Charming and humorous, cuteness is a powerful manipulative device that can reduce brains to mush and have people squealing “Awww!!” Cuteness may normally contain the traits of innocence and harmlessness, but combining it with something dangerous or illicit can make it funny. This is a popular motif in urban vinyl toys, pairing cutely designed characters with cigarettes, weapons and other items related to hip-hop/hipster/graffiti culture. Like a toddler wearing its father’s over-sized shoes or a bunny with a machine gun, putting cuteness together with danger and destruction raises some chuckles- and it can be quite disconcerting. “Cute irony” has risen in popularity in recent years. Urban vinyl toys are more popular than ever. There is also the curious phenomenon of “gothic cute”, which pairs typical gothic themes of death and horror with cuteness. Crafty fans stitch plush versions of atomic mushrooms while watching cartoon raccoons explode on the internet. This zine will explore the subversive anti-cute culture and the fans who embrace it.
JENNIFER CHOW | GD TOOLS | FALL 2010
TABLE OF CONTENTS TIME TO PLAY
A FATAL ATTRACTION
CLIMAX OF CUTENESS
THE RENAISSANCE OF CUTE
CUTE GONE BAD
TIME TO PLAY
Toys are not just child’s play any more. With the ongoing trend of vinyl designer pieces, toys now include collectible works of art that have proven broadly appealing across several generations of buyers, from older children to adults. from “designer toys: the vinyl answer” in American Chemistry magazine.
rimarily available at art galleries and niche boutiques, today’s designer toys are the result of the ‘urban vinyl’ movement in the early 1990s, which mixed American hip hop culture and street art with Japanese toy fabrication methods and aesthetics. Short-run products were popular among DJs and music fans. Many such toys were created in the 1980s in Japan for fashion designers, as mascots for their clothing lines. Given the nature of that market, the toys needed to be conceived with a strong and distinctive design sensibility. As American artists and designers emulated a medium that developed in Japan, they learned how to customize and market the concept locally. A diverse array of painters, graphic designers, and other artists—many previously working underground—ended up in the vinyl toy world, with some finding it sufficiently lucrative to support full-time endeavors in the field. Vinyl has been their enabler. It has become the designer toy market’s primary material of choice because it is relatively inexpensive to work with, compared to other plastics. This is because the rotation molds (rotomolds) for vinyl toys are usually made of copper, which enables a short run of manufacturing with low overhead costs. Mainstream commercial toys—such as the bodies of Barbie and Ken dolls—are made of
harder plastic and use heavier metal molds that can cost tens of thousands of dollars, an expense that can only be justified with a long run (i.e. thousands of toys produced). Another advantage of vinyl is artists find it easy to handle, shape, and custom-paint. And with its low expense, they can experiment more with new ideas, without breaking the bank.
“Given the nature of that market, the toys needed to be conceived with a strong and distinctive design sensibility.” Roto-molded pieces have no ‘parting lines,’ which adds to their sculptural value and results in a more ‘artistic’ item, in contrast to injection-molded products that are clearly mass-produced and aimed at an equally mass number of customers. Vinyl also has a wide range of possible surface characteristics, from matte to gloss, from opaque to clear, and even clear with suspended glitter. The material’s tactile and visual characteristics are a good match for designers seeking to translate two-dimensional (2-D) designs into three-dimensional (3-D) forms. As a result, many of the finished items are more like drawings and paintings than any injection-molded piece could be.
â€ƒ On the other hand, limited runs of vinyl designer toys can mean a higher price for the consumer. Yet, the market has adapted to these prices because the pieces are collected as works of art, not as typical toys. â€ƒ Championed in the likes of Juxtapoz Art & Culture Magazine, vinyl toy design has now fully joined other pop art media, enabling consumers to easily purchase and
display pieces of art that are highly appealing but do not talk down to them. Blurring the lines between art and pop culture, between museums and comic shops, wellsculpted vinyl designer toys tend to be simultaneously cute and subversive, much like the music and fashion worlds that inspired them.
