Aesthetic of the Cool

Dr. Robert Farris Thompson in conversation with Dr. Lowery Stokes Sims

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  • Robert Farris Thompson's Aesthetic of the Cool: Afro Atlantic Art and Music (2011)

  • Agbeke Asoko, Dancing with Crown of Eyinle. 6 July 1965, Ejileté, Nigeria.

  • Shrine Head, Ife, Nigeria (12th-14th century) Courtesy of The Minneapolis Institute of Arts

  • Mambo dancers, Palladium Ballroom, 1 January 1954, New York NY.
    Photo: Yael Joel / Life Magazine / Time & Life pictures / Getty images

  • Keith Haring
    Untitled, 1983
    © The Estate of Keith Haring, Deutsche Bank Collection

“If you don’t know by now, don’t mess with it,” Dr. Robert Farris Thompson stated at the start of his program at the Studio Museum two weeks ago –followed quickly by a spirited promise that he was, indeed, going to “mess with it.”

“It” being, of course, the topic of the evening: Afro-Atlantic art. Last Thursday the Studio Museum galleries were filled to the brim with guests, eager to hear from two of the most prestigious art historians of our time. On the occasion of the release of Dr. Thompson's Aesthetic of the Cool: Afro-Atlantic Art and Music, the author sat down with Dr. Lowery Stokes Sims, Curator at the Museum of Arts and Design, New York, and former Studio Museum President, to discuss his concept of the “cool” in Afro-Atlantic culture.

Dr. Robert Farris Thompson is a legendary figure in the field, famous for enlivening his lectures at Yale University where he has taught History of Art and African American Studies since 1965. With his speech pattern embodying as much rhythm and soul as the art he so passionately researches, Dr. Thompson projects an infectious dynamism that frames his erudite ideas as accessible and indeed entertaining. In aiding us to visualize his aesthetic theory of an Afro-Atlantic kind of cool, he quickly rejects the tempting images of sunglass-clad youths ubiquitous in Hollywood representations of glamour and nonchalance. Rather, he turns our attention to stylistic trends found in arts of the Yoruba, one of the largest ethnic groups in West Africa. In many Yoruba sculptures of heads a distinct formal aesthetic is conveyed through full, pursed lips and wide, calm eyes – these traits, Dr. Thompson explained, are facial embodiments of the cool.

Cool, in this sense, can represent a variety of ideas and symbols that are both traditional and evolving: stability, healing, peace, giving, and the list goes on. Moreover, we can find this kind of expression nearly everywhere, breaking the limits of geography and time so often imposed upon the cultural expressions of Africa and their influences. We can see the cool in the sculptural heads of kings from Benin, Nigeria; in Mambo dancers from Brazil; and in jazz musicians from Harlem. Dr. Thompson has been establishing this artistic and musical approach to the cool as an aesthetic philosophy for more than 40 years, and with his new book we may now finally access a comprehensive presentation of his writings both new and old—some of which were previously unpublished and many out-of-print.

The climactic highlight of the event was when Dr. Thompson brought to life the serenely dignified Nigerian woman gracing his book-cover. Along with a video from 1965 of Agbeke Asoko dancing with a sculptural crown of the deity Eyinle atop her head, Dr. Thompson provided impressive drumming to enhance the powerful energy of the moment. The Egbado Yoruba dancer balanced the terracotta sculpture with awe-inspiring grace; bound physically and spiritually to the god whom she mirrored wholly in facial expression, state of mind, and ultimately, coolness. As her arms undulated slowly yet forcefully, Dr. Thompson drummed with skill and vibrancy, gaining speed and exuberance to match the dancer’s subtle gestures and spellbinding movement. He proceeded to chant with passionate composure in both Nigerian dialects and English: “Balance in the name of God!” he proclaimed –and as we now know from his recurring assertions throughout the lecture, balance is definitely cool.

