The “C” Word

More and more often my work has been eliciting the response, “Cute!”

This is bizarre to me because I feel like the art has become sharper and more political than it ever has been with lots of weapons, penises, and some rather overt violence.

When viewers exclaim, “Cute!” I’m always conflicted about how I should react.

Responding with, “I know! Aren’t those tiny grenades adorable?!” might be taken the wrong way. I usually respond with an overly cheery, “Thanks!” because I’m truly grateful that they’ve made the effort to remark but, honestly, a little piece of my soul quietly dies.

The word “cute” is like fingernails on a chalkboard to me.

What is it about this four-letter word that I find so vulgar?

Is it because “cute” happens to be the most common expression of praise for something that is perceived as pretty but without substance?

Is it because “cute” seems as vague and slightly dismissive as the word “nice”?

Is it because “cute” has a sub-definition of “clever” and being clever is associated with gimmicks and precociousness?

Is it because “cute” is copiously used to describe hobby, crafty work and hardly ever (NEVER) used to describe serious fine art?

Alongside my ego being bruised due to my many personal hang ups on the word, I’m a bit disturbed by my work’s classification as “cute”. Is a pile of grenades cute? How about a creepy clown exposing his junk? Is that cute? Is someone literally losing their head cute? And someone repeatedly chopping at their own legs with axes? That must be super cute!


I know in my heart that people aren’t so desensitized to violence that they actually imagine these things are “cute”. I think what’s happening when I get this reaction is that the viewer is only giving the work the most cursory of glances – they are responding to the colorful whimsy that surfaces my pieces.

That viewers react at all is GOOD. In fact, it’s wonderful! I love it when people take the time to comment or say something. It means so much to me. What concerns me is that they seem to ONLY be seeing “cute”. If this is the case am I failing at my job?

I have been accused of being too subtle in the past.

I have an artist friend who commented to me recently that people these days don’t want to think when they look at art. They want it to be easy and efficient, something they can absorb the entire scope of in under 3 seconds. I know I’m up against attention spans that are being trained to be shorter and shorter but I refuse to alter the way I work, dumbing down the message or making it less complex in order to deliver the equivalent of fast food art.

Art should not be a drive-through experience.

I don’t want to give the viewer a visual appetizer and then repeat all the same flavors in the rest of the meal. I want it to be an accumulative experience with complex and contradictory layers that inform one another and take time to digest.

It’s my personal art-making philosophy that when you place two opposing things together you have an opportunity to see each of them from a new perspective. I believe this encourages thoughtful observation, not just seeing.

This is why I willingly exploit whimsy.

In order to remark on difficult subjects I choose a vehicle that has lighthearted associations.

If I commented directly on violence, politics, or the sad state of world by using violence, politics, and the sad state of the world then I would simply be telling the viewer what I think – or worse, that TO think. I’ve always thought that approach is a bit limiting and heavy-handed.

I prefer to use a soft-touch, encouraging people to think for themselves on a certain issue and to ponder what it is I’m getting at by, for example, using the vehicle of tiny, fun!, colorful clowns that engage in acts of violence against themselves and others. I use whimsy to make what I’m really trying to say more palatable. I use humor to open up a conversation about the horrific. I use a sweet face to deliver a harsh message.

It presents me with a “you can lead a horse to water” dilemma, though. I can put the work in front of the viewer but I can’t encourage them to think beyond the “cute” veneer. If I can’t accomplish that then my true message is not coming across.

For that reason “cute” can be a curse.

The next time I encounter the “C” word maybe another way to reply would be to ask what it is about the work that strikes them as cute. Prompt them to consider their response and look a little closer.

Or I could let go of wanting to control someone else’s experience. Just make the work, release it, and accept that it’s unreasonable for me to expect my work to always connect and engage with every single viewer in the way I hope it will, and to understand that this is not necessarily a fail.

6 Responses to “The “C” Word”

  1. Ilze Bebris says:

    Right on! Yes, the cute word is so often meant to express appreciation but unfortunately at a superficial level. It is less dismissive than someone not having the time , as
    you point out to venture just a little more deeply into the work. And it does takes time, and the thoughtfulness to try to articulate the feelings the work brings up. Now, how to slow the viewer down in an overloaded visual culture….let me know if you figure it out.
    Ilze

    • I’ll definitely be bottling that solution if I ever figure it out! I think the first step is to not acquiesce to a quick fix culture and to continue to make deep, meaningful work. We might need to reward the viewer for more time spent with a piece – maybe a little candy dispenser with a sensor and timer that spits out a treat for them if they engage long enough? 😉 Thanks for reading, Ilze, and continue to fight the good fight with your work!

  2. Polly Faminow says:

    I used to get “cute” a lot with my work too.
    I was told once at school that it was not OK to do work that was cute and trite (like mine was). I became very confused about “cute.” If I were you I would just proceed with your vision of whimsy and irony and just laugh when someone says “that’s cute.” It’s not your problem that that’s all they see.

    • Thanks, Polly. Yup, seems if your work is considered “cute” there’s no way its fit for academia or professional art. Geez. Sounds like you came to terms with how other people reacted to your work in a very healthy way. I am definitely going to continue making my work and look to connect with the right audience.

  3. Jody, I love this post because you’re voicing a struggle I experience constantly. Some people look at the surface of my art and just see the fun in it. Others see only the brutality, without grasping the satire – that I’m not condoning horrible things, I’m seeking to understand them. I resonate totally with your saying “It’s my personal art-making philosophy that when you place two opposing things together you have an opportunity to see each of them from a new perspective. I believe this encourages thoughtful observation, not just seeing.” And I like your solution: to ask what a viewer identifies as “cute,” then engage them in conversation. By the way, I think that art isn’t the only field where this happens. Since I also have a lot of experience with the academic history field, I’ve been noticing more and more how historians can have very different interpretations of what other historians are saying. Then they all write more papers explaining their intentions, and then they have conferences where they discuss different interpretations in person for a couple of days! Even words aren’t always as precise as we think.

    • Anne, thanks for reading 🙂 I’m glad you enjoyed the post and could connect to the message. Knowing your art I can totally understand that people who don’t really observe the work might respond with thinking it’s all fun and games or that you’re advocating violence. You’re so right on the slipperiness of words and interpretations! I appreciate your point, too, about how misreading (or multiple readings) also happening outside the field of art. At the next open studios I’m going to try asking visitors to elaborate if they remark “cute”. If you try that tactic, let me know how it goes!

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