VINYL VIPS 3
1 Designer: Joe Ledbetter Based in: Los Angeles Site: joeledbetter.com
2 Designer: Crazy Label Based in: Hong Kong Website: crazylabel.com
3 Designer: Kronk Based in: Cape Town Site: myspace.com/iamkronk
5 Designer: Andrew Bell Designer: Brooklyn Site: creaturesinmyhead.com
6 Designer: Chris Ryniak Based in: Cleveland Site: chrisryniak.com
7 Designer: Doktor A Based in: United Kingdom Site: spookypop.com
4 Designer: Junko Mizuno Based in: Tokyo Site: mizuno-junko.com
8 Designer: Simone Legno Based in: Los Angeles Site: tokidoki.it
A Fatal Attraction Junkoâ€™s girls donâ€™t just pull at your heartstrings, they pull out your guts. This is what would happen if all those cute, mute icons that little girls are supposed to love and emulate suddenly woke up and went on a murderous, self-empowered rampage. Realizing their sexuality, their physical power and their individuality, they carve a path for themselves right through your expectations. What results is the perfect mixture of notquite-right and deliciously wrong. Interview by Crowndozen.com
People seem to have a hard time defining your work, settling for phrases like “kawaii-grotesque or “ultra-violent, ultra-cute. How do you refer to your style? I think it is interesting to “define” my work, and I certainly understand that different people express their impressions in various ways, but it is hard for me to express in words what my style is. It is a natural progression of my work to go through change, and I am certainly ever -changing, so in short, I think it may be meaningless to categorize my work. Contradictions seem to be inherent to what you do. Your images are at once attractive and repulsive, sexy and scary. Your stories always start with a very traditional idea and then warp into something completely different. Are you a rebel at heart? I don’t think my work has contradictions, and I am not consciously trying to put them in my work. I think it is totally natural for both attractive and repulsive things to coexist in my work because those things coexist in real life. In contrast, I view the work that only depicts one aspect
of life to be much more contradictory. Therefore, I am not trying to destroy or change the tradition or go against the world for that matter; I simply want people to enjoy my work. I am impressed with your ability to overcome many of the stereotypes inherent in manga. You made a name for yourself in illustration by doing your own thing, and doing something completely different and unique from the rest of the field. Has it been hard to find an audience for your work, and have you faced struggles in bringing your work to the public? Like I said earlier, there were times in the past when, even though I was thinking that I was drawing completely natural things, some people thought that I was intending to shock people or somehow trying to create a controversial work. Some people also think that my work is stylish but lacks substance. However, on the other hand I’ve also found a larger audience than I expected to, who have an understanding of my work, so I don’t think I have faced many struggles in bringing my work to the public.
Your main characters tend to be strong women, capable of independent action and full of their own will. Are you that type of person? How much of you ends up in the characters you create? Basically, I am drawing ideal women that I want to be or aspire to be, and although I think I am making an effort to be as close to them as possible in real life, I can not make an objective judgment as to how close I am to the characters that I create. I just aspire to be close to them..... Comparatively speaking, I think I am independent and have a strong will for a Japanese woman. Because of that, many people tell me that I am “scary”. Do you find more women reading your manga, or more men? The fans in Japan who come to an event like my autograph-signing sessions are overwhelmingly women, but those who respond to the questionnaire cards that are attached to my manga books are both men and women in equal proportion. It is difficult to have a grasp of what is the exact proportion of men and women among my fans. Are your fans obsessive or generally more laid back and chilled out? Judging from the fans who came to my autograph-signing, there were truly many types of fans. They were mainly young men and women though, but I sometimes met fans like mothers with children or older men. It is hard to tell by just meeting fans at the autograph signing that they were obsessive or not, but I had an impression that obviously otaku looking people were generally scarce.
Do you collect toys? Yes I do, and rather than collecting dolls like Barbie dolls, I prefer those toys that also express the world in which these dolls live. For example, I like Polly Pocket, Strawberry Shortcake, My Little Pony, Liddle Kiddle, and the Japanese doll “Kodaechan”. However, I’ve already collected them all- so these days, it is becoming my new hobby to discover favorites among the old toys that were unknown or were not so popular.. So what can we look forward to from Junko Mizuno? I am little by little creating a new illustration book. Because I have monthly manga publication work that keeps me occupied, the progress on this new illustration book is slow, but I think it will be a great work, so please stay tuned. Also, an English version of other manga is slated to be published soon.
AWkWARD By Howard Li
ecent speculation shows that the percentage of teens who describe life as “very to extremely awkward” rose to 79.6% within the last three years.
While such statistics are purely the product of my hypothetical musings, you have to admit that they’re quite plausible. Like other teenage neologisms such as “FML” or “epic fail,” the word “awkward” has become notably and annoyingly prominent in our daily vocabulary. After all, isn’t awkwardness the very essence of modern teenage life?That time you ran into an old friend at the mall. That brief “hello” from an ex. That averted glance. That prolonged silence. Eh... yeah. Awkward. Now I must admit that I’m a more sociallyinapt guy myself; it’s quite possible that I represent a skewed opinion. But no one can deny that we teens are, in general, less capable of feeling comfortable with social situations than our parents.
