Sunday 14 July 2013

Cute, zany, interesting

I'm currently reading Our Aesthetic Categories: Cute, Zany, Interesting by Sianne Ngai, in which the author offers a challenge to the long-established aesthetic categories of the sublime and the beautiful - terms that traditionally implied a degree of historic continuity, of discrimination based on cultivated taste and exposure to the best in music, drama, poetry etc.

The author argues - not unpersuasively - that the existing categories are no longer fit for purpose and proposes three new aesthetic terms which respond to consumption (the cute), circulation (the interesting) and production and labour (the zany). 

Now bear with, as the young folk say, bear with, because this is where it gets interesting. The categories are, Ngai admits, self-evidently trivial and focus on the powerlessness of the object(s) under consideration. For Ngai it is this very powerlessness that is of critical interest. 

The following comes from Robert Eaglestone's review of the book in the TLS (12 April 2013):

The cute appears to be an aesthetic of powerlessness. (The "Hello Kitty" character, popular with little girls, does not even have a mouth.) Cute things appeal to us for "protection and care" and because of this, Ngai argues, with a crafty reading of Marx, the cute is the very essence of the commodity, which "lacks the power to resist man". Yet, in this way, the cute gets its revenge, because in seeming "to want us and only us for its mommy", the cute commodity is able to make large demands of us. This also explains the ambivalence that such items - bears, bath sponges, Hello Kitty itself - arouse. We want to possess them and, recognizing the power of this appeal, destroy them at the same time, as we realize, inchoately, perhaps, that the cute is at the heart of the all-powerful commodification of the world. This is why the cute turns out to be more complex when artists investigate it.

Complex perhaps, although I can't say that the kind of cuteness "investigated" in the work of, say, Jeff Koons holds much interest for me. The sublime and the beautiful are still to be experienced, of course, although the conditions of late capitalism certainly favour the cute.

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