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Cute and cuteness in art, movies and popular culture, and why I think it should be left out of the fine arts.

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  1. 1. cutein art, and why I’m suspicious...
  2. 2. The anthropologist Konrad Lorenz argues that humans use the differences between babies and adults as behavioral cues. Juvenile features trigger "innate releasing mechanisms" for affection and nurturing in adults.When we see a creature with babyish features, we feel an surge of tenderness.The adaptive value is clear: we must nurture our babies. Lorenz lists among his releasers "a relatively large head, predominance of the brain capsule, large and low-lying eyes, bulging cheek region, short and thick extremities, and clumsy movements." Stephen Jay Gould, Natural History mag Lorenz emphasizes the power that juvenile features hold over us, and the abstract quality of their influence, by pointing out that we judge other animals by the same criteria.We are fooled by an evolved response to our own babies, and we transfer our reaction to the same set of features in other animals.
  3. 3. HUMANS FEEL AFFECTION for animals with juvenile features: large eyes, bulging craniums, retreating chin. Small-eyed, long-snouted animals do not elicit the same response. From Studies in Animal and Human Behavior, vol. II, by Konrad Lorenz, 1971. Methuen & Co. Ltd.
  4. 4. MICKEY'S EVOLUTION during 50 years (left to right).As Mickey became increasingly well behaved over the years, his appearance became more youthful. Measurements of three stages in his development revealed a larger relative head size, larger eyes, and an enlarged cranium--all traits of juvenility. @Walt Disney Productions. Mickey Mouse has traveled the ontogenetic* pathway (baby to adult) in reverse. He has assumed an ever more childlike appearance as the ratty character of SteamboatWillie became the cute and inoffensive host to a magic kingdom. Stephen Jay Gould, Natural History mag *ontogenesis: the development of an individual organism or anatomical or behavioral feature from the earliest stage to maturity.
  5. 5. Mouse villains are always more adult in appearance. Mortimer, a dandy in a yellow sports car, intrudes upon Mickey and Minnie.The disreputable Mortimer has a head only 29 percent of body length, to Mickey's 45, and a snout 80 percent of head length compared with Mickey's 49. Mortimer Mouse in the Disney film Mickey's Rival, 1936
  6. 6. Why did Disney choose to change his most famous character? National symbols are not altered capriciously and market researchers have spent a good deal of time and practical effort learning what features appeal to people as cute and friendly. The magic kingdom trades on a biological illusion—our ability to abstract and our propensity to transfer to other animals the responses we make to changing form in the growth of our own bodies.
  7. 7. Disney wanted us to transfer our human affection for infants to his characters, to adopt (as it were) Mickey and Goofy and Donald.We feel instantly safe around cute, and protective of it.We let down our guard and become—as nature has intended with our children—vulnerable; we can be manipulated. Disney sought and got our loyalty and our money. Cute sells! Cuteness is a major marketing tool. Uncle Walt was the pioneer and many followed... ... as with cows...
  8. 8. Cows are seen as cute, innocent and non- threatening, which is why they make such great product logos.
  9. 9. Which is also why cows were chosen by the Cow Parade franchise: CowParade is the largest and most successful public art event in the world. CowParade events have been staged in over 50 cities worldwide since 1999 including Chicago (1999), New York City (2000), London (2002), Tokyo (2003), and Brussels (2003). Dublin (2003), Prague (2004), and Stockholm (2004), Mexico City (2005), Sao Paulo (2005), Buenos Aires (2006), Boston (2006) Paris (2006), Milan (2007, and Istanbul (2007). • It is estimated that over 100 million people around the world have seen one our famous cows. • Over 5,000 artists worldwide have participated in CowParade – professional and amateur, famous and emerging, young and old.
  10. 10. For many professional artists who devote endless time, energy and money to making art which they hope to share with the public, having rare and desireable space taken up by a commercial enterprise is, at the least, annoying. Even tho’ some are pretty cool... (I doubt that this one was authorized by Cow Parade)
  11. 11. In Washington, DC, which got panda’s from China, panda-mania broke out and the cows were replaced by panda sculptures. Blake Gopnik, art critic for the Washington Post, wrote in 2004: I get as much fun out of kitsch and tchotchkes as anyone. So I have nothing in principle against "Pandamania." If the city tourism office wants to tickle out-of-towners, or if its social workers want something to brighten local gloom, then some giant decorated party favors may be the perfect way to go about it. But... The panda project ... is the brainchild... of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, whose official mission is to promote "excellence in the arts" so that the general public can "gain a deeper appreciation for the arts." And the Pandamania "call to artists" says that the "selection committee is looking for artwork that is dynamic and invites innovation." The problem's simple: A marshmallowy sculpture of a cutesy-pie animal -- more teddy bear than zoological specimen, by far -- is not exactly a blank canvas that leaves much room for profound artistic thought. The Pandamania call for submissions included a proposal sheet with an outline drawing of the unpainted panda sculpture onto which artists were to sketch their designs. It looked exactly like a page from a toddler's coloring book. The finished sculptures are coloring-book art, too, only blown up in 3-D. It would take a really skilled contemporary artist to turn a coloring book into something worth an art lover's time. It could only hope to produce cheesy, crowd-pleasing, feel-good street ornaments. And that's exactly what it did.