After this spirited display, Dr. Lowery Stokes Sims candidly conversed with Dr. Thompson, starting with a question perhaps on everyone’s mind: how did a white man from Texas come to love and research a culture so seemingly distant from his own? Afro-Atlantic studies were significantly more obscure when Dr. Thompson was a student—how did he eventually become one of the most prestigious scholars in the field, credited with establishing a new wave of African art discourse? Dr. Thompson attributes the source of his passion to the first time he ever heard Mambo while in Mexico City: his soul was filled with its vibrant rhythms and he became immediately determined to discover its origins. Indeed, he continued to devote his life to the serious study of Afro-Atlantic culture: he lived in Nigeria for many years to research Yoruba art history; traveled to Cuba, Haiti, Puerto Rico, and the Caribbean to gain a diasporic perspective; and both studied and taught at Yale University. Through these experiences Dr. Thompson established a new disciplinary approach to the arts of Africa that rejected the traditionalist anthropological study of objects framed as artifacts. Rather, he brought the diverse arts of the African diaspora to life by focusing on cultural context, exchange, and performance.

Dr. Thompson uses music and dance to enrich and contextualize the visual arts and create a diasporic dialogue between the past and present. Mambo serves as both the start of his own and a much larger story: a historical constellation of dance and expression. We can connect the shuffle and double shuffle in the ancient Kingdom of Kongo since the Middle Ages to dance steps popular in New York during the 1840s as documented by Charles Dickens, move-and-freeze Mambo sequences popular in the 1950s, the funk moves of James Brown in the 1970s, and finally, the hip-hop revolution today – where break dancing mirrors the shuffles and spin games of ancient Kongo, bringing us back full circle. Through connections like these, Dr. Thompson frames contemporary culture as a testament to tradition and evolution, empowering creative expression today and embracing it whole-heartedly. In his book you will find insightful musings on the how Afro-Atlantic culture has come to inspire contemporary artists: for Basquiat it was jazz; Betye Saar turned to African divination; the history of Harlem spoke to David Hammons; and in the exuberant dance moves of Keith Haring’s universal figures we can again derive a rich trajectory of influences, from the Kongo’s shuffle and double shuffle to the electric boogie and voguing.

This interest in contemporary cultural expression was put to test during the event’s concluding Q&A, when Dr. Thompson was asked where he stood on the popular debate over the implications of young people wearing baggy pants. Cultural icons such as Bill Cosby have notoriously come down on African American youths for wearing low saggy pants, associating the trend with a lack of respect and character. Yet rather than critiquing or pathologizing the act of wearing baggy pants, Dr. Thompson chooses to analyze and embrace its nuanced connotations – ultimately empowering rather than marginalizing the many young people who identify with this style. “I love sag,” he simply answered with a smile. Dr. Thompson then proceeded to offer a thoughtfully erudite response on how black style has been an expression of controlling the extremes throughout history: Harlem jazz musicians mastered the tightest of the tight with their slim-cuffed zoot suits, and now, he explained, Harlem hip hop artists turn to baggy pants to master the loosest of the loose.  Exhibiting his cultural savvy and creative open-mindedness, Dr. Thompson confirmed: “In hip hop loose is cool – that’s why you don’t tie your shoelaces.”

Dr. Robert Farris Thompson is Col. John Trumbull Professor in the History of Art Department at Yale University and has been a Ford Foundation Fellow. Since 1958, he has devoted his life to the serious study of the art history of the Afro-Atlantic world. His iconic books include Black Gods and Kings (1977), Flash of the Spirit (1983), and Tango: The Art History of Love (2006).

Dr. Lowery Stokes Sims is Curator at the Museum of Arts and Design, New York, and is the Studio Museum in Harlem’s former Executive Director, President, and Adjunct Curator for the permanent collection. Sims received her Ph.D. from the Graduate School at the City University of New York and was on the education and curatorial staff of the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1972-1999. She is a specialist in modern and contemporary art, specifically in the work of African, Cuban, Caribbean, and Native American artists.

Aesthetic of the Cool: Afro-Atlantic Art and Music is available at the Studio Museum Store.