It’s been almost two years since I first looked at the role of cute in aesthetics (where does the time go?). I think it’s about time to revisit the subject.
A good work that looks at this idea of cute is the book Cute, Quaint, Hungry and Romantic: The Aesthetics of Consumerism by Daniel Harris. Harris makes it quite clear that in his opinion, cuteness has no relation to the attractive, but instead is more closely related to the grotesque. He feels that the grotesque is cute because it is pitiable, and it is pity that provokes our sympathy, making cute things desirable. For Harris cute has more to do with a quality something lacks than a quality it has. There’s a neediness to cute that we find touching and appealing as opposed to unsightly.
I’m not sure I entirely agree with Mr. Harris. Certainly there is an element of neediness involved in the cute. Little puppies and kittens are so cute because they can’t really fend for themselves yet. I think it’s more his use of the word “grotesque” in connection with cuteness that I object to. Yes, we’ve all seen things that are so ugly they’re cute. But that’s not the case with everything. The definition of grotesque according to dictionary.com is: “odd or unnatural in shape, appearance, or character; fantastically ugly or absurd; bizarre.” I suppose by this definition the cute does kind of fit. But “grotesque” generally has such negative connotations, while “cute” is generally seen as positive. But maybe that’s why Harris uses that word – to make us realize that the cute is not universally positive, especially when it is used as a ploy to get people to buy things they don’t really need.
One phrase from that definition of grotesque has really stuck out to me: “fantastically absurd.” To me this does seem almost directly related to cute. I mean how many times have you seen something cute and said or thought, “That is just ridiculously cute,” or something along those lines? In a way the cute really is fantastically absurd. There’s something about the cute that seems almost unreal, and I think that’s another way in which the cute appeals to us.

This is ridiculously cute.

This is ridiculously cute.


I think there is an interesting intersection between the cute and the grotesque currently occurring in some art and just in pop culture in general. Artists like Jordan Elise Perme and her Horrible Adorables capture this collaboration well.
Creature Twins by Jordan Perme.

Creature Twins by Jordan Perme.


It’s possible that this is a reaction against the past. An example Harris discusses in his book is how throughout the 20th century the teddy bear progressively became less bear-like (original teddy bears were based on taxidermic specimens) and more moon-faced and plump, which made them more inviting and huggable. But this turn away from realism in animals can be found other places as well. For example Mickey Mouse has become less mouse-like than his original iteration. But there does seem to be a turn away from this phenomenon these days. An example of this is the new design of Chuck E. Cheese that occurred last year. The old Chuck E. Cheese was similar to Mickey Mouse in that he hardly looked like the animal he’s supposed to be. This new Chuck E. Cheese is definitely much more rodent-like.
chucke5f-1-web
I suppose whether or not cute belongs in aesthetics could be up for debate. But this almost simultaneous popularity of cute and the turning away from it seems important and worth a closer examination. The cute should not just be dismissed.