Smithsonian Explores ‘Cool’ From Whitman To Jay-Z

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Curators at the National Portrait Gallery want to know what it means to be cool.

It’s a uniquely American concept with roots in jazz slang that’s become a global obsession. Over the past five years, curators have chosen 100 photographs of people who helped define cool as a word for rebellion, self-expression, charisma, edge and mystery.

In a new exhibition opening Friday, that hard-to-define concept gets a scholarly treatment. “American Cool” traces the idea back to the “granddaddies of cool,” Walt Whitman and Frederick Douglass, and unfolds through the generations, leading to Jay-Z, Johnny Depp and Madonna.

It’s an exhibit about history, photography, race and gender. The 100 people who made the cut include musicians, actors, athletes, comedians, activists and writers with photographs by Richard Avedon, Annie Leibovitz and others.

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