“In fact, many of our generation’s celebrities are perfect examples of awkward teen culture—from Michael Cera’s skittish demeanor to Shawn Johnson’s smilingbut-stuttering sentences.” And while my deepest fear—as I type these words—is that this column will become nothing more than a botched attempt to make
hasty generalizations about an entire generation based on my own awkward experiences, the evidence is all around us. Compare talk-show legends like David Letterman, Jay Leno and Larry King to latenight’s newest and youngest addition, Jimmy Fallon of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon on NBC. The formers engaged audiences with their easy sense of humor, their ability to move a conversation and make every verbal exchange entertaining. But of the latter, Tom Shales of The Washington Post notes: “At one point, it sounded as if Jimmy Fallon muttered ‘I’m lost’ under his breath... The whole show had an unfortunate aura of disconnect.” Still, there is something strangely appealing, almost endearing, and very relatable about Fallon’s apparent insecurities and discomfort as he attempts to carry on a coherent conversation. What critics have called a “boyish charm,” it’s his awkward mannerisms that we unconsciously identify with and relate to. In fact, many of our generation’s celebrities are perfect examples of awkward teen culture—from the lanky limbs and geeky glasses of pop band Hellogoodbye, to Michael Cera’s skittish demeanor and Shawn Johnson’s
smiling-but-stuttering sentences. But these young stars are only an indicator, not a cause, of our inherent awkwardness. Long before, we were born and bred to be a generation of social klutzes. Think back to Barney & Friends and Saturday mornings on Channel 7. Since birth, we’ve forgone actual socializing for its easier, more convenient imitator: scripted television. And this diet of substitution has only gotten worse with age. Stepping outside after our daily fixes of Gossip Girl and House, we can only squint and stand in our own awkwardness, pondering the eerie similarities between the world before us, and the one we’ve been fed through the T.V. screen. But more than just a substitute for exercising our social musculature, it’s led us to suffer a certain degree of indoctrination. Long after we’ve been weaned from Lizzie McGuire and The Wiggles, Disneychannel clichés still riddle our thoughts. Much like that old lady from the hamburger commercials, we wander through the unsettling quietude of real life wondering—instead of “Where’s the beef?”— “Where’s the background music?”
Consequently, our lives become ones of expectation. We expect some shocking plot twist to keep the day from getting too boring. We expect to have a witty comeback to every sarcastic remark. We become frustrated when we discover that our eyes can’t switch camera angles, confused when our own dialogue lacks the eloquence of an English major who’s spent years typing screenplays. Perhaps I exaggerate; but it’s really nothing we should be ashamed of.
“Much like that old lady from the hamburger commercials, we wander through the unsettling quietude of real life wondering—instead of “Where’s the beef?”—“Where’s the background music?” Just think about all the babies in the country who are staring blankly at a Baby Einstein video while their mothers catch up with a friend on the phone or prepare lunch in the kitchen. As toddlers, they’ll be played a movie on that oh-so-convenient portable DVD player to keep them quiet in the car. By the time they enroll in the first grade, some school official would have spearheaded the switch from traditional instruction to video lessons: “It’s just more efficient,” he’d say. Picture what their first job interview—or better yet, their first date—would be like, and suddenly, our own awkwardness doesn’t seem so awkward after all. Because, oh boy, they have it so much worse.
t l e f t r a e H ntions e t n I 14
y Design B Written B
n 2008, Boing Boing posted a picture of a pair of felt plushies meant to represent the World Trade Center on the day of the 9-11 attacks. Anthropomorphized with faces and arms, the Twin Towers express shock and disgust as they are hit with miniature airplanes, holding each otherâ€™s hands as they are doomed to collapse.
I very much liked these crafts, thinking they displayed a child’s interpretation of 9-11, that sense of hopelessness, confusion and empathy that was swept under in favor of jingoist patriotic horn-blowing shortly after the attacks. Created by an adult, the plushies are a reminder that, No, we grown-ups don’t have all the answers, and sometimes we can be just as scared as kids. In the comments on the post, I saw a different reaction: “Nothing that happened on 9/11 was cute.”; “I find this couple’s
work infantile at best, and entirely lacking in profunditiy.”; “They are basically saying the suffering involved is trivial and stupid.” Though attraction to cute-
“It’s a little odd that cuteness would incite such a reaction. By its nature, cuteness is weak and non-confrontational, but why does it inspire such vitriol?” ness is programmed into our brains as a survival mechanism, ensuring that younger members of the species receive protection and care, there is still a strong, negative reaction against cuteness, especially when cuteness treads where it dare not. Of course this reaction will be stronger towards “sacred” topics - religion, politics, horrific events - but I’ve seen it di-
SUBVERSIVE SQUISHABLES Here are a few different stuffed toys that appeal to one’s sense of fun, irony, and anarchy in one way or another. 16 TWIST
Lauren Venell’s Sweet Meats are a way you can enjoy your favorite meat products in a huggable form. For an extra 50 cents you can even have the products arrive wrapped in butcher paper, just like a real cut of your favorite meat.
