Tulane Professor Joel Dinerstein starts every class he teaches on the history of cool with two disclaimers. The first is that he's not cool. The second is that he can't teach his students to be.
"I go by the Woody Allen tenet," he says. "If you can't do, teach. I teach cool, I can't be cool." Cool, he adds, has to be conferred on you by others. "If you think you're cool, then it's almost certain that you're not."
Dinerstein has been studying what makes a person cool since the 90's, and he's the co-curator of a new exhibit on the subject at the National Portrait Gallery that opened last Friday, aptly titled "American Cool." He's also the co-author of a new book by the same name, and will discuss theories of cool and sign books Friday at 6 p.m. at Maple Street Book Shop.
The exhibit and the book feature 100 American icons from Frederick Douglass to Madonna, umbrellaed under a carefully constructed rubric of what makes someone cool. A cool person is a rebel, someone who successfully challenges the status quo to move from threat to mainstream, but the word first entered the American vernacular in 1940, when Lester Young used it to describe a relaxed, calm vibe. "Every person in his generation said Lester Young was the only person who said 'I'm cool,' 'you're cool,'" explains Dinerstein. "Jack Kerouac worshipped Lester Young, and suddenly the word crossed over to the Beats."
Dinerstein and his co-curator, Bowdoin Professor Frank H. Goodyear III, narrowed down a list and selected pictures that depicted their subjects in cool ways. The accessibility of a cool picture of someone was a make it or break it tool for curating the list. George Carlin, Dinerstein says, fit all the criteria of cool, but he was shuffled off because he looks like a goofball in every single photo. He doesn't have the effortless ease of Bob Dylan, say, or Jay-Z.
Cool, Dinerstein says, is a quintessentially American notion. "We're a country born in revolution, we've always valued rebellion more than any other country," he says. In the 60's and 70's, being cool was more important than being rich. And for adolescents all over the country, the elusive idea of coolness is still something to ambiguously strive for.
"Who you think is cool might be different from who your best friend is," says Dinerstein. "People show up and generations choose them as their representational figures."
Who might this generation choose? Dinerstein makes his bet clear: Bieber out, Jennifer Lawrence in. "I would bet the farm on Jennifer Lawrence being cool 40 years from now."