On the Aesthetic Capacity of Cuteness

Final essay for a workshop elective at The Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), instructors Sianne Ngai and Kavior Moon, 2016

Much has been written about the transition between the work of Nan Goldin and Ryan McGinley. On closer exanimation, though, the former’s inheritance in McGinley’s oeuvre produces some notable discrepancies. While these inconsistencies challenge the notion of progeny from one artist to the next, the overall aesthetic qualities of both remain consistent. If both Goldin and McGinley produce worlds which appear dreamy and singular at outset, the projects bifurcate in their respective engagement with politics. American writer Chris Kraus rightly ascribes to McGinley’s work a mythical quality, “Singular stories, personas, and things … paradoxically [abstracted] from cause and effect” (Kraus 2). This dual quality of spontaneity and inevitability that one approaches in McGinley’s photographs comes, for the most part, at the necessary sacrifice of political content. To achieve a level of solipsism capable of framing his content, McGinley borrows Goldin’s aesthetic disposition by vacuuming it of its context. Where Kraus dubs the work “post-AIDS, post-9/11”, she equally annotates Goldin’s specific implication within such streams of discourse.

Nan Goldin, "Misty and Jimmy Paulette in a Taxi", 1991. Image courtesy the Tate

Given its context, it seems impossible to excoriate any of Goldin’s photographs from the irrevocable consequences of their times. When we look at Misty and Jimmy Paulette in a Taxi, NYC, we cannot help but to feel an erudite sense of haplessness as two drag queens fight first daylight a world that does little to understand them and even less to validate their identities. Goldin herself identifies and “immediacy in the work … [a] need to remember and record every single thing” (qtd. in Westfall). These qualities become all the more perplexing when one considers the next logical progression within the Goldin-McGinley paradigm. The emerging voice of Petra Collin’s work, both in its individual endeavors and in terms of relevance to artistic contemporaries, inarguably returns to the problem of politics and borrows greatly from the gestalt of its progenitors. But what are we to make of the work’s insistence on a certain cuteness in aesthetic? It stands without doubt that Collins borrows greatly on what critic Sianne Ngai would underline as “an aesthetic response to the diminutive, the weak and the subordinate” (Ngai 53). Each image in Collins’ catalogue dances lightly on the topics of femininity, gender and fragility in the contemporary image culture with a specific and intentional implementation that foregrounds cuteness to interrogate the accessibility of a piece. What is at stake in this transaction between aesthetic and content? To what extent to these borrowings employ new methodologies to coopt the lineages of waning aesthetic styles in adaptation to contemporary issues?

The shift from McGinley’s stoic ruminations on the American West to Collins’ cuteness is one underlined by a clear inclination towards the political. Where the work of the former is hermetically sealed from political undertones, the latter employs cuteness as a means by which to digress from accepted norms. The immediate adjacency Collins curates between things culturally understood to be “cute” – and thus, as Ngai informs us, under-read to be harmless and docile – is found aesthetically in a less politicized manner in McGinley’s work between the vivacious transiency of nude youth against a gritty, timeless landscape. This co-opting of formal technique both underscores Collins’ indebtedness to her progenitor’s compositional tactics and foregrounds her aptitude for innovation within style by embedding in it novel capacities for addressing a broader range of cultural topics more attune to its contemporary cultural landscape.

This exposition of imagery triggers at once a backward, subjective, reflection onto the viewer’s own preconceptions around the topics at hand as well as forward onto the aesthetic mastery of the images themselves. Most often expressed in a critique of gender, this invocation the oppressively innocent roles commonly expected of women relies on the adjacent references to less pervasively accepted visuals of menstruation, girlhood and sexuality. Here too, Collins indirectly acknowledges the lineage into which falls her investigatory depictions of (nearly) everyday life, as can be clearly demonstrated as native to Goldin’s oeuvre. If the shift in its third generation defines the style’s reemergence onto the plateau of politics, what then accounts for the stylistic intervention that cuteness so clearly plays in the overall aesthetic of the work?

Perhaps the reliance on cuteness best functions to create an unsteady relationship between form and content. If the newer work is stylized as a borrowing of McGinley’s and Goldin’s patented set of pseudo-photojournalistic maneuvers, Collins’ productions hang somewhere between this familiar, gentle imagery and a more uncomfortable assortment of prevalent issues. While Goldin’s anesthetization of uncertainty and fallibility elucidated the marginalization of minority groups in the conservative climate of the 1980s, particularly women and those in the LGBTQ community, the implementation of cuteness for Collins provokes a different conversation. The issues of these groups have recently slide into the public sphere of discourse to an extent previously unparalleled, Collins’ adherence to the cute does less to bring in oblique conversations about fringe minorities to the centrality of art-as-commentary than to annunciate what already stands rather openly in the canons of cultural contemplation.

For her curatorial role in Babe, a collected series of works from 32 young female artists, this issue might be summarized to be one of ironically taking up the commercial value of cuteness as an intentional device to foreground cultural depictions of women and girls while working at the level of subtext within the pieces to undermine such otherwise unquestioned perceptions. This is as if to decree that society’s aesthetic expectations be taken at wholesale value but be pushed very slightly beyond their practical applications. Herself a fashion model, and therefore presumably familiar with the digestion of femininity through media culture, Collins’ stakes a slightly counterintuitive yet rewarding claim by appropriating cuteness as a form of critique against the values for which it usually stands. Moreover, this is often leveraged to depict scenes of identity in the age of social media (selfies, bathroom mirrors and duck faces abound in the work). In so far as cuteness is both subjected upon and expected as a projection from girls and women, the work’s simultaneous engagement with McGinley’s nihilistic emptiness alongside Goldin’s latent prospects of vulnerability and rejection suggests that deeper reading is critical to assess the exaggerated helplessness explicit in its aesthetic content.