The latest in Michelle Valigura’s “Concealed Weapons” lineup comes to us in the form of Brass Knuckle Bob. Somewhere, there is a factory worker sewing a mustache on a pair of brass knuckles thinking “Man, I should’ve gone to college.”
rected towards Apple computers, cute mascots, and even children’s toys. It’s a little odd that cuteness would incite such a reaction. By its nature, cuteness is weak and non-confrontational, but why does it inspire such vitriol? In Western culture, cuteness occupies a very specific space: that of children. Cuteness is simple, ignorant and easy to control. Complexity is seen as a sign of maturity: a child starts out doing simply finger paintings of blobs, but graduates to still lives and portraits. Incorporating cuteness and “childish” assets into the domain of adults creates an uncomfortable juxtaposition- the 30-year old who collects action figures and comic books as a basement dweller. Embracing cuteness beyond childhood is seen as a step back to helplessness and naivete, a sign that one can not handle the complexities of the “adult” world. Only recently have the virtues of
The Huggable Atomic Mushroom from Dunne and Raby is part of the art series called Designs for Fragile Personalities in Anxious Times, featuring products designed to comfort one’s fears of death, alien abduction, or nuclear holocaust.
“childishness” been considered important in adulthood: companies encouraging playfulness to improve creativity and productivity, for example. Taking a sunny view point in a world of tragedy and pain is viewed as suspicious. Cuteness is happiness. Happiness can be threatening to the status quo. Cuteness is a sign of not taking things too seriously, or lacking the understanding to realize the severity of certain topics (a common sentiment in the comments on the Boing Boing post). Cuteness is an attack on the message, “Don’t be weak; be suspicious; only care about yourself.”
You probably think of a plush toy as something very cute and soft you go to sleep with. Well, at least until you get to know Patricia Waller, a German based artist, born in Chile whose toys are a little bit different.
Giant Microbes are some of the most unique stuffed germs around. How else can you give your friends herpes, gonorrhea and chicken pox without having some major explaining to do?
how fluffy bunnies and bouncy kittens brought cuteness to an awful climax
Climax of Cuteness
By Annalee Newitz
SOMETHING CUTE IS happening to America. On television the squeaky Pokémon and Digimon are living in a universe whose main physical characteristics are orange squishies and pink smooshies. Teenage girls are mobbing the Sanrio store for the latest Hello Kitty hair bands and dropping into the Paul Frank boutique for teeny T-shirts covered with hair-curlingly sweet cartoons of a spotted bunny-kitty-mousie-puppy creature who likes to eat birthday cake. Lipsticks are pink and sparkly; blouses are festooned with lace; fluffy stuffed animals serve as fashion accents. We are living in what a friend of mine
“As the United States takes a dark political turn with its unceasing war on terrorism, people are hungry for sweetness and light.” calls “the cuteocracy,” where the cutest person, place, or thing wins. Realism is out – unless it’s the hyperconstructed reality of Survivor – and the supernaturally ugly aesthetic of the X-Files has gone
the way of presidential candidate Ross Perot. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that, as the United States takes a dark political turn with its unceasing war on terrorism, people are hungry for sweetness and light. Cuteness may be calming and fun, but it’s also an ideal mask for something more unsettling. The national craze for cuteness has turned the innocent optimism of Hello Kitty into a hollow, cynical commercialism. Many of the images and icons we call “cute” came from idealistic, hopeful social movements of the 1960s and the exuberant subcultures of early-1990s clubbers and digital dreamers. But today cuteness is starting to feel like fake, mall-bought conformity. As the war on terrorism quickly reduces our complicated national situation to a simplistic cartoon, it seems that reactionary politics can be cute too. The fuzzy-bunny regime is telling you to forget; be a kid; don’t worry. And cuteness, as lovable a style as it may be, is turning ugly. Mommy, where does cute come from?
Probably the first hints that America was about to embark on a veritable od-
yssey of cute came from the ravers and club kids of that era, whose fashions and music were themselves inspired by a combination of 1960s hippie bliss and 1970s disco frenzy. Raver-friendly happy faces, day-glo accessories, psychedelic patterns, and extremely weird, plushy sneakers began to find their way into urban boutiques, and later into suburban
“Cuteness is about avoiding reality. You can just put yourself into cute mode and everything’s fine.” malls. Like true cutie-pie mavens, club kids embraced the enigmatic but peaceful messages of Sanrio and Paul Frank, whose simple, beatific cartoon characters appealed to the childlike mind-set of people on ecstasy. The trippy cuteness of rave culture had its counterpoint in the burgeoning Web industry of the mid 1990s. Digital designers had to deal with a medium whose flexibility was, at least in the early days, fairly minimal. Basic, bright, cartoony images filled the Web as it evolved into a phenomenally successful mass medium. Wired magazine took its cues from early digital design, playing with neon colors and exaggeratedly low-res graphics; later, Web zines like Suck and Word were famous for their random cartoony images, which set the tone for dozens of other Web culture sites. You might say that cuteness was the aesthetic of early Web sites, and digital cuteness influenced graphic design. Cuteness as we know it also owes much to Asian pop culture – especially from Japan. Although Godzilla, Hello Kitty, and Robotech had been staples in America for decades, the 1990s saw an
