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.
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 &
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.
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
Mortimer Mouse in the Disney ﬁlm Mickey's Rival, 1936
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.
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...
Cows are seen as cute, innocent and non-
threatening, which is why they make such
great product logos.
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.
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
Even tho’ some are pretty cool... (I doubt that this one was authorized by Cow Parade)
In Washington, DC, which got panda’s from China, panda-mania broke out and the cows were replaced by
Blake Gopnik, art critic for the Washington Post, wrote in
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Those angels remind me of Cupid (Rome) or Eros (Greece) who has been made cute by purveyors ofValentine’s cards...
Cute is not limited to the West. Sentimental, kitschy, superﬁcial religiosity erupts around the world. Some Hindu examples...
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
Ilya Garger, Psychology Today
It’s also in Japan where kawaii conﬂates with kowai, or
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.
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
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”
It is not the subject that is suspect. Cows, for instance, have
been central to people’s lives—and hence to their art—for
Cows in the Field, 1852
Blue Cow Haven (nd)
Mother and Child Divided, 1995
real cows, split in two along their
length, in vitrines with
Distinctly un-cute cows...
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.
Hello Kitty Nativity, 1994
Hello Kitty, Bronze, 2001
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
DOB and Bunny
Gimme’ that old-time religion!
The Ecstasy of St.Theresa
Cornaro Chapel, Rome
The [Taking] of Proserpina
I want some meat with my art
Cupid, by the way, son ofVenus (love) and Mars
(war), was no innocent, but the god of desire...
Psyche and Cupid
Eros, 1st century BC
AmorVincit Omnia, 1601-1602.
Caesar van Everdingen
Bacchus with Two Nymphs and Cupid
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
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
Blake Gopnik,‘Getting Cute With Art’
Washington Post, May 30, 2004