Our Aesthetic Categories

by Sianne Ngai

The Shape of Green

by Lance Hosey

Central Question: What is the role of the cute in contemporary culture?
Instances of cuteness analyzed in Our Aesthetic Categories: Takashi Murakami’s DOB doll, bath toys for babies, an anthropomorphized cookie as described by Walter Benjamin, Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, avant-garde poetry; Car Lance Hosey claims is even cuter than the VW Bug and the MINI Cooper: his own Smart car, which strangers tell him “reminds them of an automotive puppy”; Number of Facebook “likes” of the pomeranian Boo, also known as “the world’s cutest dog”: 5,248,932; Year of the first literary instance of the word cute: 1756, in William Toldervy’s The History of Two Orphans: “‘You may think as you please,’ said parson Drill; ‘but I take him to be a very cute one.’”

Aesthetics is a strange double branch of philosophy. Now understood mainly as the study of art and beauty, the discipline didn’t actually take up beauty as an object of investigation until the mid-eighteenth century, and the beauty of art in particular until even later. But the major aesthetic categories we have inherited, the sublime and the beautiful, come from a time when viewing art was understood to be a transcendent, sacred, theological experience, entirely separate from and elevated above everyday life. Since then, art and aesthetics have been firmly and persistently decoupled from morality by philosophy and criticism (not to mention art itself); philosophers, deconstructivists, and media theorists have torn down the mystical framework of the sublime and the beautiful in art, but without creating new aesthetic categories in their place.

If two very different theoretical books are to be believed, we ought to start taking seriously the contemporary role of one seemingly trivial aesthetic category: the cute. English professor and literary theorist Sianne Ngai implicates it as central to current problems in our contemporary politics of aesthetics; architect and designer Lance Hosey hopes it can save the planet. In both of their arguments, the role of the cute, and its appeal to our instincts toward consumption and caring, helps answer the question of art’s potential role now that it has left the realm of the sacred and become part of everyday life.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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—Monica Westin

Monica Westin lives in Chicago, where she studies rhetorical theory, writes about art, and collects Maneki-neko ceramic cat dolls.

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