unprecedented escalation in the availability of Japanese anime, manga, fashions, movies, and ideas in the United States. According to Renee Solberg, marketing associate at Viz, one of the largest distributors of anime and manga in the United States, manga sales have gone up by 200 percent just in the last year – and a similar trend could be seen throughout the latter half of the 1990s. American kids began to imitate the Japanese styles they saw in popular Japanese fashion magazines like Fruits, which featured Tokyo teens in baby-doll dresses, giant shoes, “Raggedy Ann” getups, and Disney T-shirts. American zines about Asian pop, such as Giant Robot and Asian Trash Cinema, flourished. Japanese icons Hello Kitty and Pokémon appeared on every sort of consumer item, from vibrators to bulky plastic watches. Meanwhile, bubblegum babes and superheroic boys from Hong Kong action movies became a hot Hollywood import. By the end of the 1990s nothing was cooler than Asian pop. And nothing was cuter. The politics of cute
These days cuteness has lost any subversive edge it might have had back in the days when raves and manga in the United States were still mostly the purview of underground culture enthusiasts. Cute is a consumer item, a mainstream aesthetic. Kristin, one of the few critics of cute I found on Haight Street, says it makes perfect sense to her that cuteness has continued to be popular during a time of national fragmentation and war. “Cuteness is about fakeness and avoiding reality. You can just put yourself into cute mode and everything’s fine,” she suggests sarcastically. And indeed, the serious business of cuteness does seem to
be all about what the late culture critic . Michael Rogin called “cultural amnesia,” in which an entire society forgets about its problems by consuming mass media. Afraid of terrorists? Forget about complicated global problems and go see Monsters, Inc. Lose yourself in a simple story about big, fuzzy, nice monsters and a girl who speaks only in darling little blurts of gibberish. And hey, if poverty in America is bothering you, just tune in to reruns of The Simpsons, who prove that it’s supercute and always entertaining to be lower class. Cultural amnesia, according to Rogin, is all about using appealing images to wipe out our memories of painful historical and political realities. Looked at from this perspective, cuteness is a kind of cultural decoy, a soothing and simple distraction from a world whose boundaries and problems are becoming more mind-bogglingly complex by the day. Cute and anti-cute
Of course, not everybody is buying into cuteness. There are already indications that the cute craze has reached its frenzied peak and is about to get dumped into the ash can of history.
Perhaps more interestingly, the artists and subcultures who deal in cuteness are generating their own ironic self-criticism. Sarah Han’s cute, crocheted yarn creations, including her “Poolets,” a line of fluffy poop dolls, recently caught the attention of buyers for the Giant Robot store. There’s something distinctly subversive about marketing shit as cute, and these puffy brown creations definitely call attention to the real meaning behind so many cute fashions and styles. Over time, the squishy, fluffy, woopieness of cute has developed a rich cultural meaning. There’s more to pink and baby blue T-shirts than sheer yumminess. Although it might be cute when Hello Kitty’s precious little face is all over your house, it’s less than sweet when the cartoony simplicity of so much contemporary American culture seeps into our political rhetoric. I love the Sanrio store as much as the next Asian pop-obsessed chick. We don’t have to throw away all our Godzilla DVDs to be critical of the cute regime. Ultimately, the problem is not “cute,” but how and when we use it.
ANTI-CUTE FAN DEMOGRAPHICS 12%
15-17 18-21 23%
POPULAR CHOICES OF INTEREST Television: Invader Zim, Happy Tree Friends, South Park Music: Indie, Underground, Emo-punk, Electropop Clothing Stores: Hot Topic, Urban Outfitters, Threadless Magazines/BLOGS: Juxtapoz, GiantRobot, Kawaii-not Outings: Craft Fairs, Art/Animation Conventions Websites: Tumblr.com, Etsy.com, deviantart.com
By Nick Mount
The Renaissance of Cute How the street brought pleasure back to art for free
By Nick Mount 22 TWIST
he is an unlikely icon. She hid in back lanes on Bankside, under the South Bank bridges, in the corners of council estates in Islington. She survived just months, sometimes weeks, before disappearing, buffed off or covered over in paint’s endless war on paint. Sometimes she left traces behind, a ghostly shadow of her body or an outstretched arm for those who still sought her out. Her image spread. From maybe a dozen appearances late in 2003 and through 2004, the little girl and her lost balloon appeared in hundreds of photographs, from blurred cellphone captures to staged shoots. Her copied pixels multiplied around the globe through countless photo-sharing sites, blogs, and web zines. She made a cameo in Woody Allen’s Match Point, showed up in tattoos, on running shoes, T-shirts, posters, and wedding cards — copies of copies, made by fans for themselves and, inevitably, for sale. And sell she did. Her creator, the British street artist known as Banksy, posted a drawing on his website of art buyers bidding on a framed canvas of his scrawled response: “I can’t believe you morons actually buy this shit.” Modern graffiti emerged in New York in the early 1970s as spray-painted signatures, or tags, still its most common form. Later came throw-ups and pieces — larger, more colourful, more intricate versions of the tag. It is an inherently political art, an assertion of the artist’s existence and, more distantly, of his (occasionally her) right to expression. In graffiti, the art of rebellion takes a back seat to the act of rebellion, to getting up, as often and as brazenly as possible. The graffiti artist has neither the time nor the interest for emotion recollected in tranquility. Graffiti wasn’t a rejection but an extension of the high art of its century, an art equally interested in shock and action over aesthetics. From Marcel Duchamp’s urinal through Jackson Pollock’s drips to Damien Hirst’s pickled cows, twentieth-century art spurned beautiful imitations for provocative concepts. Some say graffiti is beautiful, that it beautifies the city, just as some say Picasso’s cubist prostitutes are beautiful. But beauty was never the point of either, except as the enemy. Graffiti disfigures the city in the same way Duchamp’s urinal disfigured the art gallery. Mayors understood this; that’s why they fought it. Art dealers understood it, too; that’s why they bought it.
