The most un-cool Washington museum has long been the National Portrait Gallery. It’s not on the National Mall. It had neither a Wright Brothers airplane nor or a space capsule, neither the star-spangled banner that inspired Francis Scott Key nor Dorothy’s ruby slippers. But all those sedate portraits of American presidents and bearded late-19th-century industrialists had gravitas.
This summer, though, the National Portrait Gallery has succumbed: Its big exhibit is about (in the words of its publicists) “coolness … a rebel sensibility suggesting that an individual’s importance could be registered only through self-expression and the creation of a signature style. … Using drugs such as marijuana or even LSD was an indicator of risk taking and expanding one’s consciousness. … The same was true of sexual exploration, social protest, and ethnic politics.”
On Tuesday I stopped at Gallery Place and surveyed the official view of cool. I understood the reasoning behind some of the designees: Fred Astaire, Audrey Hepburn, Steve McQueen, Willie Nelson, Sam Shepard. But does Communism (Angela Davis) make you cool, and is dying young (James Dean, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Tupac Shakur) a help? Can a pastor be cool? (No, judging from the exhibit.) But look for yourself at the selection list.
The photographs of this temporary exhibit are viewable until Sept. 7, at which point the National Portrait Gallery will revert to its uncool legacy. The permanent exhibit of presidential portraits remains, and three Civil War exhibits—Grant/Lee, Lincoln’s Washington, and Mathew Brady’s portraits of Union generals—will be viewable through next May. I think Lee was cool.