New Orleans is a city that most people would describe as “cool.” But what is “cool,” and furthermore what makes a person or a place “cool"?
My former Tulane professor and award-winning author Joel Dinerstein answers this question as the co-curator and co-author of “American Cool,” an American Studies and photography exhibit opening at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery this Friday, Feb. 7, and running through Sept. 7.
Dinerstein has served as a consultant for popular music and jazz for Putomayo Records, HBO’s "Boardwalk Empire," the NEH and several university presses. He received the Student Body Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in 2005, is a jazz DJ on WWOZ-FM in and is currently finishing up a cultural history, The Origins of Cool in Postwar America (University of Chicago, 2015).
The following is an exclusive interview with my friend and extremely talented “cool” definer, Joel Dinerstein.
Tell me about “American Cool":
The exhibit and book represent inquiry into one question: "What do we mean when we say someone is cool?" We can all point to people – both public figures and those in our own lives – to which we attribute this supreme compliment. However, there has been little analysis of this key concept and how it works in American life. The three essays in the book present the analysis of the concept’s origins, shifting meanings and cultural work. The icons are the avatars of the concept. To be “American Cool” – in the sense of the exhibit – a person had to create an original persona in American life, one without precedent.
In short, the exhibit presents the successful cultural rebels of American culture over the past century. Cool always carries a social charge of rebellious self-expression, edge, charisma and mystery.
So what is “cool”?
Any discussion of what’s cool is superficial: “cool” is a synonym for what’s trending, what’s in-style or what’s in-vogue. We don’t need the concept of cool for that analysis of consumerism nor to recognize that we simply say “cool!” to mean, “I like that,” “I’m good with that.”
How many people did you include?
We chose 100 icons and 100 photographs: we call it the “Cool 100.” We also have an “Alt-100” list for those whom we struggled with longest and hardest.
What were the top three most important things that each person included had to have?
My co-curator (Frank Goodyear III) and I are cultural historians with doctorates in American Studies; this isn’t our personal list, but the result of study and discussion. I created a historical rubric to evaluate an icon’s cool within his or her time period. Here is the rubric as it appears in the exhibit catalogue, and each person included had to have at least three of these elements:
(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 …
(4) recognized cultural legacy.
It isn’t a mechanical analysis, however, and there was ultimately a lyrical involved in terms of our final selection.
Who was the closest call?
I plead the Fifth.
Who did you personally want to include but couldn’t and why?
I’ll give two examples: (1) actress Veronica Lake – she didn’t pass our “decade rule” (her cultural influence didn’t last longer than a decade); (2)-quarterback Joe Namath, who was certainly cool and transformed football and, as a Brooklyn kid, he was one of the cool avatars of my youth. Ultimately we rejected him due to the “decade rule” and partly due to his post-football career (as insubstantial and sometimes bizarre).
How long have you been working on this?
The exhibit took five solid years to bring to fruition. I have been writing, researching, lecturing, teaching and publishing on excavating the concept of cool for more than 20 years.
What does “being cool” mean to you?
It has a variety meanings and I’ll give two.
For the exhibit and at the level of popular culture, an icon of cool is a successful cultural rebel – that is, someone first viewed as controversial or transgressive (Madonna, Muhammad Ali, Elvis, Warhol) whose artistic vision becomes woven into mainstream American art and culture.
In everyday life, I follow the original meaning of Lester Young and the jazz musicians, who invented and disseminated the word and the concept as we now use it. Being cool means a certain stylish stoicism; it means you have the situation under control and in your own style. It means you’re self-aware and streetwise. Everyday life is an improvisation and it should be approached with a certain relaxed intensity: comfortable in your own skin, independent and ethical, you’re ready for anything the day might throw at you. This is close to the ethic of rollin’ with it in New Orleans: daily life is an improvisation; be ready for it.
What have you learned from curating this exhibit?
The world of museums and art exhibits was a new landscape and I learned a great deal about many things, from museum politics to the aesthetics of hanging a show. I had the advantage of working with and for the Smithsonian, which means you can borrow photographs from the Richard Avendon Foundation (e.g., the photos of Dylan and Jon Stewart) or the Robert Mapplethorpe estate (the photo of Deborah Harry). I am excited and proud that this exhibit has the imprimatur of the Smithsonian, which makes it (officially) a permanent part of American history and culture. This is only fair and historically right: being cool has been central to the American self-concept since at least the 1950s and these hundred figures were elevated by their generations as breakthrough cultural rebels.
What makes this exhibit important to New Orleans?
New Orleans has a civic ethic nearly synonymous with cool – cosmopolitan tolerance, improvisational style, rollin’ with it – in spite of our other endemic social problems. If tourists sought out, and brought home, this ethic as much as it does our food and music, this would be a better country. I would love to see a spin-off exhibit called “New Orleans Cool” – say, at the CAC – that would draw attention to the city’s representative figures as constituted by a New Orleans historical rubric. I can imagine a pantheon like the following (in no particular order): Dr. John, Irma Thomas, Tootie Montana, Wynton Marsalis, Wendell Pierce, Patricia Clarkson, Lil Wayne, Big Freedia, Peyton Manning (or Archie), Louis Prima, Allen Toussaint, Harry Connick Jr., Donald Harrison, Andrei Codrescu…
In addition, the ethos of cool is where New Orleans and the U.S. intersect. This is an exhibit that should be important to all Americans: cool is a unifying trope that cuts across race, gender, region and sexuality. Nearly every icon in the “Cool 100” comes from either the working- or middle-class.