toon characters in cartoon colours. Sad cute. Silly cute. Sexy cute. Helpless. Playful. Innocent. Bambi goes downtown. Twentieth-century artists turned on beauty for noble reasons, initially to avoid producing art for the pleasure of a society they held responsible for World War I. But increasingly, art’s main quarrel with beauty was over money. Expelled from high art, beauty and its companions found a home in popular art, in advertising, music, magazines, and movies. For serious artists, the beautiful became associated with the commercial, and therefore was to be avoided or attacked. That went double for the cute, anathema to art because of a By Nick Mount wobbly fawn and a big-eared mouse. Art didn’t have a problem with selling Pollocks to the few for millions, but it did have a problem with selling Disneys to the many for the price of a movie.
Many street artists began with graffiti, and many continue to use its spray can while adding posters, stickers, and sculpture. They’re still mostly young, for the obvious reasons that the work is usually illegal, potentially dangerous, and doesn’t pay. Graffiti’s political voice has expanded in street art, becoming less about the self and more about the world. It’s typically anti-corporate, though seldom overtly. Street art shares the sheets with culture jammers like Adbusters magazine, but it’s more hopeful than critical. Oddly, the single most common aesthetic in street art, this child of shock, of defiant tags and disfigured letters, is cuteness. From São Paolo to San Francisco, Tokyo to Toronto, New York to New Orleans, the cute pokes its head through the tangled Duchamps of urban walls. Smiley faces. Pouting faces. Big eyes in big heads. Car-
Street art’s genius is to retake the tremendous power of aesthetics surrendered by art to commerce, while dodging the commercial by giving itself away. Street art is no more immune to commerce than graffiti turned out to be. The art dealers and shoemakers have come calling even faster than they did in the 1980s. But what they’re buying isn’t street art; it’s pale copies or other work. Street art is on the street. That’s why Banksy called Sotheby’s buyers morons, because they paid tens of thousands for copies when the originals sat outside for free. There, in her original frame, the little girl and her lost balloon are not for sale. Around the mid-1990s, street art became less about the idea and more about the art, more playful than conceptual. On the streets, shock lost its shock. Pleasure took its turn: the pleasures of making and seeing art for what it is, not for what it says, or what it costs. Pleasures art forgot. Indoors, cute is queen in Lowbrow art, sometimes known as Pop Surrealism, which took off about the same time street art got cute, and is influenced by graf-
fiti and street art, along with cartoons, video games, science fiction, custom hot rods, and just about anything else you couldn’t see at your mom’s MOMA.
“From São Paolo to San Francisco, Tokyo to Toronto, New York to New Orleans, cute pokes its head through the tangled Duchamps of urban walls.” Like street art, Lowbrow rejects concept for emotion, narrative, and skill, the techniques of the Old Masters instead of the theories of the art schools. More obviously, though less trumpeted, Lowbrow ratchets up street art’s affection for cute into an obsession. Virtually all of the best-known Lowbrow artists draw, paint, and program from whimsical to wicked. From the abject to the sublime, aesthetics evoke feelings that all people have before they suggest concepts that only some people know. But like beauty, the cute unites accessibility with pleasure, the marriage that made Disneyland. Twentieth-century art surrendered this tremendous power because a toilet taught it
that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Sure it is, but as both long experience and recent science show, we agree more often than not, agreement that cuts across class, gender, age, and even race. And right about now, our cities could use some public reminders of our shared humanity. Beauty’s fragility compels our care. We protect beautiful paintings in museums; we try to preserve as long as we can beautiful flowers and beautiful faces. But the beautiful is also powerful. Helen weakened the knees of Paris; Bambi has weak knees. Because of its helplessness, the cute needs our protection more than the beautiful, and so might arouse us even more than beauty does to extend our care from the extraordinary artwork to the ordinary person. Especially outdoors. Street art loves the cute because street art loves the streets. Like any good art, in other words, it matches its aesthetic to its content. It finds pleasure in line, colour, and context, in providing what the London Police call “free smiles for anyone willing to lend us an eye.” Street art looks at the city through the eyes of a child — sometimes sad, sometimes angry, but more often playful, curious, hopeful. Banksy’s balloon girl is a self-portrait.
