Understanding Sianne Ngai’s “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde”

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I am very much interested in the idea of “cuteness” within contemporary culture; how it can be played with by artists to provoke and question ideologies of femininity and masculinity and innocence and childhood, and how it can be understood as a social construct, which is why I was excited to come across Sianne Ngai’s essay as assigned coursework a few years back for a course on critical theory and pop music.

The following is a script of a presentation for a critical theory seminar course focusing on pop music. “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde” is an essay included in Ngai’s book Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting, which claims that the zany, cute, and interesting form a “triad”; as Benjamin Lytal observes in his review of Ngai’s book, this triad defines the way we live now: how we work is “the zany”, how we exchange information is “the interesting”, and how we consume is “the cute”.

Cute goals

I would like to focus on cute as a subversive category that can destabilize oppressive ideologies of gender and sexuality that are ingrained in its aesthetics, but I would also like to examine how cuteness perpetuates these ideologies. I will summarize a few key concepts from Ngai’s article, including: the aesthetic qualities of the cute object; the cute object’s role as a commodity; our potentially sadistic interaction with the cute object; and finally, cuteness as a subversive category.

Ngai references artists who subvert and expose the problematic aesthetics of cuteness to propose an answer to German sociologist, philosopher and musicologist Theodor Adorno’s difficult question: how is art made social by its means of nonsociality? Ngai observes that Adorno uses cute-specific themes to address this problem himself; these themes include (and this is from page 842): “art’s dialectical oscillation between powerlessness and cruelty; its anticommunicativeness or muteness; its ability to objectivize the subjective; and the notion of artistic expression as mutilation.” I will be incorporating these themes throughout the presentation as well, and hopefully at the end we will be able to draw some connections between contemporary pop music and Ngai’s concepts of how we interact with cuteness.

Qualities of the cute object

Ngai observes that cute objects represent an aestheticizing of powerlessness; she notes that cute objects are usually “soft, round, and deeply associated with the infantile and feminine” (814). While cute toys usually have faces, their facial features are simplified so much that they are barely there (such as hello kitty who has no mouth); their eyes might be eerily large (like The Powerpuff Girls), so they can mimic our gaze, but Ngai notes that any fuller personification would make them too equal to us, which would upset the power dynamic on which the cute aesthetic depends (814).

Ngai suggests that cuteness is associated with patriarchal ideas of beauty; she draws from Edmond Burke’s discussion of “the beauty of the female sex” (footnote on page 827); Burke describes objects that have the properties of smallness, softness, smoothness, and “nonangularity” or roundness in particular as beautiful; he also associates beauty with “the idea of weakness and imperfection” (827). Burke writes, “Women are very sensible of this; for which reason, they learn to lisp, to totter in their walk, to counterfeit weakness and even sickness. In all this, they are guided by nature. Beauty in distress is much the most affecting beauty” (827)—keep in mind, this is in the 18th century.  But if cuteness is an ideology of beauty and femininity that promotes docility and vulnerability, then commodification and marketing of this aesthetic might problematically perpetuate these essentialist ideals of femininity.

Cuteness is tied to the physical appearance of humans and objects, but Ngai notes that cuteness problematically “also becomes identified with a ’twittering’ use or style of language, marked as feminine or culturally and nationally ‘other’” (815). So, cuteness can be a harmful aesthetic perpetuating stereotypes of the imagined inferior “other”.

Kawaii culture in Japan, which Ngai references in her article, exemplifies this aesthetic of cuteness; along with the popularization of dejected or helpless toy objects or cartoons, women in kawaii perform a role of docility and innocence involving high pitched squealing and mimicking young girls by wearing school girl outfits. Marilyn Ivy writes that “the origins of kawaii had to do with pity or empathy for a small or helpless creature—archetypically, a child or infant…the notion of the cute is entirely wrapped up in the relationship to the child figure as the epitome of vulnerability and helplessness” (8). This aesthetic is also exemplified by the Lolita subculture in Japan.

