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Distorted innocence: Jeff Koons’s “Balloon Dog” epitomises “cute” for Simon May (KIM CC BY SA 2.0)

Who do you find cuter: Kim Jong-un or Winston Churchill? George W. Bush or Barack Obama? What about Donald Trump — do his wildly inconsistent statements and self-contradictions mesmerise? Does the fact that he comes across not as your average scheming politician but as something genuinely incomprehensible — a baffling hybrid, simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar — entrance and bewitch? Clearly the answer is yes, at least to vast swathes of American voters. The current president therefore has “a touch of Cute” about him, understanding which is key to understanding his popularity. Surprisingly, Simon May manages to make this point in his short, snappy treatise The Power of Cute without reference to the giant inflatable Trump baby that floated above London’s streets during protests against the US President’s visit last summer.

Cute has flooded our lives in the last two centuries, from entertainment to advertising to the very way we communicate with emojis and childish abbreviations. May, a visiting professor of philosophy at King’s College London, tackles the phenomenon with garrulous gusto in his diminutive book. This is 152 pages of lighthearted lecture on Hello Kitty and Mickey Mouse, via the Second World War, dictators and Samurai tradition, in the loquacious style of a rather clever person at a rather boozy dinner party who has just heard their neighbour describe the kitsch salt-shaker as cute.

Because cute is not kitsch, which May characterises as something cheesy and self-consciously sentimental (like an ornamental salt-shaker). Nor, more importantly, is cute sweet. Where sweet is familiar, innocent and wholesome, cute is something altogether spicier. Cute takes sweet and distorts it with unexpected, weird elements. Thus Jeff Koons’s Balloon Dog, the sculpture which for May epitomises the cute. An innocent, helpless puppy (i.e. something merely sweet) is blown up to massive proportions and transformed into stainless steel. It is now cute, mesmerising us because of the unresolvable contradictions between its familiar and alien qualities. Similarly ET: a familiar baby-like creature with wide, innocent eyes — sweet — that also happens to be a wrinkly brown alien.

Balloon Dog and ET are, as May says, “perfectly formed and yet also deformed, familiar and unfamiliar, comforting and also discomforting” and therefore cute. If this sounds, er, familiar, that is because May’s cute is Freud’s uncanny — the unheimlich, something unfamiliar that was once familiar — pimped with puppy dog ears.

The cuteness of Koons’s art and Spielberg’s beloved alien can be translated onto people. Dictators, even. In “The Cuteness of Kim Jong-il” (May does great chapter titles — see “Cuteness as a Weapon of Mass Seduction” and “Spooked in the Garden of Eden”), he points to the former dictator of North Korea’s androgyny and the irresolvable dichotomies he embodied — child-like yet all-knowing, a superhuman dictator who was scared to fly in an aeroplane — as enthralling symptoms of a cute person, therefore explaining his appeal to millions.

Despite identifying the dictator’s cuteness — not to mention Trump’s — May’s is a celebration, rather than a condemnation, of cute. Academically, cute has hitherto been seen as infantilising and narcissistic at best; inciting sadism and the annihilation of otherness at worst — although cute gets off lightly compared to kitsch, which was compared to the Antichrist by Austrian writer Herman Broch in the 20th century. Instead, May suggests cute has the power to question power. Far from being an aesthetic of powerlessness that invites us to violate or exploit, May insists that cute’s contradictions create a “playful unpindownability” — a light-hearted otherness and refusal to conform — that actually denies dominance or subjection.

Hence his claim that cute rose to power after the Second World War because of a sudden “revulsion for violence and cruelty” in America, Europe and particularly Japan. Kawaii, which roughly translates as “cute”, has saturated Japanese culture more than anywhere else, with cute cartoon anime figures plastered across government missives and safety warnings, airlines and banks, insurance companies and even anti-tank attack helicopters (quite how those sit with a “revulsion for violence” is unclear). May argues that this cute-ification of an entire nation is not actually infantilising — or “a fetishistic surrender aesthetic that advertises nothing but passivity and harmlessness” — but instead something empowering that embraces indeterminacy and otherness, and repels seriousness and violence.

In a similar vein, May demonstrates how the cult of cute coincides neatly with the cult of the child, our modern pedestalling of kids and sanctification of childhood at all costs. In its innate childishness, cute lightheartedly pays homage to the power of the child in the 21st century, and celebrates childish uncertainty. Cute says, not knowing everything is OK. Not everything has to be neatly categorised. Let’s play.

How much you buy into any of this — cute as a means of destabilising power structures, cute as a means of salvation for a nation desecrated by war, cute as anything much beyond a cartoon image of a wide-eyed girl or outsize dog — is kind of irrelevant. May has written a book that is, according to his own definition, pretty darn cute, a book that playfully pokes at our ideas of how important the subject of a philosophical treatise should be. This is indeed a book “appearing infantile, yet . . . too savvy to be purely infantile” and as a playful riposte to our self-conscious, drearily introspective age, The Power of Cute is rather more savvy than its sweetly diminutive form suggests.
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