d e t s i w T s n o To
When Japanese cuteness is adopted into American culture for consumption by teenagers and young adults, itâ€™s given an ironic twist. Characters like Happy Bunny and the Kawaii Not series demonstrate this trend: cute smiling, seemingly-innocuous characters spouting expletives and malice, giving an adult-like wink behind their childlike facade. Violent cute characters like Gloomy Bear do exist in Japan, but theyâ€™re in the minority of the greater Cute Commercial Complex. 27 TWIST
Watch That Internet. It’s Getting Away With Cartoon Murder
BY Katherine EllisoN
he other day I found my 6-year-old son watching an Internet cartoon called “Happy Tree Friends.” Purple daisies danced, high-pitched voices sang and animals with heart-shaped noses waved cheerily. But then the music changed, and a previously merry green bear, with dog tags and camouflage, suffered an apparent psychotic breakdown. Crrrrrack !! went the neck of a purple badger, as the bear snapped off its head. Blood splashed and continued flowing as the bear gleefully garroted a hedgehog, then finished off a whimpering squirrel already impaled on metal spikes by placing a hand grenade in its paw.
“Its faux warning, “Cartoon Violence: Not for Small Children or Big Babies” is pure come-on -- for those who can read.
Joshua turned to me with a sheepish grin. He clearly had a sense that I wasn’t happy about his new friends, but he couldn’t have known what I was really thinking. Which was this: I’m a journalist who reveres the First Amendment, yet I would readily march with right-wing fundamentalists in a cultural war against “Happy Tree Friends.” Just when parents thought we knew who our electronic enemies were - the shoot’em-up video games, the TVs hawking trans fats, the pedophile e-mail stalkers and teenage-boobs Web sites - here comes this new swamp-thing mass en-
tertainment: the Internet “Flash cartoon,” pared down to pure shock value. Its music and animation are tuned to the Teletubbies set -- that’s its “joke.” Its faux warning, “Cartoon Violence: Not for Small Children or Big Babies” is pure come-on -- for those who can read. And it’s easy to watch over and over again, reinforcing its empathydulling impact. That makes it particularly harmful to young psyches, UCLA neuroscientist Marco Lacoboni told me, bec ause children are prompted to copy what they see - especially what they see over and over again. “Not only do you get exposed and desensitized; you’re primed, facilitated, almost invited to act that way,” maintains Lacoboni, whose expertise in the brain dynamics of imitation makes him an outspoken critic of media mayhem. “Happy Tree Friends” appears tailor-made to sneak under the radar of blocking software, unless parents are somehow Internet-savvy enough to know about the site and specifically ban it in advance. And it’s certainly suited for the kind of viral contagion that caught up with my 6-year-old, who learned of the site from his 9-year-old brother, who first saw it over the shoulder of a summer camp counselor.
But the bottom line is, well, the bottom line. In its web-cartoon class, “Happy Tree Friends” is a humongous moneymaker, as irresistible to big advertisers as it is to 6-year-olds. At last count, the site was drawing 15 million unique viewers a month, reaping $300,000 or more in ads for each new episode. It recently snagged a place on cable TV, while s p a w n ing DVDs, trademark m i n t s ,Tshirts and, inevitably, a planned video game. Internet cartoons had their defining moment with the hilarious “This Land Is Your Land” 2004 election-year parody, featuring George W. Bush calling John Kerry a “liberal wiener” and Kerry calling Bush a “right-wing nut job” to the famous Woody Guthrie tune. The trend has brought some interesting material -and also such savage fare as the graphic cartoon “Gonads & Strife” and inviting you to repeatedly electrocute a gerbil in a light socket. “Happy Tree Friends,” now in its fifth, most successful, year may well be the most lucrative cartoon webseries.
Its narrative is as primitive as its business plan. In every episode, the cute creatures are introduced, after which something awful happens to them, either by gruesome accident, or at the paws of the psychopathic bear. The wordless content appeals to a global audience, enhancing an already remarkably efficient delivery system for advertising. There’s a running ad before each episode, while banners flash below and beside the cartoons. Evershed, the father of three children, the youngest aged 2, told me during a phone conversation that he wouldn’t let them watch “Happy Tree Friends.” But then he argued that the cartoon wasn’t really harmful. “It’s like ‘Tom & Jerry,’ “ he said. “I grew up on ‘Tom & Jerry,’ and I don’t think I’m particularly aggressive.”
“Tom & Jerry” never pulled knives or tore heads off or used someone’s intestines to strangle a third party, just for starters.