Theresa Winge writes that Lolitas or Lolis “are young women and men who dress as anachronistic visual representations of Victorian-era dolls, covered from head to toe in lace, ruffles, and bows” (47).  In Western culture “Lolita” is often associated with Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel wherein an adolescent girl is pressured to have a sexual relationship with her middle-aged stepfather; and in Japanese culture, “Lolita complex” refers more generally to older men who are attracted to young girls (Winge 47). The Lolita subculture emerged from the kawai (cute) craze that began in the 1970’s with Japanese youth adopting kawaii handwriting style incorporating cute aesthetics such as hearts, faces, and stars (Winge 47). By the 1980’s, the Lolita subculture adopted cute aesthetics such as stuffed animals, and children’s accessories. For those who participate in the Lolita subculture, the style is not meant to be sexual, but instead rebels against the norms of dominant Japanese culture, yet the subculture is critiqued for being naïve, especially for playing into the “Lolita complex” I mentioned before, placing its participants as the focus of sexual attention. But why is it that a fashion subculture is blamed for being naive, when the association of sexuality or “Lolita complex” is a social construction and only within the purview of those who look at it and judge the subculture from the outside?  Can we draw a parallel between this and women survivors of sexual assault who are often critiqued and blamed for the assault because they dressed “slutty”?

The fetishization of innocence has often been utilized by female pop artists (and their creative and management teams), for example Brittany Spears’s school girl uniform in the “Baby One More Time” video. I was in elementary school at the time this video came out and shortly thereafter adopted certain cute fashion items such as the school girl skirt and braids and fuzzy hair elastics, but I remember they made me feel powerful. However, in this way pop artists perhaps also enable the fetishistic gaze, encouraging girls to be the object of that gaze. Pop artists are nonthreatening because they are untouchable and cannot touch us, yet whoever is watching can misconstrue, fetishize, or fantasize about the artist’s performance. This fetishization of innocence and cuteness is also evident in the celebrity industry which capitalizes on our obsession with the corruption of innocence— evidenced, for example, in minute-by-minute media coverage of young female pop stars and actors.

Next, I will discuss the cute object as a commodity in consumer culture, providing some historical context to the “cute” aesthetic, and then I will talk about consumers’ potentially sadistic attraction to cute objects.

Cuteness and consumer culture

Ngai argues that cuteness is the dominant aesthetic of consumer culture; she associates cuteness with other aesthetic categories, such as quaint, wacky, quirky, and cool, popularized by post-war consumer culture. In America, it resulted from the industrialization of modernist aesthetics, which sought to develop a new commodity aesthetic; the fields of design and advertising were rapidly expanding and this new aesthetic alluded to a reconciliation of mass culture and high art (from page 812)— so bringing art into everyday life.

Commodity cuteness was therefore an aesthetic concept developed by the culture industry. Ngai notes that it was first aligned with products designed for children, but that it was not until after the first world war that “cute toys” began appearing in mass quantity (toys that displayed helplessness and vulnerability). The manufactured plush toys differed from earlier toys such as the breakable mechanical dolls of the late 19th century that Ngai explains reflected a male-dominated business economy obsessed with technology (an example of this doll can be seen on page 18). The plush toy revealed a new attitude towards children that surfaced in 20th century psychology: that children could now be aggressive and their toys would have to survive this aggression (page 817); children were no longer imagined as little adults or pure moral subhuman creatures.

The avante-garde poets that Ngai references, such as Gertrude Stein and her work Tender Buttons, utilized the commodity aesthetic of cuteness to respond to their own restricted agency in a commodified society and to reflect on how their work was perhaps “too easily fetishized” (838). But I will discuss more about art and subversive cuteness a bit later. Ngai argues that commercial cuteness depends on pliability and softness; the cute object  “invites physical touching” and the object must “withstand the violence its very passivity seems to solicit” (830).

Sadistic tendencies

Ngai uses Japanese cartoons, art, and toys to demonstrate that cute things are susceptible to being abused and disfigured. She notes that the cute objects in Stein’s Tender Buttons are presented as “easily churned and cherished” (41), and she cites several other examples. For example, San-X, a more “edgy” version of Sanrio— which is a Japanese company that sells cute toy products, most famously Hello Kitty— featured a slightly burnt and dejected looking bread bun named Kogepan, which at the time of Ngai’s article, was their most popular figure (820). Ngai writes, “the smaller and less formally articulated or more bloblike the object, the cuter it becomes—in part because smallness and blobbishness suggest greater malleability and thus a greater capacity for being handled” (815).

