Try this: Ask someone you know to define “cute.” They are not allowed to simply give an example of a cute thing, so no babies or sweet little rabbits singing a song about being brave; they must try and give a definition for the adjective itself. See how long it takes before words give way to gestures (hands making clutching motions, arms squeezing tightly around invisible teddy-bear-size objects) or inarticulate noises (cries of anguished delight, high-pitched vowel sounds). See how long it takes before they are scrunching up their faces in what looks a lot like pain.
It’s not just that the term is difficult to define, it’s that there is often a confounding gap between the smallness, or seeming irrelevance, of the cute object, and the strength and range of the feelings it invokes. Words alone don’t seem to cover it.
Cuteness — its properties, its uses and its increasingly dominant position in culture — is the subject of a dazzling new exhibition in London called simply “Cute,” running at Somerset House through April 14. Not exactly a history of an aesthetic and not exactly, or not only, a collection of particularly cute commodities, the show explores the unsettling power of apparently powerless things, looking at the fantasies that cuteness enables and creates, and making us think about how and why it has come to saturate our world.
Why does everything have to be so cute now? What does it mean that we have so enthusiastically allowed ourselves to be manipulated by an aesthetic that prioritizes the infantile, the teeny-weeny, the doe-eyed? Why, when I saw a can of Hello Kitty-branded motor oil in one of the show’s first rooms, did I desperately want to pick it up and give it a big hug while shouting, “Awwwwwww?” Why am I trying to buy one on eBay right now? I don’t even have a car.
If these questions give off a strong smell of the seminar room, do not be cast down: There is plenty of fun, and truly adorable stuff, to be consumed. Just ask the group of girls who were giddily twirling around taking selfies in the Hello Kitty disco room on the morning that I visited. (The show, in fact, is sponsored by Sanrio, the Japanese company that created Hello Kitty, and is timed to coincide with her 50th birthday this year. She’s 50 years old! According to a sign at the show, she was born in London on Nov. 1, dreams of becoming a poet and is the height of five apples! She doesn’t have a mouth!)
The exhibition’s brilliance, however, lies in walking the line between a highly Instagrammable celebration of cuteness and an absorbing exploration of its morally ambiguous character, illuminating what the cultural theorist Sianne Ngai has called “the surprisingly wide spectrum of feelings, ranging from tenderness to aggression, that we harbor toward ostensibly subordinate and unthreatening commodities.”
It opens with kittens, as it must. Before visitors enter, they pass 18 A.I.-generated kittens wearing little hats with little pompoms, or peeping out from behind little books, all with the infantile features — big heads, big eyes, round faces and sweet little teeny-tiny mouths — that the animal behavior researcher Konrad Lorenz noticed induce “cuteness perception” and trigger nurturing responses in parents. They get less cute, though, the more you look at them and notice that there is something not quite right about the light shining in their eyes, and that some of them have the wrong number of feet. The creepiest kitten had pupils like a crocodile, long and narrow, and horrifying, waist-length hair.
Inside, more kittens. There is the celebrated 50-year-old ur-kitten, of course, and the genuinely startling array of objects her image has induced people to buy: As well as the Hello Kitty engine oil, there were Hello Kitty computers, Hello Kitty staplers, Hello Kitty Good2Grow Juicy Waters (I don’t know what was going on with this), every type of Hello Kitty doll a person could conceive of, and a Hello Kitty wedding dress. Elsewhere, there were Victorian-era greeting cards of cats irritably perched on tricycle seats, or posed as if having tea parties. These were wildly popular, and the photographer behind them, Harry Pointer, was known to frequently complain that they had eclipsed his more serious work.
Cat photos will do that.
Beyond the cats, there is a room on kawaii, the Japanese culture of cuteness, and one that shows how advances in mass-production techniques allowed vast profits to be made from cuteness’s freakish ability to stir our emotions. Take the Kewpie Doll, which used to be made out of fragile bisque porcelain until the invention of celluloid turned her future around. Porcelain dolls broke, were expensive to make and their fingers were pointy and hard; plastic dolls were easier and cheaper to produce, and little girls could hug them to death with no ill effects. (There is a word in the Tagalog language of the Philippines for the feeling of wanting to squeeze something cute until it, or you, explodes: gigil).
Relations between consumers and products also define five thematic clusters of objects and images (or “cute cat-egories,” per the exhibition catalog). An exhibit called “Cry Baby” looks at how the appearance of vulnerability and helplessness — dolls with big sad eyes, rainbows crying multicolored tears, a Margaret Keane painting of a weeping girl clutching a cat — encourages consumers to feel that they are somehow doing the cute object a favor by purchasing it. “Sugar-Coated Pill,” which includes an OxyContin plush toy and a photograph of Adolf Hitler bending down to feed a baby deer, examines the way cuteness can be used to soften or disguise the ugly. Another exhibit, “Play Together,” looks at the sense of community that cuteness can create in the digital age. It also prompts questions about what kind of escape is actually afforded to us by playing Animal Crossing for hours or by building up a robust collection of My Little Ponies.
Most of the upstairs galleries are given over to an examination of the cute in contemporary art, which includes Mike Kelley’s photographs of dirty, manhandled plush toys, Cosima von Bonin’s oddly affecting sculpture of a killer whale slumped against a stuffed rhino, and a stop-motion animated video by Chris Zhongtian Yuan about the artist’s memories of growing up in 1990s China. During my visit, the same group of girls who had colonized the Hello Kitty disco had found their way into the “Sleepover Room,” which is curated by the multidisciplinary artist Hannah Diamond. They huddled together on beanbags in the enveloping pink light, mouthing the words to Katy Perry songs. Two of them discussed the implications of Hello Kitty’s being a Scorpio.
Leaving the show, I briefly got stuck in a shaky elevator that had walls lined with shimmering pastel fur. The doors would not open, and for a while it was just me, the opalescent fake hair, and the panicky sound of an “OPEN DOORS” button being pressed repeatedly to no avail. It felt very much like it could be part of the exhibition, perhaps with a label posing an exploratory question, “How long do you think it would take to become hysterical if you were stuck here?” or, “What would happen to the inside of your head if you had to look at this forever?” When the doors at last opened, I scurried out of Somerset House, sure to avoid the gaze of the cat with crocodile pupils.
I put a photo of the furry lift on Instagram. “WHERE is that disgusting lift?” one friend asked. “I hate it. Feel sick,” said another. “I love it,” said a third. “I want to live in it ALL THE TIME.”
Through April 14 at Somerset House in London; somersethouse.org.uk.