Aggressive? Much as I’d like to, I can’t fairly speak for Evershed on this point, but I certainly do worry about the impact on my children. As for “Tom & Jerry,” I know “Tom & Jerry,” and this is no “Tom & Jerry.” “Tom & Jerry” never pulled knives or tore heads off or used someone’s intestines to strangle a third party, just for starters. “Tom & Jerry” had creativity, with surprising plot twists and a richly emotive score. Most importantly, “Tom & Jerry” had a con-
science. Routinely, Tom attacks Jerry and is punished for his aggression. In terms of human evolution, the 1940s classic is light-years ahead of “Happy Tree Friends,” whose authors, Navarro and Montijo, have been quoted as saying, “If we are in a room brainstorming episodes and end up laughing at the death scene, then it’s all good!” Mad as I am, I’m actually not suggesting that the feds step in and ban this cartoon. The basic freedom of the Internet is too precious, and government censorship too risky and probably not even feasible. The current rules - restrictions on the major airwaves, but anything goes on the Web - will have to do.
Eamseetts t s e W
BY DESIGN BENIGN
loomy Bear is the creation of a young Japanese illustrator called Mori Chack, who hails from and still lives in Osaka. A few years ago, Mori Chack was selling postcards on the street, before his work was discovered by the huge music and video distribution company, Pony Canyon, who must have seen a chance to get into the massively lucrative character business - create and syndicate a hit character in Japan, and the yen will come pouring in. Of course, there are hundreds - thousands - of characters but only a few of them make it big. Like pop stars, or actors. It seems to me that Gloomy Bear stands out from the crowd because he’s not just cute. He’s scary, and kind of disturbing too. In one of Chack’s drawings, a small boy is dreaming about all the lovely things he’d like to do with his teddy bear: cuddle him, give him a bath, carry him around in a cardboard box. Beneath this sweet dream bubble, Gloomy is kneeing the boy in the face, blood splattering to the ground. It’s horrible. It’s heartbreaking. But it’s funny and cool, too. In an interview with Japanese Streets, Mori Chack said, “It is only natural that a bear attacks humans. Iwanted to express that in a cute manner.” Gloomy is a real bear, and real bears have real teeth and real claws. It’s such a simple idea, it’s amazing no-one’s done it before.
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While both sets of mascots are cute, Japanese characters tend to have more infantile characteristics (bigger heads, rounder bodies), as well as characteristics that make them appear more helpless. Even Western characters geared towards young children tend to be more “adolescent” in their designs: articulated limbs, lots of movement, loud/verbose.
Western Characters • • •
extroverts mature features characters who project their emotions on you
Eastern Characters • • •
introverts infantile features project your emotions onto the character
This affects how the character interacts with its audience- Japanese characters tend to more about the viewer projecting their emotions and desires onto the character; it’s the opposite with Western characters. The creators of Hello Kitty have said when asked about Hello Kitty’s lack of a mouth: “Hello Kitty speaks from her heart.”
Kawaii Not is a webcomic about, in its own words, â€œcute gone bad.â€? Each comic usually features an every day object with a face, saying something shocking. Design Benign recently asked its creator, Meghan Murphy, a few questions about the relationship between cuteness and irony.
What do you find compelling about the juxtaposition of cuteness with not-so-cute or questionable elements? That juxtaposition adds levels of interest/fascination for me, and gives the art more options. Cute things are cute, it’s true, but at a certain point plain cuteness has no where else to go. Add a dash of darkness, or oddness, or naughtiness - and all of a sudden there are so many more directions in which to take off. How do you find a balance between just the amount of cuteness and the right amount of dark humor? Was there a time when you thought it went too far on the dark humor side? I’m still figuring that out with every strip. Kawaii Not has been a kind of exploration of cute for me, both the love and the hate. I don’t think Kawaii Not has ever gone too far to the dark side, but of course that is completely subjective. What I find still adorable might push all the wrong buttons for some one else. That is probably part of the reason “cute” is so hard to define. Do people tend to come to your comic first for the cute, or for the humor/weirdness of it? It probably depends on the individual reader. Some people react more to the visual side (which tends to be the “cute” part) while others zero in more on the words/action/situation (the “weird” side of the equation.) But of course, like peanut butter and chocolate I feel one really only gets the full taste if they are devoured together. “Ironic cute” - or as your comic states, “cute gone bad” seems to be an increasingly popular subject for artists and illustrators. Have you noticed any trends? Oh sure, but it’s only a natural reaction to such a strong and persuasive style such as kawaii/cute. Artists are often inspired by a style, but then want to start pushing it in different directions to see where it can take them. And irony is one of those directions. Many of your illustrations feature inanimate objects with faces. Why do you think such a simple device can instantaneously make anything cute? It must be how we as humans are hard-wired. We see a face, and tend to immediately empathize with it. Even if that face is on something we know is inanimate. That’s some pretty deep biological programming. What do you think makes something cute? That is a tough question. I could say a smiley face, big eyes, round features -- but those are just visual elements. It’s also part contextual. If you put a simple smiling face on a picture of the sun, then add the caption “I love sunny days!” it’ll probably be perceived as cute. Take that same smiling sun and add the caption “I can smell you burning” -- cute might not be the first word that come to mind.
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