“Deborah Harry,” 1978
“Deborah Harry,” 1978

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Leave it to the Smithsonian to divine the inscrutable notion of “cool” through the use of a mathematical equation.

The opening manifesto of the National Portrait Gallery’s “American Cool” says, preemptively, that “this exhibit does not reflect our opinion of who’s cool.” It spells out that each subject was picked according to a “historical rubric,” and whether they possessed “at least three elements of the singular American self-concept,” including: “an original artistic vision carried off with signature style,” “cultural rebellion or transgression for a given generation,” “iconic power, or instant visual recognition, and/or “a recognized cultural legacy.”

OK, then. Wouldn’t it be nice if all epistemological riddles could be solved so neatly?

Such needling shouldn’t suggest that I think the exhibit is a failure, just overly self-conscious. It needn’t be. Sure, some of the honorees feel like stretches; Susan Sontag seems too academic, Jon Stewart too self-deprecatingly nebbishy, H.L. Mencken too curmudgeonly. And does anyone living today really know whether Frederick Douglass or Walt Whitman—two of the exhibit’s more eccentric choices—channeled proto-hipsterism?

That said, the final roster of 100 “cool” Americans seems like a reasonable effort, especially since any such attempt is bound to inspire heated arguments of the Babe Ruth-vs.-Hank Aaron variety. (For the record, neither home run king is included.) Of course, any exhibit focusing on “cool” is going to be heavily weighted toward pop culture icons—choices that make the exhibit seem a little too enthralled by celebrity.

When you crunch the numbers, it appears that the fast track to coolness runs through the movies and especially the music industry, followed by athletes, writers, artists, and comedians. The biggest recent outlier in the exhibit is Steve Jobs, shown bearded and riding a motorcycle in 1981 rather than in his turtleneck phase. Interestingly, politicians like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama don’t make the cut.

The depth chart of 1950s cool runs longest: a smoldering James Dean; Elvis Presley, shown reaching out to members of the audience in a 1956 concert; a contemplative Frank Sinatra in front of a hung microphone; and jazzmen like Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie.

The pre-1950s choices are less convincing, though temporal distance may partially explain that. Could you pick Gene Krupa out of a lineup? Have you even heard of Bert Williams or Bix Beiderbecke? (The former was a pioneering black comedian who died in 1922, the latter a pioneering white jazz musician who died in 1931.) That far back, even familiar names look unfamiliar: A 1937 image of John Wayne in a tweed suit, with his hair slicked back, is almost unrecognizable.

An unsung element of the show is the wall captions, which uphold the Portrait Gallery’s high standards of economy and intelligence in giving the gist of a subject—no easy task when they run the gamut from Mae West and Duke Kahanamoku to Debbie Harry and Tupac Shakur. (Keep an eye out for the rare use of an uncensored “shit” on the gallery’s walls, in the caption for Jean-Michel Basquiat.)

Ultimately, the key lesson of the exhibit is that when celebrity and artistry collide, celebrity wins. A handful of celebrated photographers are shown, especially dating from the mid-1960s: Bruce Davidson (photographing Andy Warhol), Richard Avedon (Bob Dylan), and Diane Arbus (James Brown). But these are hardly the artists’ best images, and many behind the camera are lesser-known.

To their credit, a few of these less-famous photographers produced inspired work, such as William Claxton’s edgy portrait of Steve McQueen speeding along in a convertible; Julian Wasser’s photograph of Joan Didion, which emphasizes her diminutive size by placing her at the tail end of a white Stingray; Thomas Hoepker’s image of Muhammad Ali on the New York City waterfront, shoving a fist in the camera lens. Especially inventive is Martin Schoeller’s 1999 image of Tony Hawk skateboarding off a kitchen table, with the family members in the room inexplicably unruffled.

Mostly, though, photographic artistry fades far into the background. Where America’s cool royalty is concerned, a person’s image is constructed through the accretion of countless individual photographs published in the news media and in examples of artistic self-exploration. Ultimately, it is not the portrait that matters, but rather the image in our own minds.