Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Cuteness

“Cute” is a term of great importance in everyday aesthetics, although it is also usually considered to be negative in fine art contexts. Back in 1991 John Morreall argued that since it is not important for the arts, and is a second-class aesthetic property, it is nonetheless important for humans. [i] Drawing from work by Konrad Lorenz, he asserted that cuteness is an evolutionary response to the need for mammalian infants, and in particular, human babies, to be protected by adults. Cute dolls exaggerate features (for example “round protruding cheeks”) that have evolved in this way in order to get adults to admire and purchase them. [ii] Morreall and Loy (his co-writer in the second article cited) associated cuteness with kitsch, and insisted that there is something objectionable about a painting of a girl with eyes much larger than usual. As they put it “Kitsch is perfectly suited to most people's passivity, short attention span, and shallow understanding, for it promises them immediate gratification requiring no special background knowledge or activity. It offers itself as instant art.”[iii] It sounds like they are pretty down on kitsch. Robert Solomon, by contrast, also writing in 1991, defended cuteness, even in art, denying that it makes much sense to speak of an excess of the emotion.[iv] However, Ruth Lorand opposes the cute to the beautiful, associating the former with insignificance. She argues that “[a]n insignificant object cannot be beautiful. Great works of art are works that touch and illuminate important and basic issues in human life … An insignificant, well-organized object is often cute, pretty, lovely, or decorative, but not startlingly beautiful.”[v]

I don't doubt Morreal's theory about the origins and imortance of cuteness, although the Lorenz citation is pretty old. It is interesting that no one has really said anything else about the topic since that time. It is also too bad there was never a debate between Morreal and Solomon. Morreal thinks sentimentality is problematic, Solomon does not. Since 1991 it seems that cuteness has become less "objectionable in the arts." Still I can be sympathetic with Morreall when he says that "I ...want more than simple autonomatic emotions from my experiences of art works. I want emotions that are complex..." (47). But what proves that the the cuteness reaction "could never be the stuff of great art"?

[i] See John Morreal, “Cuteness,” British Journal of Aesthetics 31:1 (1991) 39-47.
[ii] John Morreal and Jessica Loy, “Kitsch and Aesthetic Education,” Journal of Aesthetic Education 2:4 (1989) 63-73.
[iii] Pg. 68.
[iv] Robert C. Solomon, “On Kitsch and Sentimentality,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 49: 1 (1991) 1-14
[v] Ruth Lorand, “Beauty and Its Opposites.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 52: 4 (1994) 399- 406. pg. 404.

1 comment:

Glenn Russell said...

Re cuteness, I found this on Wikipedia:

A modern phenomenon, since the 1970s cuteness or kawaii (可愛い?) in Japanese (literally, "loveable") has become a prominent aesthetic of Japanese popular culture, entertainment, clothing, food, toys, personal appearance, behavior, and mannerisms.[18]
As a cultural phenomenon, cuteness is increasingly accepted in Japan as a part of Japanese culture and national identity. Tomoyuki Sugiyama, author of "Cool Japan", believes that "cuteness" is rooted in Japan's harmony-loving culture, and Nobuyoshi Kurita, a sociology professor at Musashi University in Tokyo, has stated that "cute" is a "magic term" that encompasses everything that's acceptable and desirable in Japan.

Cute isn't ordinarily what I enjoy in visual art. My favorite artists are Victor Vasarely, Auguste Herbin and Arcimboldo.

But I admit one of my favorite everyday aesthetic experiences is watching my granddaughter playing with her Elmo and Kermit.