This week Somerset House launches its first exhibition of 2024. Cute runs from 25th January to 14th April, and features artworks centred on, ‘the unstoppable force of cuteness in modern culture.’
Looking around at the walls of Enter Gallery, it’s evident that cute art is a hit – whether it’s the loved up works of David Spiller, Magda Archer’s sassy little puppies, or Takashi Murakami’s iconic smiling flowers, it seems the art world can’t get enough of cute.
While adorable art may be easy on the eye, the messages that lie beneath the sickly sweet colour palettes and endearing characters are often anything but. So, in today’s blog we’re diving into the world of cute art, what is says, why it appeals, and how Enter Gallery’s artists have used the aesthetic to great effect.
When you think about it, cuteness is the very first aesthetic that all humans are exposed to. It permeates our psyches via toys and animated cartoons long before we’re conscious of what we’re seeing and what it all means.
Cute art therefore serves up a comforting dose of nostalgia that, quite literally, takes us back to simpler, more innocent times, long before we had a clue about the horrors of the world. So, there’s a reason why Jeff Koons' balloon dogs are so popular – they evoke the same sense of childhood wonder you used to get when handed them at a kids party!
Time and again, we see artists offer their interpretations of cartoon characters, whether that’s Mickey and his pals, or other childhood greats like Snoopy, the Looney Tunes bunch, or infamous grump, Garfield.
The popularity of these characters can be attributed to the sense of comfort they once provided, because, as youngsters, it was these animated characters that helped us to make sense of our experiences of the world.
The Rise of Cuteness
Given the sense of comfort that images of this nature inspire, it makes sense that cuteness first surged in popularity as a response to the trauma of the 20th century.
The roots of the cute aesthetic date back to the Great Depression in the 1930s, and to World War II, when we were first introduced to Mickey Mouse and Snow White.
Alongside America, Japan was firmly on the cuteness bandwagon, a fact that’s demonstrated by the seemingly unstoppable popularity of Manga comics and Kawaii - a style characterised by childlike characters and bright colours, that when translated, literally means, ‘culture of cute.’
The popularity of cuteness in 2024 is a clear response to the turbulence of post-pandemic times, with conflict across the world and the threat of global warming posing a risk to our futures. Given the harrowing daily news cycle, of course people are increasingly seeking comfort and distraction by turning to things that appear to be harmless.
So significant is this current craze of cute in popular culture that in 2019, King’s College philosophy professor, Simon May, wrote an entire book on the subject.
In ‘The Power of Cute’, May argues that we deeply misunderstand cute as a sensibility, dismissing it as an aesthetic that suggests powerlessness, when in reality it’s a reaction to the unpredictability of life.
Another factor contributing to the popularity of cute art is the demographics of the people doing the buying.
According to a 2022 report released by Art Basel and UBS, millennials and Generation X collectors dominate the art buying market, making up 52% and 35% respectively.
It seems a new generation of art buyers are now adults looking to recapture a piece of their youth via the art they choose to put on their walls.
Let’s now take a look at Enter Gallery artists whose work is defined by the same cute aesthetic seen in this new exhibition, and some of the hidden meanings behind their artworks…
Magda Archer’s oeuvre is a prime example of how artists use a cute aesthetic to deliver some of life’s harshest truths.
First her sugary colours lure us in, then her use of vintage ephemera puts us in a nostalgic mood. Once we feel safe, Archer hits us in the face with her unique brand of pocket psychology, catching us off guard, shattering our fragile egos and helping us to laugh at the shitty realities of modern life.
One of Archer’s most popular works, My Life is Crap, gained such enormous popularity that Marc Jacobs went and put it on a clothing line that has been sported by the likes of Harry Style and Dua Lipa.
When interviewed about the meaning infused into her art, Archer commented:
“Some of my titles might appear flippant but they never are. Life can be a strain at times but many things that are tough or a struggle, well, you can get some sort of a laugh out of them.”
In the run up to the show, we lost count of the amount of people that declared his champs, ‘cute’ – especially when they saw his first collection of champ sculptures.
While their grumpy little faces are undeniably delightful, Berner’s champs are also used to embody existential dread and the darker thoughts many of us possess about the futility of life, and our role in it.
Next, we have Euan Roberts, a Hastings-based artist who uses a cute cast of animal characters to shine a colourful light on important themes of mental health and self-love.
Roberts’ 2023 show at Enter Gallery, A Hero’s Journey, demonstrates how he uses his animals to explore the notion of finding happiness in the present, despite the relentless pressure we face to ‘succeed.’
Roberts’s Fez-wearing bear may indeed look cute, but it is also used to convey Zen Buddhist ideas around transcending ego, and the importance of learning to flow with the trials and tribulations of modern life.
Lucy Sparrow is internationally-acclaimed for her hand-crafted felt artworks that transform all our favourite products into cuddly toys – an item that epitomises cuteness.
Look a little closer at Sparrow’s choice of products and you’ll see that her artworks are actually a comment on our rabid consumption of everything that’s bad for us, be that McDonald’s, candy, or prescription drugs.
In her 2015 Warmongery installation, one of her darkest to date, Sparrow created an armoury from felt, complete with guns, knives, explosives and even firearm’s licences. Speaking of the installation, she stated:
“The aim of The Warmongery is to draw people’s attention to what drives a few individuals to stockpile weapons and to ask why people are growing up in a world where a tiny minority feel so stressed and frustrated that they want to kill people.”
In summary, what’s clear from looking at the above examples is how often a hidden meaning is concealed beneath a sweet exterior. Employing a non-threatening aesthetic is a powerful way to convey complicated concepts and feeling, and to ease the observer in to discovering certain truths that are hard to swallow.
Cute is on at Somerset House until 14th January 2024.
Browse our collection of cute artworks here.