Who is the Coolest American?

atkins-bookshelf-cultureJoel Dinerstein, an Associate Professor of American Civilization, is considered one of the coolest teacher among Tulane University students. For the past 15 years he has taught the very popular — and cool — multidisciplinary class “The History of Cool.” Dinerstein believes coolness is a distinctly American creation, originating in the world of jazz, during the rise of the civil rights movement. So how do you define cool? Dinerstein explains, “Cool is about cultural rebellion. A cool person, might have been seen as transgressive or rebellious, innovative and edgy in his or her time. They may also have been seen as threatening, like Elvis or Madonna… There’s an element of calmness, no matter how difficult the art you’re performing is, to be control of any situation with ease and style.” And the concept of coolness is not frivolous; Dinerstein adds: “In a given generation, cool figures emerge who embody new strategies of individuality for the cultural environment.” In essence, cool people are at the forefront of sweeping cultural change, rooted in rebellion. In an interview with the Washington Post, Dinerstein elaborates: [Most of the coolest Americans] are working or middle class. [Other similar ideas such as] sangfroid are all about disenfranchised aristocracy, people who were entitled, by their wealth or social status. They didn’t need to carve out space. They [had] it by virtue of their status. America is [all about] willed self-invention. You create an identity different from your parents. [We are] a nation of immigrants, people are not descended from any kind of social status. And it is worth stating: this is a nation born in revolution, a country [that has] always valued rebellion.” Now that’s really cool!

In 2014, Dinerstein collaborated with Frank Goodyear III, co-director of Bowdoin College Museum of Art, to curate the exhibit, “American Cool” at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. The exhibit features compelling portraits of the 100 coolest Americans. The curators had four criteria for inclusion, beyond the individual having a high-quality portrait: originality of artistic vision (especially of a signature style), cultural rebellion in a given moment in history, high level of recognition (iconicity), and recognized lasting cultural legacy (more than 10 years). The exhibit was accompanied by a beautifully produced catalog. Certainly an exhibit of this nature invites a spirited discussion about who is and who isn’t represented among the coolest Americans. The full list of the “American Cool” exhibit appears below. Let the debates begin.

The Roots of Cool
Fred Astaire
Bix Beiderbecke
Louise Brooks
James Cagney
Frederick Douglass
Greta Garbo
Ernest Hemingway
Zora Neale Hurston
Jack Johnson
Duke Kahanamoku
Buster Keaton
HL Mencken
Georgia O’Keeffe
Dorothy Parker
Bessie Smith
Willie “The Lion” Smith
Mae West
Walt Whitman
Bert Williams

The Birth of Cool
Lauren Bacall
James Baldwin
Humphrey Bogart
Marlon Brando
Lenny Bruce
William S Burroughs
Raymond Chandler
Gary Cooper
Miles Davis
James Dean
Duke Ellington
Dizzy Gillespie
Woody Guthrie
Audrey Hepburn
Billie Holiday
Jack Kerouac
Gene Krupa
Robert Mitchum
Thelonius Monk
Anita O’Day
Charlie Parker
Jackson Pollock
Elvis Presley
Frank Sinatra
Barbara Stanwyck
Muddy Waters
John Wayne
Hank Williams
Lester Young

Cool and the Counterculture
Muhammad Ali
James Brown
Jim Brown
Johnny Cash
Angela Davis
Joan Didion
Faye Dunaway
Bob Dylan
Clint Eastwood
Walt Frazier
Marvin Gaye
Deborah Harry
Jimi Hendrix
Bruce Lee
Steve McQueen
Bill Murray
Paul Newman
Jack Nicholson
Bonnie Raitt
Lou Reed
Carlos Santana
Patti Smith
Susan Sontag
Hunter S Thompson
John Travolta
Andy Warhol
Malcolm X
Frank Zappa

The Legacy of Cool
Afrika Bambaataa
Jean-Michel Basquiat
David Byrne
Kurt Cobain
Johnny Depp
Missy Elliott
Tony Hawk
Chrissie Hynde
Steve Jobs
Michael Jordan
Willie Nelson
Susan Sarandon
Tupac Shakur
Sam Shepard
Bruce Springsteen
Jon Stewart
Quentin Tarantino
Benicio del Toro
Tom Waits
Neil Young

Read related posts: The Most Admired People in the World
Teenages are Influenced by Exaggerated Stereotypes
How Famous Singers Got Their Names

For further reading: The Origins of Cool in Postwar America by Joel Dinerstein (2015)



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