The thing about “cool” is that it shows itself equally in moments of distress or pleasure, driving people indifferently to greatness or stupidity. It comes from gritty streets and prices out the people who live there; it pulls couples together or cleaves them apart. And even as its meaning dissipates from overuse, you still can’t talk about Miles Davis without mentioning it.
Cool is, in short, a story about America, full of contradictions and unresolved riddles, a mask that often reveals more than the face beneath it.
You won’t find it preserved under glass at the Smithsonian – except that, ahem, it is now on display at the museum’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, in a parade of images that say a lot about how the nation sees itself when it pretends everybody is looking. They are also pretty cool. (Or, as the art historian Robert Farris Thompson categorizes in his essay “An Aesthetic of the Cool,” it’s a “metaphor of moral aesthetic accomplishment.”)