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Book Review: The Cute

Published onJun 19, 2023
Book Review: The Cute

Sianne Ngai, ed. The Cute. Whitechapel Documents of Contemporary Art. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2022. 240 pages.

On a sunny Wednesday afternoon, a friend of mine and I were taking a stroll on the Ohio State University campus. As we enjoyed the lovely weather, we ran into a man wearing a black sweater, on which an image of Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara’s well-known, child-like figure was printed. Seeing the reproduction of Nara’s figure, I immediately turned to my friend and said: “Aww, how cute!” At that moment, I was simply unable to go beyond this expression as if I lost the ability to articulate my thoughts. I was overwhelmed by cuteness.

My encounter aptly captures the overwhelming aspect of cuteness—an aesthetic category that has recently been examined in The Cute—an anthology edited by the literary scholar Sianne Ngai. From Ugly Feelings, and Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting to Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgment and Capitalist Form, Ngai has established herself as one of the most formidable voices in the studies of “minor” feelings and unprestigious aesthetic categories.1 The Cute is one of the latest volumes in the Documents of Contemporary Art series co-published by Whitechapel Gallery and MIT Press. The book joins two previous editions, The Sublime and Beauty, focusing on aesthetic categories, but diverges from those two with its interest in a philosophically and morally minor one.2 As Ngai argues, “Cute is in fact an aesthetic ‘of’ or ‘about’ minorness - or what is generally perceived to be diminutive, subordinate, trivial, and above all, unthreatening” (12). However, the volume complicates this general assumption and contends that the cute has great social and political potency.

Drawing texts from various disciplines and fields, such as art history, area studies, biology, comparative literature, disability studies, and queer theory, Ngai presents a panoramic view of the cute in fine art and popular culture. Although the aestheticization of cuteness often showcases a set of common formal traits like smallness, simplified facial features, roundedness, and soft contour (from Mickey Mouse to Nara’s figures), Ngai invites readers to consider how cuteness and its entanglement with agency and politics, such as sexism, racism, and capitalism, can be ambivalent in nature. The first section, “Theses on Cuteness,” including essays by writers and scholars like Frances Richard, John Morreall, Daniel Harris, and Ngai, suggests that the cute, which is associated with “the schema of small/gentle/innocent/inviting,” often oscillates between power and powerlessness, attraction and repulsion, and affection and violence (32). As Harris argues:

Cuteness, in short, is not something we find in our children but something we do to them. Because it aestheticises unhappiness, helplessness and deformity, it almost always involves an act of sadism on the part of its creator, who makes an unconscious attempt to maim, hobble and embarrass the thing he seeks to idolise… (41).

Although the cute is subjected to infantilization, deformation, and violence, it, in fact, controls the viewer. As we enjoy cuteness, our language is softened and deformed (for example, the expression of “aww”); to quote Ngai, this has a “deverbalizing effect” (51). At the same time, Lori Merish and Harris point out that the cute has historically been racialized and othered, two issues that the third chapter addresses.

In “Para- and Proto-Cuteness,” Ngai selects writings about aesthetic traditions that are precursors and adjacent to the cute. Readers find excerpts from critical texts like William Ian Miller’s “Anatomy of Disgust” (1998), Roland Barthes’ “‘Adorable!’, Compassion, and Tenderness” (1978), Carrie Rickey’s “Naive Nouveau and Its Malcontents” (1980), and Friedrich Schiller’s “On Naive and Sentimental Poetry” (1796). These texts discuss aesthetic categories from the simple, the grotesque, the naive to the sentimental, which can be considered “minor.” The ambivalent nature of cuteness is similarly seen in the discussion of disgust/contempt and its relationship with love. As Miller states, “Not only are love and contempt not antithetical but certain loves seem to be necessarily intermingled with contempt” (64). Meanwhile, Barthes’ analysis of the adorable vis-à-vis deverbalization (“adorable!”) dovetails Ngai’s reading of cuteness.