On this note, Saints Ngai's explorations of both the feminine, subdued aspects of the cute laminate onto the adjacency attributed between cuteness and the grotesque to enliven an engagement with the aesthetic guises at play in Collins' work. If we are to approach any such image in the artist’s oeuvre, we encounter first – and are therefore delayed in our perception of the piece by – the connection Ngai elucidates for us between the cute and the feminine. In so far as Ngai identifies the qualitative potentials of the mimesis the cute produces in its obligation for the viewer towards a “structure of wanting to be like the cute” (quoting author Lori Merish), this enables nuanced “explorations of the intimacies among gender, clothing and language” (Ngai 68). This interchange between the viewer and the outward projections of the work dually function stage a conversation within the content of the work, staged completely through a careful negotiation of a rather commonplace aesthetic, in great part after that of McGinely, to which the viewing public is more than accustomed.

Ryan McGinley, "Wade, Wave", 2004. Image courtesy ryanmcginley.com

This is the alluring consumption value of Collins' photography. Its horrifically contemporary visual qualities draw the eye in with an utmost complacency only to upturn expectations by employing Ngai's second annotation of cuteness: its potential to betray the ostensibly harmless mandate of its experience. As we perceive Collins' photographs, we find ourselves engulfed in a presumably innocuous image only so long as we remain indifferent to the concealed content it carries. In her series, Selfie, this transaction between form and content begins to encompass a more foregrounded role in the articulation of the work’s reception. In images no. 5 and no. 6, for example, we confront an image which initially compounds the traditional trademarks of the commodity aesthetic we expect from it. Gentle, flesh-like colors annul the tonalities of the composition, a technique readily present in a number of McGinley’s photographs. Whereas a comparable image of his, such as Wade, Wave employs similar formal techniques of exposure and color balancing to enact a kind of visual reduction of the contours in tone that typically articulate the perimeters of objects in photography, the application of these maneuvers serves Collins’ political agenda in a way that was rarely harnessed by McGinley. Specifically, it ventures into the territory of what we might naïvely title “cute” to hold in suspension the eventual impact of our realization in regards to the content that sits directly before us.

Petra Collins, "Selfie no. 6", 2013. Image courtesy petracollins.com

In Selfie no. 6, specifically, the dimension of consumer aesthetic crafts a plane of comprehension between the viewer and the work, an equivalence that underscores the interaction between identity and projection up for appraisal in the piece. What lulls us into complacency when we encounter the dull, fleshy tones of chubby pubescent fingers and common hair products revolts upon further inspection. Whereas McGinley’s work elicits a kind of rumination, Collins’ shifts these perceptual tactics to engage something more akin to a close reading. We eventually come to address the restless hopelessness of the girl’s face, the fragile vanity embodied in the act of making a selfie. That the image depicts something trapped between a literal reflection (the mirror) and one of a more technological capacity (the iPhone’s forward-facing camera) purely underscores this point. Citing Wyndham Lewis, Ngai’s reflections that “cuteness thus seems to be ‘part of… the solution of the problem of ‘power” as its chief device functions towards the reductions of others’ capacities, in so doing “disposing of them”, contour in these images the crucial aspect of Collins’ mediation between an aesthetic and a content (Ngai 69). If we find ourselves comfortably drawn into them by a sense of unthreatening cuteness, we arrive at their core only to find a radical repudiation of what we hitherto expected. Collins masterfully ensures the delivery of challenging conversations about gender and self-image behind foolishly mundane auspices.

Herein rests the chief assertion of Collins’ contribution to the aesthetic progression from Goldin to McGinley. Inheriting the formal techniques of her immediate predecessor with purposefully recoupled dedication to the political content of the ancestral progenitor (in this case Goldin), Collins shifts the singular dialogue from one she inherited to be purely about composition and phenomenologically neutral perception towards a discourse more enthralled in contemporary issues. The agency of cuteness is the chief function in this equation in so far as it hijacks the aesthetics of contemporary image culture to convince us initially that we see nothing unusual. Where Goldin and McGinely worked in their respective practices to open the space for close reading in these seemingly pedestrian images, Collins finally provides the awaited content to fill such an expectation, politically directing the communicative power of the photographs through a decidedly introspective lens. If cuteness is to be understood as “the name of an encounter with difference… a perceived difference in the power of the subject and the object”, such photographs employ commodity aesthetics to confront the viewer less with the expected narratives of powerlessness than with refreshingly innate provocations to rethink gendered experiences and how they inform an understanding of the aesthetic expectations society exults on its patrons (Ngai 87). To be cute in a photograph of Petra Collins is neither to be awoken from marginalization, such as in Goldin’s work, nor to be aesthetically vacuumed of meaning and circumstance, as per McGinley, but to be given an opportunity in the silence of a particular aesthetic emptiness to have one’s speechless voice heard.

Works Cited

Collins, Petra. Selfie no. 5. 2013.

Collins, Petra. Selfie no. 6. 2013.

Goldin, Nan. Misty and Jimmy Paulette in a Taxi, NYC. 1991.

Kraus, Chris. “Psuedo-Fiction, Myth and Contingency”. 2012.

McGinley, Ryan. Wade, Wave. 2007.

Ngai, Sianne. Our Aesthetic Categories. Harvard University Press, 2015.
Westfall, Stephen. "Nan Goldin”. Bomb Magazine. Accessed 04 October, 2016.