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.