The Power of “Cute” in Contemporary Art | Artsy (2024)


Charlotte Jansen

Feb 13, 2024 5:16PM

Installation view of “Cute: An Exhibition Exploring the Irresistible Rise of Cuteness” at Somerset House, London, 2023. Photo by David Parry PA for Somerset House. Courtesy of Somerset House.

If cute has a texture, it is squishy and soft. If it has a hue, it’s a candy-colored rainbow with a dollop of glitter. If it has a taste, it definitely contains glucose. Cute is a syrupy, dopamine-inducing aesthetic that has become a global phenomenon across visual culture. But is there more to cute than the straightforward delight we take in sweet and innocuous little things?

Claire Catterall—curator of a mammoth exhibition on the subject, “Cute: An Exhibition Exploring the Irresistible Rise of Cuteness,” on at Somerset House in London, through April 14th—agreed that cute culture’s influence is pervasive: “Cuteness seems to have taken over our world to an extraordinary degree,” she said, in an interview with Artsy.

Yvette MayorgaMariposa from the Vase of the Century Series, 2023David B. Smith GalleryUS$9,000


It’s not the only show exploring the ways cuteness has infiltrated our world. At The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Connecticut, Yvette Mayorga’s “Dreaming of You” has visitors salivating over saccharine pink paint applied like icing. Meanwhile, Emily Yong Beck presented two solo exhibitions of her ceramic jars last year—each vessel paying tribute to well-known cute icons like Hello Kitty and Sailor Moon.

The exhibition at Somerset House includes artists across generations, from Karen Kilimnik, Mike Kelley, and Mark Leckey to Wong Ping, Sin Wai Kin, Juliana Huxtable, and Rachel Maclean. It is timed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of ageless cute icon Hello Kitty, created by Japanese designer Yuko Shimizu for Sanrio (the exhibition’s sponsor) in 1974.

Karen Kilimnik, The cat sitting in its favourite basket out in the blizzard, the Himalaya, 2020. Courtesy of the artist, Sprüth Magers and Galerie Eva Presenhuber.

The show traces the evolution of cute culture from the 18th century to today, often referencing the U.K, the U.S., and East Asia as key exponents. There is, for example, a shrine to the iconic cute cat (complete with a disco and collection of plushies on loan from a Hello Kitty superfan), as well as many approaches to cuteness that are less on-the-nose, and even become ominous, often in works by contemporary artists.

These artworks show that it’s not just about “the irresistible nature of its adorable aesthetic,” Catterall said: There are deeper and darker aspects to our fascination with cuteness. Contemporary artists take cute to disturbing, dystopian places, evoking an ambivalence towards the cuteness overload.

In the exhibition, for example, Adventures in Symbolic Love Tyranny, a new film commission by British post-internet artist Ed Fornieles, continues the saga of Fornieles’s squidgy, round-headed, wide-eyed “finiliar,” a species of “living NFTs.” Like Tamagotchis for Gen Z, a human hand appears every so often to clean up the finiliar’s poop. Fornieles originally began to sell the finiliar in colorful eggs that hatched after purchase, but their wellbeing is bound up with the cryptocurrency they’re linked to, getting weak and falling ill when its value plunges. It’s not hard to get the punchline—the cute aesthetic of these cuddly fictional creatures (or commodities) charms and disarms, but can simultaneously entice us into nefarious capitalist mechanisms.

Cosima von Bonin, KILLER WHALE WITH LONG EYELASHES I (RHINO* VERSION) *Rhino by Renate Mueller, Germany, 1960s, 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Petzel Gallery, New York

Other artists, too, critique cute’s encouragement towards the abiding human desire to dominate and control. A work by German artist Cosima von Bonin, for example, installs a plushie killer whale slumped against a chair, apparently being supported by a stuffed rhino—a therapeutic toy designed in the 1960s by well-known designer Renate Müller. Here, the work’s cuteness harbors a perverse side: These once adorable playthings appear to be worn out by human interactions.

Yosh*tomo Nara is currently showing “The Bootleg Drawings, 1988–2023” at Pace Gallery in Geneva, consisting of more than 200 works on paper that show the origins and evolutions of his ever-popular, wide-eyed, cartoonish figures, which also play on the perversity of cuteness. Nara’s small, bubble-headed figures often threaten violence with weapons or facial expressions, a menacing reminder that innocence can swiftly be corrupted, and tenderness turned into terror. The upshot: We shouldn’t underestimate the power of something cute—or assume it’s benign.

Hannah Diamond, still from Affirmations, 2023. Courtesy of the artist.

For the generation of artists born in the 1990s and raised on video games like The Sims, manga, and anime aesthetics, cuteness is often about escapism and utopian world-building that gestures to their youth. At Somerset House, British musician and artist Hannah Diamond has created Perfect Dream (2024), an installation that presents a kind of sonic tribute to a girls’ sleepover, inviting audiences to engage in “collective dreaming” on pink floor cushions. Meanwhile, Techo Statue (original blue) (2018) by American artist Bunny Rogers is a steel, cement, and styrofoam sculpture of a lacquered lizard-like creature based on online pets Rogers created as a child.

This nostalgia is related to the hyperfeminine movement to reclaim cuteness and girliness—the gendered conceit that’s wrapped in stereotypical ideas of cuteness, submission, and innocence. At Yvette Mayorga’s aforementioned solo show at The Aldrich, “Dreaming of You,” the painter applies a signature “Mexican pink” paint using bakery-grade piping bags, in homage to her mother who worked as a baker in a Chicago department store after immigrating to the U.S.

Yvette Mayorga, installation view of “Dreaming of You” at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, 2023–2024. Photo by Jason Mandella. Courtesy of the artist.

Mayorga’s meticulously decorated, overtly feminine paintings appear like nostalgia-infused confections, with elaborate swirls reminiscent of birthday cakes. But on closer inspection, these sweet treats often depict scenes of Latinx hardship, or portray Latinx laborers and migrants to preserve “truths and histories that have not been included in the art historical canon and or often made to be invisible,” Mayorga said. The kitsch, Pop allure of her work challenges the viewer’s preconceptions. “The girly and cute [styles] in my work serve as a catalyst for conversations around girlhood, subversion, and power.…[They are] my power to storytell.”

In other words, “cute” doesn’t only describe an aesthetic, as cultural theorist and author of “OUR AESTHETIC CATEGORIES: Zany, Cute, Interesting” Sianne Ngai writes. It is, she says, “‘of’ or ‘about’ minorness—or what is perceived to be diminutive, subordinate, and above all, unthreatening,” and may also reflect the “surprisingly wide spectrum of feelings, ranging from tenderness to aggression, that we harbor toward ostensibly subordinate and unthreatening commodities.”

Whatever its effect, cute has a unique ability to unite and connect people with positive, warmer emotions, to soften even the most jaded of minds. Catterall argues this is exactly why we need cuteness right now. “In an imperfect world, cute’s own ambiguity and perversity, its embrace of darkness and its recognition of otherness…may help us find a path towards a kinder, more fallible, and, ultimately, more playful way of being.”

Charlotte Jansen

The Power of “Cute” in Contemporary Art | Artsy (2024)
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