On Cuteness

Cuteness at its most surface seems to be a valuing of defenselessness. The more defenseless a being, the cuter it probably is. This is a dangerous notion as it disregards a being’s individual power, values the stripping away of it. But this is a shallow reading of the aesthetic of cuteness (or at least a too pessimistic one).

Cuteness as an aesthetic value is most importantly a charm to ward off evil, akin to the power of love and friendship (anime/JRPG values). It’s easier to crawl out of the bathroom abyss, crumpled on the ground and covered in blood and shit with a Hello Kitty shampoo bottle above you (a halo) than without one. It can, when noticed, act as a guidepost back to the warmth of being a human with ego and soul.

A Hello Kitty shampoo bottle has some power. A framed illustration of anthropomorphic rabbits above the toilet is even more powerful. If it is drawn by a loved one, it may be the most powerful, a prayer of love shot into the void.

Hello Kitty is obviously a great symbol of material values and capitalist consumption (Steven Millhauser’s Cute, Quaint, Hungry And Romantic: The Aesthetics Of Consumerism is of interest here). Disney characters, Hello Kitty, Pikachu, and with a far more complex (and possibly damaging) baggage, Barbie, etcetera represent a focus-tested trick to get people to spend money on “useless” products to fill a void in (probably) their child’s soul, or so it seems. Again, this is a pessimistic read of cuteness—

I reread “Ornament and Crime,” Adolf Loos’ proto-Bauhaus manifesto on designing objects morally and not spending resources on making them beautiful. Loos calls out ornamentation as immoral and as acting to halt human civilization progress (he is reacting toward high class opulence, Art Nouveau, bathroom graffiti, and the tattoos of, uh, indigenous people…).

Although his essay (1908 or 1910) changes with the advent of Bauhaus, again after post-modernism, and again after Steve Jobs, ornamentation and cuteness are related aesthetic values, the decoration of objects and surfaces, of one’s body, a useless endeavor of curating a mood or enacting a spell.

Loos falls into the trap of missing the human quality in modernism, misses the god in modernist values. By erasing all ornamentation, Loos mistakes what makes us human. His future-vision of silver jumpsuits and chrome buildings lacks spirit, despite how efficient it is. He lacks the insight to warn against the capitalist worldwide machine of churning out cute products to make profits (although he pretty much warns against it anyway… how far are we as Americans into late stage capitalism to even ground our thoughts and questions?), but one can be wary of consumerist lifestyles without removing all ornamentation/cuteness… one can even be wary and still champion the cute.

Cuteness is mostly subjective, and understandings of cuteness vary from culture to culture, although globalization lessens this division. Maybe some people are immune to cuteness, or inherently don't trust it. Some people are able to fill in the void in other ways, or simply ignore it.

Talk to a teddy bear when you are:

1. very sad
2. feeling neutral
3. elated

You may have a better understanding of cuteness. There is no capitalist exchange here.

A personal history with cuteness:
I first aligned myself with cuteness as an act of subversion. Pink clothes, Hello Kitty affectations, and kids pop culture iconography were used as an assault on harmful expectations of the American teenage male - it was not an act of fabulousness, a personal value I lack, but it was a weaponized cuteness. Irony was rampant in each act, and I found charisma in Andy Warhol interviews, a hiding of the personal in the superficial, a lifestyle dedicated to the highlighting of stupid binaries.

The subversion worked, and for my teen years let my self linger in a sardonic, cute, superflat identity. An impenetrable teen.

Later, I began to understand these ornamentations of cuteness not only as symbols of irony and pop art, but as personal expressions of desires for a lighter life, desires for love and to ward off a gnostic, bodily evil. Hello Kitty was weaponized as a teen emo rebellion (sold to most mall goths via Hot Topic, though there’s more power in the DIY), but Pokemon was always deeply important, charismatic and true.

Pink was cute, and was cute in a way that subverted expectations of a “boy’s life.” In this way, queerness and gender grayness had ties to the cute, and here I mean cute at its most powerful, not the derogatory kind of cute used by critics to demean a project.

I began to lose my taste for the post-modern coolness of pop art and fell in love with the excited passions of art pop strokes of artists like Gary Panter and the acts of Pee-Wee Herman. Cute with them was a punk value, totally subversive, but an opposite subversion of the acts of de Sade, for instance (an important clarification), who was punk in a way that was necessarily (?) vile. De Sade strove toward a society shattering toxic masculinity. That’s not very cute.

