NPG’s American Cool Exhibition – Victim of a Pop Culture Society

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Photo Credit: National Portrait Gallery

“American Cool”, the National Portrait Gallery of Art’s latest exhibition (which opened on February 7th 2014 and running until September 7th 2014) is a photographic collection of 100 iconic Americans, who epitomize the essence of this concept, “being cool”. The very notion of cool is quintessentially and fundamentally American, part of the United States’ deep cultural psyche, just like PB & J, Coca-Cola, Rock n’ Roll and Blue Jeans.  In an effort to quantify this fashionable and less tangible perception of cool, the show’s curators selected American idols based on their adherence to at least three of the following four criteria:

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 (lasting more than a decade)

And this is where the problems begin for “American Cool”. In principle, an exhibition dedicated to the celebration and exploration of a uniquely American concept, that shaped foreign views of this purely American aesthetic, does sound appealing from a variety of perspectives, either historically, artistically or culturally.  Unfortunately, the photographic lens offered by the exhibition fails to deliver and descends into the pitfalls of this glorified, societal interest and obsessiveness with celebrity culture.

Although specific parameters are defined when examining the concept of cool, the resulting definitions are equally subjective. I feel like this is another rendition of those VH1 specials from the early 2000s, counting down the best songs from the decades and of the century (you know, the greatest 100 songs from the 90s, 80s etc.). How could Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” be the best song in history?  After spending hours watching the countdown to number one, asking myself—was this worth it?  While exiting “American Cool”, I had a similar feeling. The main, central exhibition space, acting as the show’s atrium, entitled “The Legacy of Cool” features the photographs of modern America’s cool kids, including the likes of Tony Hawk, Steve Jobs, Madonna, Michael Jordan and Jon Stewart which set the tone for this adoration of celebrity, while throwing off one’s progression through the exhibition. The messaging and purpose of the exhibition is then lost on the viewer, and navigating the series of adjacent rooms further complicates matters because to fully comprehend the concept of American Cool, you have to start at the beginning.

There is no curatorial focus, the inclusion of too many photographs creates the feeling of a “who’s who” of the Hollywood elite. The result is an exhibition that is too mainstream – what does this show add to the art / photographic narrative or rhetoric? And, how does “American Cool” bring a new interpretation, a new discussion to better understand art and culture? Both answers, nothing really.

The show is an old Hollywood retrospective, further supported by the majority of black & white photographs (some of which are beautiful and captured by the talents of Annie Leibovitz, Diane Arbus and Henri Cartier-Besson). In addition to the subjectivity of those individuals included (I am a fan of both Susan Sarandon & Audrey Hepburn, but fail to see how either are the embodiment of cool), the curators are giving a 21st century treatment to a notion that has strong roots in America’s past.  Where are the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor or even Michael Jackson? “American Cool” rather than being an exhibition, its contents should have gone straight to the coffee table book.

Holly knows art.

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