From the Editor
by Claire Ruud
When I say Birth of the Cool, do you think modish mid-century art and design or sleek large-scale portraits of African-American sitters by Barkley L. Hendricks? Two exhibitions by the same title coincided this year: Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design and Culture at Midcentury (at The Blanton through May 17) and Barkley Hendricks: Birth of the Cool (closed March 15 at the Studio Museum and traveling). This incident reinforced my misgivings about the art and design exhibition at the Blanton. Racial politics and nostalgia are at issue here, and no one wants to go there.
At the Blanton, Miles Davis’s tunes drift through the space, amping up the “coolness factor” of the hard edged paintings and chic furniture decorating the gallery. The work of Anglo-American painters and designers gains cultural capital through association with an African American musician. In the 50s, that’s what was happening. Black musicians were becoming increasingly mainstream, and through consumption of this music, white people could appropriate their coolness.
Many of the exhibition’s reviewers have alluded to the racial politics of the 50s by mentioning what immediately followed it: the civil rights movement. Willard Spiegleman put it best in the Wall Street Journal when he explained, “The show leaves the impression that one synonym for ‘cool’ is neither ‘hip,’ nor ‘sleekly rational,’ nor ‘laid-back.’ It is, unexpectedly, ‘innocent.’ The '50s died officially on Nov. 22, 1963 … Still, the postwar generation had hopefulness, too often mistaken by cultural historians for conformity and repression.” According to this argument, we didn’t know any better in the 50s, and we grew up a lot over the second half of the century. Spiegleman concludes, “When we look at the pictures … we might say to ourselves ‘how young they all are.’”
Spiegleman’s words express wistful nostalgia for the coolness of the 50s, the “recklessness, abandon, sang-froid, talent” of its cultural producers. He has a point: where has that hopefulness gone? How can we recapture it?
But this wistfulness also seems dangerous. Reading about the “death” of cool in review after review, a worrisome subtext came through. Civil rights movements “swallowed up” the energy of the 50s, as one reviewer put it. In aggregate, these reviews seem to blame the loss on struggles for equality (and peace). Ken Johnson wrote of the exhibition in the New York Times, “It’s hard to imagine the stars lining up for a rebirth of the cool, but if there is a heaven, I bet it’s a pretty cool place.” It sounds so pretty and simple. But would it be?
Who doesn’t love a mid-century couch? Our nostalgia for the 50s isn’t wrong it just needs to be complicated. When she reviewed it for …might be good, Katie Geha described Birth of the Cool as capturing “a mid-century mentality of comforting (frightening?) simplicity.” Yes, frightening.
In this issue, Dan Boehl’s review of Kehinde Wiley’s show at Artpace San Antonio suggests that the racially loaded appropriation of coolness is still at issue in contemporary American culture. The market, of course, plays a large part here. What are we marketing, to whom and how? Eric Zimmerman’s review of Boris Groys’s Art Power suggests that art and capitalism have become overly codependent, and begs the question, how can we establish new platforms for discourse and judgment? Paddy Johnson of Art Fag City instills hope for this project in her interview, suggesting that the economic downturn has, in fact, opened up space for discourse apart from the market. At the same time, Dave Bryant reminds us that we continue to depend on the market when he importunes, “That is an open invitation, money, if you are listening. Come on over for a visit.” The trick is—and I’m not saying this is easy—simultaneously acknowledging our participation in the market and straining to work beyond it.
The rumblings that we’re in some sort of post-identity era may have partly enabled the racial undertones of Birth of the Cool to go so unscrutinized. We still have work to do, and Laura Lindenberger’s review of Phantom Sightings and an Artist’s Space with Mequitta Ahuja demonstrate that artists are still dealing with the legacy of identity politics in a complex, productive way.
Two weeks from now, look forward to our next issue, including a review of Erick Michaud at Art Palace and a roundtable with Leah Ollman and our staff writers on art criticism in Austin.
Claire Ruud is Editor of ...might be good and Associate Coordinator of testsite.