A lot of things that aesthetically take cues from cuteness may in fact not be cute in a moral sense (follow the money trail, understand the backstory... is this a subversion?, etc). Cuteness is probably the opposite of edginess, but unlike edginess, cuteness can exist within a vacuum. Edginess requires an audience (otherwise, it might end up being cute itself). Edginess in terms of art history has roots in futurism (art fascism) and grows up into transgressive literature (which especially appeals to teen boys) and Lars von Trier. Efficiency can also be seen as an opposing force to cuteness (Loos), but this text is not here to create binaries (I do quite like a Pee-Wee versus de Sade venn diagram, though).

Cute things I trust and find power in include Hello Kitty, dogs on Instagram, stuffed animals, children's books, comic strips, Build A Bear, kid drawings, stickers, bright and pastel colors, some patterns, blankets, Pokemon, baths, Nintendo characters, anime friendship, some cartoons, coloring books, puzzles, holiday decorations, and chiptunes. Making a meal for your friends can be cute. Writing a poem in bed can be cute. Planting flowers or other plants is cute. 

Cuteness and Anime:
Peers have asked me to articulate in particular the relationship between cuteness and anime. I’ve already championed the anime/JRPG value of love/cuteness to ward off evil elsewhere (everywhere), but anime as a whole can be characterized as a medium that is at once very cute and very repelling (psychologically, bodily, spiritually).

(Go Nagai is very rarely cute, but a manga panel picked at random will certainly seem… of children to the untrained eye; Evangelion and Utena are good footnotes, and it’s important to see anime post-2000 as well… Paranoia Agent and Madoka Magica take direct issues with cuteness; FLCL is at once the most powerful and naturally cute anime ever screened…).

Anime can exist at both polarities simultaneously, and anime audiences have come to expect this. Sometimes it is effective, often it is tone deaf (anime has a "problem" with fanservice, for instance).

Neon Genesis Evangelion, a science fiction teen drama directed by Hideaki Anno(’s deeply ingrained depression), is both cute and deadly serious. It is as serious as anything put out by the major science fiction authors of the second half of the twentieth century, yet, it is dressed in a cartoon’s clothing. If you google image it, you’ll find decades’ worth of sexy action figures purchased to line the cute-shrines in the bedrooms of anime fans.

How do we come to terms with this dissonance? The Seventh Seal isn’t cute. Bach isn’t cute. Rembrandt is never cute. Evangelion is a great, serious artwork (that never talks down to kids). If I have a t-shirt of Misato smirking plastered on it, that is a reference to her cute character design but also recalls the moment she is gunned down in the End of Evangelion.

I must be critical of watching over and over again the deaths of anime characters and then purchasing cute figurines of these same characters. Anime stretches the limits of narrative tones, and exists at all extremes at once. Does this phenomenon cheapen the seriousness articulated in the narrative? Possibly, but something else is at work here, too, something closer to life and to the truth.

We make jokes to lighten a funeral, for instance. We bring out a stuffed animal not to dismiss our best friend’s distress, but to make it easier to manage. I think of the humor in Evangelion, the cute moments. This adds a human element to the characters and only serves to heighten the serious parts. In this way, anime exceeds in being all encompassing in a way that most serialized television does not. Anime (not all anime) at its best delivers both a gnostic hellworld and presents a defense against it in the form of its cuteness.

A quick note on kawaii: a contemporary Japanese value that has become a major national export and identity marker, kawaii appears (from an outsider’s perspective) to have less to do with traditional Japanese aesthetic values that have a long history in shinto and buddhist beliefs, and more to do with the shifting of Japanese youth and pop culture the decades following the dropping of the bomb. Kawaii has become synonymous with “desirable,” and one interpretation could follow the trail from desirable to harmony (a Japanese trait) to complacent (a consumer trait). (As per always) tread carefully.

- - -

Aguirre the Wrath of God is heavy because there is no defense (this is also valid).

Dark Souls is not cute (though it is of a certain, peculiar Japanese sublime quality).

To be aligned with cuteness is a personal statement. This is political, and can be critical always.

We may have lost god, but we have not lost our spirit.

December 2018

nilson carroll
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