  12. 12. Hummel figures (collected by both of my grandmothers) were pretty sappy... Cute little children re-inacting a wholly fictional drama of idyllic Bavarian country life, complete with cute lederhosen. I suspect they later joined Hitler Youth. Cute can lure almost anyone to almost anywhere.
  13. 13. Margaret Keane is a San Francisco “artist” who has been painting for 50 years, trading directly on our innate love for big-headed, big-eyed waifs. She has made a lot of money.
  14. 14. Even worse is the appropriation of cute by “religion” or, more properly, hawkers of religion-themed gew-gaws. Held by the Hands of Faith God’s Love Is My Guiding Light These trivialize religion, spiritual aspirations and feelings, and they trivialize the people who buy them.Though I am not personally religious, I find these to be offensive.
  15. 15. Those angels remind me of Cupid (Rome) or Eros (Greece) who has been made cute by purveyors ofValentine’s cards...
  16. 16. Cute is not limited to the West. Sentimental, kitschy, superficial religiosity erupts around the world. Some Hindu examples...
  17. 17. A Muslim example...
  18. 18. Cute rules in Japan, where it’s known as kawaii. Hello Kitty has been around almost as long as Barbie... Though pundits lament the societal infantilization that kawaii culture represents—some even blame it for creating a generation of youth unable to face reality—no one denies that cute sells. Ilya Garger, Psychology Today
  19. 19. It’s also in Japan where kawaii conflates with kowai, or “scariness”...
  20. 20. Kawaii is especially creepy where it melds with the otaku culture of immature, isolated, emotionally repressed young people... A lot of time and energy is spent mimic-ing anime characters, called cosplay (costume play). The anime figures themselves are doe-eyed, big- headed, and infantile looking. Many of the cues for Japanese anime was taken directly from Walt Disney, especially from Mickey Mouse.
  21. 21. Cosplay plays relentlessly on cute, while becoming sexy at the same time A deep nostalgia for childhood permeates Japan, a reaction against the regimentation and emotional restraint required of daily adult life. Ilya Garger, Psychology Today
  22. 22. Cosplay, manga (comics) and anime toy with deeper impulses while often keeping its players isolated... kawaii (かわいい), or “cuteness” and kowai (恐い), or “scariness”
  23. 23. It is not the subject that is suspect. Cows, for instance, have been central to people’s lives—and hence to their art—for centuries. Troyon Constant Cows in the Field, 1852 Gina Gunderman Blue Cow Haven (nd)
  24. 24. Andy Warhol Cows, 1960s Damien Hirst Mother and Child Divided, 1995 real cows, split in two along their length, in vitrines with formaldehyde Distinctly un-cute cows...
  25. 25. Pop culture characters themselves can become a legitimate object of the fine arts, especially when handled critically and, as is often the case, ironically... The Hello Kittys of Tom Sachs are hugely out-of-scale, domineering, lumpy and awkward. In bronze they have an insistent and slightly threatening permanence, like a statue of a soldier on his horse, that the insubstantial original lacks. Tom Sachs Hello Kitty Nativity, 1994 Tom Sachs Hello Kitty, Bronze, 2001
  26. 26. Mickey Mouse becomes a frightening presence, a threat to the culture rather than an icon or avatar, as remade by Takashi Murikami Murakami: "I set out to investigate the secret of market survivability - the universality of characters such as Mickey Mouse, Sonic the Hedgehog, Doraemon, Miffy, Hello Kitty, and their knock-offs, produced in Hong Kong," The result, in 1993, was Mr. DOB, Murakami's most ubiquitous and enduring character.
  27. 27. Takashi Murikami DOB and Bunny Tom Sachs Bunny
  28. 28. And what about those angels?
  29. 29. Gimme’ that old-time religion! Gianlorenzo Bernini The Ecstasy of St.Theresa (marble, 1645-52) Cornaro Chapel, Rome
  30. 30. Gianlorenzo Bernini The [Taking] of Proserpina (marble) I want some meat with my art
  31. 31. Cupid, by the way, son ofVenus (love) and Mars (war), was no innocent, but the god of desire... Canova (1757-1822) Psyche and Cupid Eros, 1st century BC Caravaggio AmorVincit Omnia, 1601-1602. Caesar van Everdingen Bacchus with Two Nymphs and Cupid
  32. 32. so, I’m suspicious of cute in art because • it’s manipulative • it’s shallow • it’s far too easy • it’s infantile • it infantilizes • it’s a sales tool
  33. 33. Resources: Stephen Jay Gould, ‘A Biological Homage to Mickey Mouse’ Natural History magazine Ilya Garger,‘Global Psyche: One Nation Under Cute’ Psychology Today, March 01, 2007 Natalie Angier,‘The Cute Factor’ NewYork Times, January 3, 2006 ex=1293944400&en=9942fdaf51f1211c&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland&emc=rss Blake Gopnik,‘Getting Cute With Art’ Washington Post, May 30, 2004 Cuteness