The book’s next two sections, “Social Differentiation and Belonging” and “The Machine and the Commodity,” are interdisciplinary and expansive. They provide a critical look at how cuteness has been sexualized, racialized, and commodified but also been utilized by some contemporary artists as a technique to deliver activist potential, focusing on the art of Nara, Andy Warhol, Kara Walker, and Mika Rottenberg. Marilyn Ivy reflects on how Nara invited audiences/fans to create their own stuffed doll-toys of his figures and argues that the artist uses the toys, which are an index of the transience of childhood, abandonment, loneliness, as a device to form community, primarily consisting of shōjo (“young girl” in Japanese) and post-shōjo girls and women. Most importantly, for Ivy, “What might seem to be an aestheticisation of the (potentially) political - the cutification of the raw sentiments of rebellion and dissatisfaction among capitalist youth - is here changed into a version of the politicisation of the aesthetic…” (113). Indeed, as suggested by Ivy and many other scholars in this book, cuteness is integrated to global capitalist production and consumption. Observing Rottenberg’s video artworks from Mary’s Cherries (2004) to Cosmic Generator (2017), in which virtual spaces are filled with cute commodities, Hsuan L. Hsu and Julia Bryan-Wilson raise the awareness as to how production and (gendered) labor are closely connected to the aesthetic experience of cuteness.

The Cute’s final chapter, “Our Endless Cutemporary,” surveys how cuteness can help us better understand the “contemporary” and “present” when facing displacement caused by environmental disasters, global warming, and the Covid-19 pandemic. It includes excerpts from texts like Jennifer Doyle’s “Introduction to Difficulty” (2013), Ian Bogost’s “The Quiet Revolution of Animal Crossing” (2020), and Lewis Gordon’s “Disaster Aesthetics: How COVID-19 Made the World ‘Cute’” (2020). This chapter ends with Angelik Vizcarrondo-Laboy’s art criticism, “Seriously Cute: Six Artists Harnessing the Power Dichotomy of Cuteness” (2020). Examining six young American artists, such as Diana Yesenia Alvarado, Narumi Nekpenekpen, and Cristina Tufiño, who use cuteness as a subversive strategy to process personal experiences (childhood memories and vulnerability) and act against racism and sexism, Vizcarrondo-Laboy states, “…cuteness is not a way out of the complicated sociopolitical climate we are living in, but rather a path through it. The next time you encounter the tender gaze of cuteness, dare to discover if there is more than meets the eye” (229).

In recent years, one cannot help but notice the rise of exhibitions taking the cue from the aesthetic of cuteness.3 As viewers look at if not indulge in works that are seemingly cute, however, it seems that the significance of cuteness as a minor aesthetic category and its historical roots in racism, sexualization, and ableism have been gradually forgotten. In light of this blooming visual phenomenon and a trend of uncritical acceptance, The Cute asks its readers to engage with cuteness rather than being easily numbed by its overwhelming power. With Ngai’s careful organization of diverse perspectives, this anthology presents a good collection of divergent interpretations of a historically overlooked aesthetic category, inviting readers to reflect on cuteness and its social and political potency in contemporary art.

As readers zoom out from this anthology, it is, perhaps, important to note the multi-regional origins and manifestations of the cute alluded by Ngai. Differing from the aesthetic categories of “beauty” or “sublime” as mentioned earlier, which are often intertwined with Eurocentrism, cuteness challenges this paradigm. Yet, it is still noticeable that most of the artists included in this book are active in the West. Considering this somewhat unbalanced selection of Western artists and cultural symbols (Mickey Mouse) of cuteness vis-à-vis scholarly articles and art critiques, one quibble is that there is no writing that directly engages with non-Western popular culture.4 The omission of the texts touching upon non-Western, cute objects deserves a future endeavor. However, the intersection of femininity and the embrace of kawaii (“cute” and “adorable” in Japanese) as pointed out by this anthology is salient in Japan. Considering the discriminatory legacy of cuteness and its linguistic power in a Euro-American context, it is worth mentioning that some linguists have argued that in a Japanese context, kawaii—both the verbal and non-verbal forms—has regularly been used to make assessments (praise and compliments) of children in an effort to foster positive politeness and social communities.5 From a non-Western perspective, this sociolinguistic analysis of kawaii may expand Ngai’s proposed theses on cuteness while heralding those writings that examine social belonging in the third section of this anthology (for example, the excerpt from Ivy’s essay as mentioned previously).

Although The Cute primarily focuses on the artists and contemporary art of the West, it is admirable that Ngai has brought her expertise into assembling a right mix of texts for diverse audiences, who are interested in learning the “minor” but now dominant aesthetic category. As manifested in the selection of texts in this anthology, it serves as a sensible reminder, aptly asking readers to reassess the predominately popular welcome of cuteness. Academics from various disciplines, such as philosophy, art history, East Asian studies, gender and sexuality studies, media studies, and literary criticism, may find The Cute to be a helpful teaching resource. At the same time, because of the rising trend of curating cuteness and the daily consumption of cute objects from stationery to Animal Crossing, this book, arguably, has a closer engagement with the general public than the previous volumes in the Documents of Contemporary Art series.

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