Ngai draws the connection between cuteness and ugly or aggressive feelings, as well as tender or maternal ones. On page 816, she notes that the cute object’s passivity and vulnerability is “often intended to excite a consumer’s sadistic desires for mastery and control as much as his or her desire to cuddle”. She points to Winnie the Poo whose cuteness is tied to his clumsiness and helplessness, such as when his snout is stuck in the hive. We might be attracted to cute objects because they are non-threatening and invite us to be superior or transpose our comfortable ideologies upon them, but maybe contemporary society is also fascinated with a cuteness that alludes to something more sinister than cuteness— an uncanny extreme mimicry of cuteness that rejects cute as innocent, and by extension, women as simple; cuteness becomes subversive and women are diverse and complex.

So given all the problematic associations with the aesthetic of cuteness, how can cute be subversive? How does cuteness rebel against patriarchal ideologies of gender and sexuality? Next, I will discuss how cuteness can be utilized as an empowering, challenging, and threatening aesthetic.

Cute as subversive

Ngai argues that both avant-garde works and “cute” objects as modern concepts embody a powerlessness, but that this powerlessness can expose the violence of domination; the cute object might arguably be the most objectified of objects, but its extreme objectification is key to its potential resistance.

Theresa Winge draws from Sigmund Freud’s account of the uncanny and its unpleasant affects in the domain of art. Freud argued it could not be included in the classical domains of the beautiful or sublime and suggested that the uncanny emerges etymologically from its exact opposite: from the intimate, homely, and the private, through a process of what he calls slippage, where “the most homelike and friendly affect turns into its ugly opposite: which is the weird, the eerie and not homie” (Winge 15).

Artists such as Yoshitomo Nara utilize the uncanny to subvert how we interact with or think about cuteness. Nara, who Ngai frequently references, reproduces many conventions of cuteness in his paintings of evil children; they have big heads, are round, soft, squishy, and wide-eyed, but their version of cute has been altered and deformed by the artist: they provoke pathos which changes the interaction of the viewer with the object. The artwork rejects the cuteness imposed upon them and makes the viewer aware of their imposition (15); the children glare out of the artwork, judging the viewer for their judgment. Marilyn Ivy observes that Nara’s work reveals the “child” as an internal formation and as an external object in mass culture and commodity life (8). Ngai observes that Nara’s children are frequently maimed and wounded or distressed (such as in figure 3, page 821) with the phrase “black eye, fat lips, and opened wound”. Through his aggressive exaggerations of kawaii aesthetics, Nara critiques consumer society’s blind acceptance and commodification of these aesthetics.

Many artists use techniques of defamiliarization to force viewers or readers to reexamine familiar themes and ideas; when an object that is reliably cute becomes threatening, uncanny, or perversely appealing, we might question why this is so disturbing to us, and what ideologies are challenged by that object.

When cute objects or cartoons become too detailed or too human they might venture into the uncanny valley and provoke disturbing introspection, also calling into the question the supposedly non-threatening aesthetics of cuteness in the first place, which might begin to look suspicious and concealing.

Cute can be unintentionally empowering for the subject as well; Ngai explains that cute objects such as babies and puppies “often have a deverbalizing effect on the subjects who impose cuteness upon them”, and  “in soliciting a response along the lines of a murmur or coo, the cute object shows its ability to infantilize the language of its infantilizer”(827). The cute object provokes the gazing subject to react, revealing their vulnerability and susceptibility to cuteness.

Extreme depictions of cuteness might provoke the uncanny and expose the innate strangeness of an aesthetic that can promote and sell vulnerability and innocence. Ngai writes that the “unpleasantly blistered ‘monster’ appearing in Tender Buttons, as well as in Murakami’s DOB series, might less encode a fantasy of art’s ability to inflict payback on the society that imposes minorness upon it… than a more modest way of imagining art’s capacity for offering some resistance to its rhythmic recuperation by becoming something slightly less easy to consume—or something that if indeed consumed might result in ‘heavy choking’ ” (TB, 45; 834).

