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The Chiaroscuro of Cuteness

by Katia Porro

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Looking back on our latest special themes—zombies, the night—the obvious progression might not necessarily be that of cuteness, a subject that deviates from the ideal ternary rhythm promised by the two previous ones. Nevertheless, the day finally dawned, and with it a new title for this column—from "Thematic Dossier" to "Variations on a Theme"—and another subject to shed light on. And while this deviation may seem like an escape from the darkness of the night, one should not be fooled by the rosy atmosphere that emanates from all things cute. Although cuteness appears in these pages in the form of stuffed animals or "inoffensive" things, we're here to turn your attention away from the regressive aesthetic and reveal the complexity and darkness lurking within. For what the cute implies is both power and powerlessness, the dominant and the vulnerable, the manipulator and the manipulated, or perhaps all that lurks in darkness.


A section devoted to the cute would be incomplete without a text by Sianne Ngai, American literary critic and theorist, who has de-voted most of her research to ambivalent emotions and their aestheticization within a neoliberal society. This is how she theorized the aesthetics of the cute, first in 2015 in her book Our Aesthetic Categories: The Cute, the Zany, the Interesting, before publishing, in 2022, an anthology devoted to the subject for the Documents of Contemporary Art series edited by the Whitechapel Gallery. Our dossier therefore opens with a translation of an extract from Ngai on the subject, followed by a series of texts that apply her theories to contemporary art practices.


Cute is by no means a new trend in contemporary art, as Clara Guislain shows us. She takes us back to the 1990s with a reading of Mike Kelley's Arena series, which she situates in the category of the cute, revealing in turn how the exaggerated passivity and sentimentality of his hand-knitted stuffed animals testify to the fluctuating relationships between desire and power. These ambivalent relationships of the cute continue to be explored in a conversation between artist Bernie Poikāne and Marie Bechetoille, in which they discuss notions of "possessive desire", objectification, tenderness, camp and something that would be both "terrifying yet cute". Through references to K-pop, kawaii, furries and regressive practices, Bernie Poikāne develops an affective and restorative practice while embracing the uncanny.


As cuteness manifests itself through vulnerable, non-threatening figures or objects, the figure of the bunny appears in our account through a fanfiction piece written by Mia Trabalon. Fictionalizing the character of Bunny in Caroline Polachek's song Bunny is a Rider, Mia Trabalon navigates the music video—with deviations to Twitter and references to other stars from the PC Music label—to lead us into a reflection on the capitalization of cuteness as it has permeated pop culture. A necessary detour to dissect this notion, as we live in a world that has not only made language cute (i.e. emojis), but also critiques of contemporary culture and events (i.e. memes).


Aesthetic categories sometimes seem less of a concern for the contemporary art world, as they could perhaps imply a certain reduction of the work of art, obscuring its complexity and the intention of its author-ice. Yet Elsa Vettier dismantles the simplicity of a work of art that might be deemed "cute" by the general public, placing these objects at the heart of a critique of the libidinal economy, and in turn questioning the fundamental relationship between a work of art and its audience, while also investigating the notions of power at play within it.


Understanding the use of "cute" in contemporary practice reveals how artists have appropriated this aesthetic, often associated with the absurd and bad taste, to denounce the virile and oppressive systems of contemporary society:


“Cute might be thought of as a watered-down version of pretty; which is a watered-down version of beautiful; which is a watered-down version of sublime; which is a watered-down version of terrifying. In this regard, the cute is akin to the ridiculous, which is a watered-down version of the absurd; which is again a watered-down version of that which terrifies. By extension, this experience of terror: the terror of the convincinly ersatz, the killing disjuncture of the otherised, the pseudo-real."1


Cuteness could thus be seen as the aesthetic manifestation of frustration—born of desire, powerlessness, anguish, oppression and terror—and of a possible emancipation through it. With the artists discussed in the following pages, we can see that the use of cuteness is by no means proof of artists not taking things seriously. It's more a case of artists tackling serious matters in a regressive tone, with a hint of wry laughter.







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Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting