National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.
hrough Sept. 7

“Parisians have chic, Italians have la dolce vita, and Americans will always have cool,” said William O’Connor in Jazz saxophonist Lester Young pioneered usage of the word in roughly the way we define it some 70 years later—as relaxed, unshakable self-possession. But this compelling photographic exhibition of 100 supposed exemplars of cool reminds us how elastic the term has become. “If you’re left fuming because the curators included somebody you can’t stand,” the show has probably done its job. No one’s going to complain about the inclusion of James Dean or Miles Davis, said Louis Jacobson in the Washington City Paper. But Susan Sontag seems “too academic” and Jon Stewart “too self-deprecatingly nebbishy.” Despite the curators’ claim that they’re not attempting to name the 100 coolest Americans ever, the honoree list will generate plenty of heated arguments.

The best arguments will focus on how cool has changed over time, said Philip Kennicott in The Washington Post. Other cultures have terms for effortless savoir faire, but cool was distinctly American because it was principally a middle- or lower-class attribute, and rooted in black culture. But “stylish stoicism” gave way in the 1950s and beyond to the outright rebelliousness of Marlon Brando’s biker in The Wild One. More recently, we’ve made personal wealth a prerequisite for our icons of cool, so that the show’s final section gives us the geek cool of Apple’s Steve Jobs and the entrepreneurial cool of rapper Jay Z and skateboarder Tony Hawk. There’s a “dark side of cool” never touched on—the “dumb, dismissive” attitude embodied by the phrase “too cool for school.” But the curators don’t go there. If you’re interested in cool’s unhealthy effects, you’ll have to tease them out yourself.