So, returning to the kawaii aesthetic and the Lolita subculture of Japan, Winge writes that in the 1980s in Japan, the term “Lolita” gained new associations within fashion subcultures, as resistance to trends that dominated Japanese culture. This subculture might also work to expose Western stereotypes of Eastern culture and femininity such as orientalism, which fetishizes and makes eastern culture exotic. The Lolita subculture also redefines taboo signifiers within contemporary culture. Kawaii was also formed in part from nostalgic fantasies of a previous and more simple era, an imagined Eastern and Western past; these characteristics are imposed on contemporary life, such as decorative aesthetics related to childhood, innocence, leisure, and luxury (59). If this is the case, do these aesthetics represent resistance to contemporary realities? catharsis? placation, denial, or escapism?  Perhaps, it depends on whoever is judging the subculture, based on their experiences and bias.

The Lolita subculture might also take on characteristics of camp, which Susan Sontag describes as love of the unnatural, artifice and exaggeration (Notes on Camp). Camp sees the world as aesthetic phenomenon, not in relation to beauty but artifice and outrageous artifice; although perhaps the naivety of the Lolita subculture situates it within the category of pure camp instead of deliberate camp; it is a glorification of character, instant character, with no development, an aesthetic experience of the world, favoring irony over tragedy; it is playful and pastiche. The Lolita subculture also draws attention to the performative nature of gender through its extreme depiction of femininity and girliness.

I think it is worth noting that although Ngai emphasizes the power of art to utilize or embrace cute aesthetics in order to critique the paradigm of these aesthetics, she also observes that “the project of autonomous art begins to resemble a masochistic one: an incessant, guilt-ridden meditation on its own social impotence” (844); she notes that Adorno repeatedly describes artworks as both the “wounds of society” and “mute” (844).

When a person takes on a cute persona or adopts cute aesthetics, they may do so knowing that their cuteness will provoke a certain response in someone, be it affection, a sense of dominance, or a disarming affect—and this can be a powerful tool. Cuteness can be a layer of artifice that signals to someone else what we desire to communicate; it can enable us to appear how we want to appear; it is a conversation about who we are that we do not need to speak out loud. Cute things, such as dejected objects or simple cartoon characters, are presumed to lack interiority—but people are complex; in this way cuteness, at least as an aesthetic adopted by people, is perhaps innately subversive and effectively challenges the way we understand each other and ourselves.

Video notes

Bjork’s “I miss you” utilizes the cute aesthetic in order to be more grotesque than a more detailed “human-like” aesthetic would allow; we would turn away from these disturbing images if they were too realistic, and in this way we are forced to confront them. We are hypnotized. Bjork defamiliarizes the genre of children’s cartoons or shows, exposing violence and realities normally banished from these utopian worlds built of romantic ideologies such as true love and a safe pure adolescence filled with magic. She does not ignore sexual themes; she and her cartoon friends dance in condoms on her chest. While her cartoon adopts cute aesthetics, she is able to be violent and imperfect. She is violently disfigured; at one point her head is pulled off, which exemplifies Ngai’s concept of the cute object’s invitation for abuse.

References

Ivy, Marilyn. “The Art of Cute Little Things: Nara Yoshitomo’s Parapolitics.” Mechademia 5.1 (2010): 3–29. Print.

Lytal, Benjamin. “Zany, Cute, Interesting: What the Words We Use Say About Us.” The Daily Beast. 23 Oct. 2012. Web. 4 Mar. 2013.

Ngai, Sianne. “The Cuteness of the Avant‐Garde.” Critical Inquiry 31.4 (2005): 811–847. CrossRef. Web. 2 Mar. 2013.

Sontag, Susan. “Notes on ‘Camp’.” Byliner. Web. 2 Mar. 2013.

Winge, Theresa. “Undressing and Dressing Loli: A Search for the Identity of the Japanese Lolita.”Mechademia 3.1 (2008): 47–63. Project MUSE. Web. 7 Mar. 2013.

 

 

 

 

 

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