a new exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery.

The “American Cool” exhibit of mostly black-and-white portraits includes actors Lauren Bacall, Marlon Brando, Benicio Del Toro and Steve McQueen;  musicians Johnny Cash, Miles Davis, Jay-Z and Bonnie Raitt; writers James Baldwin, William Burroughs, Ernest Hemingway and Dorothy Parker; and athletes Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Jack Johnson and Michael Jordan. 

Not one president or elected official made the list, but if the Presidents Day throng of exhibit-goers was an indication, Washington is hungry for cool. It’s also possible, though, that the gray heads who were grooving to cool Marvin Gaye had given up on the long lines upstairs where, for one weekend, visitors could look at David Datuna’s “Portrait of America” through Google glass. There’s cool and then there’s new cool.  

I almost skipped the “American Cool” exhibit, thinking that once cool is enshrined in a museum it can’t be cool anymore. Plus, while I understand that museums need to attract visitors, I hate to see them pander.

The Newseum, for example, has been struggling financially for years despite thoughtful exhibits on such topics as Civil War journalism and JFK. Desperate last fall to recoup losses, it opened a major exhibit of 60 costumes, “hilarious props” and other paraphernalia from the 2004 movie “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” just before a movie sequel was released. Stay classy, Newseum? I think not.

But “American Cool,” through Sept. 7, manages to be entertaining and thought-provoking. The captivating images make us think about the elusive quality of cool. I watched as writer Joan Didion, leaning against the door of her Corvette Stingray in 1970, mesmerized three young women for several minutes.

Fred Astaire is there but not Ginger Rogers. The only entrepreneur is a young Steve Jobs, long-haired and bearded, riding a motorcycle, bareheaded.

My idea of cool runs more to George Catlin than George Carlin – but neither is in the exhibit.  

Fortunately for us, Catlin painted native Americans in the 1830s before their way of  life vanished forever. He gave up a successful business as a portrait painter in Philadelphia and headed west on several trips he paid for himself. Eighteen of his colorful portraits hang on a curved staircase in the Smithsonian’s Museum of American Art, which adjoins the portrait gallery.

It’s seems odd that Carlin, a comedian famous for his biting social commentary, didn’t make it, although Lenny Bruce did. Carlin won the Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor just a few days before he died in 2008.  

And Twain may be the father of modern American literature but he’s absent too – not because he pre-dates cool, a concept born in the jazzy 1940s. Walt Whitman and Frederick Douglass made it.

The exhibit is the product of five years’ work by two cultural historians with doctorates in American studies, Joel Dinerstein and Frank Goodyear III.

Dinerstein is director of the American Studies department at Tulane University, where he teaches a class in the history of cool. No, he tells students, he himself is not cool nor can he teach them how to be cool. Goodyear, a former photography curator at the portrait gallery, is co-director of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Maine.

To make the cool list, someone had to have three elements of these four: originality of artistic vision and of signature style; cultural rebellion in a given historical moment; “iconicity” or high-profile recognition, and a recognized cultural legacy.

And they needed something else: a great photo. Carlin met the other criteria but no suitable photo could be found. He appears on an Alt-100 list of runners up, along with Tony Bennett, Clark Gable, Jerry Garcia, Jack London, Norman Mailer and Janis Joplin.

No worries. When you’re truly cool, you don’t need to be in a museum.

©2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


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