pseudopodium
. . . John Wayne

. . .

Hawks's "catlike" is the exact adjective for John Wayne: lazy, single-minded, self-satisfied, graceful, violent, antisexual, and usually silent, except for a weird high yowl of protest that's almost always emitted as part of a mating ritual.

. . .

Jeepers, Creepers, and Peepers

"The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde" by Sianne Ngai,
Critical Inquiry Summer 2005, Vol. 31, Issue 4

Aesthetic theorists and researchers traditionally start from the Beautiful and Sublime. Having tangled questions of taste with investigations of experience, they then traditonally fall face-first into complete muddle.

So, as simultan kindly surmised I would, I like what Ngai's doing with Minor Aesthetic Categories. All I have to add to her essay relates to what it specifically isn't about. I mean, it says "the Avant-Garde" right in the title; I can't complain I was misled. But I think its High Art focus leads it to romanticize, overstate the centrality of, and miss some distinctions in cute-directed violence.

* * *

Impugning sincerity is tricky business. Goths genuinely are cute, and I'm sure as many kids go to art school because they're goths as the other way round. Nevertheless, sincere or not, there's no challenge when a contemporary fine-artist brutalizes the cute, or pretends it's a menace. In some cases, as Ngai kind of admits, it's macho-brat kicking against being perceived as trivial. In a lot of cases, it's just a cut-rate version of surrealism's habitual degradation of the desired. In all cases, it's easier to market "edgy" than "adorable".

In contrast, I admire Joe Brainard and Frank O'Hara for the conviction of their cuteness for refusing to buckle under fear of what the guys would say.

There are other artists, true, some inside, some outside high art circles, that I admire for the conviction with which they beat cuteness up. These come in two flavors.

  1. Kids who torture and maim their own toys. There's a lot of self-loathing in the play. Two obvious (and contrasting) examples from underground comix would be Vaughn Bodé and Rory Hayes.
  2. Kids who torture and maim other kids' toys. Here resentment is more important than identification: Tex Avery's sympathies didn't lie with the Disneyesque Sammy Squirrel. Although partly inspired by a photo of the director as an ugly baby, I have to believe similar hostility fueled the most hideous of all cuteness desecrations: Bob Clampett's original Tweety Bird. With its huge eyes and feet, sticky nakedness, and horrid leer, the creature's regressed past fluffy chick to fertilized egg: NEOTENY GONE TOO FAR.
Lizard About to Blow Balls Off at Flower: Vaughn Bode
Type 1
Shit-Eating Grin: Bob Clampett unit
Type 2

* * *

cute, a. 2. (orig. U.S. colloq. and Schoolboy slang.) Used of things in same way as CUNNING a. 6.

Gertrude Stein's book answered the riddle "What's cuter than a button?" Minima Moralia, on the other hand, I'd call cunning.

As those near synonyms (and as shithouse rats) indicate, "acute"'s move to "cute" was aphetic but not antonymic. (Speaking of etyomology, a scholar who keeps the OED so close as Ngai does will, I hope, be entertained to learn that "till" is not a shortening of "until".) The cutey-pie's wide eyes and soft skin signal receptivity and resilience.

Cute Eugene the Jeep is quiet, sure, but also indestructible and omniscient. Doghouse Reilly is notoriously cute. Young John Wayne is by no means harmless, but he's observant, non-judgmental, and cute, whereas old John Wayne is damaged, vindictive, and decidedly not cute. When Charlie Chaplin shambles on broken at the end of City Lights, he's definitely harmless, but he's no longer cute.

In nineteenth century North America, where both usages began, I suppose an infant might've seemed "cunning" in its sheer makedness: the extent to which the infant manages to resemble a perfectly engineered doll. "What a piece of work is a baby!" But the OED's "acute" citations seem to instead point towards "sensitive to impressions" and "having nice or quick discernment."

The most surefire "Awwww!" shot in movies is the one which shows an audience of children spellbound by a movie. And here's Chris summarizing a recent study of folk comparative psychology:

The baby scored really high on experience (higher, in fact, than the adult humans, including "you"), but really low on agency. This seems to imply that people feel like babies are experiencing everything, but have no will. I'm not exactly sure what to make of that.

More than just the viewers' vulnerability associates aesthetic response with cuteness.

Responses

I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can, and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use silence, exile, and cute.

. . .

Reference Work, 2

You read a story and suddenly there's a part that becomes just words because you know nobody ever did it like that, or said it that way but you have to pretend just to find out what happened. What I am describing is like that, too. Everything flattens out and isn't real.
- The Captain, Equinox
My challenge was to not point out how our friendship, or Ian's encouragement of my artistic ambitions, or, for that matter, the laughter we shared watching Godard's Alphaville at the Bleecker Street Cinema, expressed possibilities of connection that our daily orgy of nihilism denied.
- Jonathan Lethem, "The Beards"

I agree with Leonard that there's a thinness in much highly-praised contemporary fiction. But the thinning agent's not foreign blood.

In serious mainstream prose it's easier to incorporate John Wayne as a villain than to reproduce his attraction as a lead. An ambitious story or novel must make Ignatz genuinely destructive and Krazy purely female. The sensitive protagonist has no siblings; the jolly uncle is a child molester; superhuman privileges bring no joy and improve nothing.... These are generic conventions. They're integral to the story being told, but when I strike them my stride falters. I don't slip, but I slide a bit.

What disappoints Leonard are Chabon's, Franzen's, Moody's, and Lethem's references. What disappoints me is the familiarity of their disappointments. It isn't specific to these novelists, or to subjects like soul music or comic books. The same story's been told of painters and boxers, poets and actresses, gypsy fiddlers and twelve-tone composers: the transmutation of exhilarating matter into glum defeat.

Artists like Herriman, Hawks, and Gaye delight through the thrownaway (even if well rehearsed) gesture that transfixes. By nature, they're anti-plot or at least anti-character-development. When narrative attempts to depict such lyric effects, they can only be given too little or too much attention. If it's made the point of the story, the point of the story must be loss. It only takes a few minutes to hear a song by Schumann or Mimms and then where's the hero? Even as articulate an artist as Smokey Robinson can only tell us that rich guys love cocaine.

Alternatively, the writer may try to suggest some aspect of the experience in passing, using the critical equivalent of free indirect discourse, or may, like Stephen King and James Joyce, flatly cite brandnames.

In any case, narrative is saved: life is only interrupted. The choice has nothing to do with the referent itself, nothing to do with "high" or "low". Wagnerian opera was as bad for John Jones as hip-hop was for Arthur Lomb.

It may, however, say something about the referrer. Across media, a downward turn indicates depth. Chris Ware, like Lethem, started in high-art institutions, became revulsed by academic pretensions, was attracted by genre practitioners, established himself as a star in the most conceptually daring end of low-art publishing, and then (with a success that stunned his new peer group) was welcomed into the market covered by the NYRB&TBR. For both Ware and Lethem, disappointment was a vehicle.

On the other hand, prose fiction can embody its own sort of lyric effect. Lethem's "Sleepy People" is an example whose lack of critical regard shows how low beauty places in most readers' and reviewers' criteria. Although in some ways the career of Karen Joy Fowler anticipated Lethem's, her preference for comic structures puts her in constant danger of being reshelved from high-middlebrow to chick-lit or YA. And the most enthusiastically referential of storytellers Howard Waldrop, Guy Davenport unable to sacrifice the gaiety of their scholarship, remain coterie property.

... to be continued ...

 

Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.