What forms of aesthetic judgment do we have at our disposal to help us with this:
We might recall the response the snow monster has to his encounters with Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck: “I will hug him, and squeeze him, and call him George.” That impulse to possess, to consume, to devour, to destroy, is at the heart of our response to the cute. This is in contrast to our impulse to describe and judge the relationships among discourses, objects, and signs. This would be how we come to terms with the interesting. This would be different yet again from our response, one of discomfort-making laughter, to the surplus of frenzy, the overproduction of effort, required by, finally, the zany.
According to Sianne Ngai’s Our Aesthetic Categories (Harvard University Press, 2015), “our” aesthetic categories do not include this:
These instances of 18th century categories — the beautiful, the picturesque, the sublime — do not feature in Ngai’s Our Aesthetic Categories, except by way of theoretical and historical context. What she is really interested in is the work we do in formulating new aesthetic categories and making aesthetic judgments based thereon in a postmodern, postcapitalist world that is decidedly not “postaesthetic.” She creates and argues for new aesthetic categories, and then teaches us how to use them. Drawing convincingly on Cavell and Nietzsche and J. L. Austin, Luhmann and Latour and Adorno (and presenting Kant and Schlegel in ways simultaneously daring and accessible), Ngai gives us entirely new lenses, entirely new vocabularies, for looking, describing, feeling, and judging.
So, without further ado, I present, in digest form: the zany, the cute, and the interesting.
Zany: Living at the intersection between “cultural and occupational performance, acting and service, playing and laboring”; “intensely affective and physical, it is an aesthetic of action” (182). The zany is an aesthetic at its core about work: the affective labor required to have friends, the inability of the contemporary worker to find balance, the exhortation to be on 24/7 and to HAVE FUN. Exemplars: I Love Lucy, The Toy, The Cable Guy, the polemics and performances of Laura Kipnis (Against Love) and Karen Finley (Enough is Enough). Why we need this now: We’re all about work.
Cute: Manifesting commodification and objectification, prompting the desire to cuddle and consume while also generating a vague sense of aversion and aggression, particularly in instances where the cute appears in the context of the avant-garde or kitsch: “The more objectified the object, or the more visibly shaped by the affective demands and/or projections of the subject, the cuter” (64-65). Exemplars: Stein’s Tender Buttons, Takashi Murakami. Why we need this now: We’re all about fulfilling desire through participation in consumer culture and commodification.
Interesting: A way to make aesthetic judgments on literary criticism, conceptual art, and novels by Henry James possible and even desirable. Both judgment and style, both affect and concept, the interesting is interested in (ha!) relationships and circulations among evidence, facts, information, data. Exemplars: Ed Ruscha, Philip Glass, Portrait of a Lady. Why we need this now: We’re all about information, data, networks.
These categories are in response to a hyperaestheticized commodity culture. Everything calls for aesthetic judgment, and the oldies but goodies like beautiful and sublime don’t work. In fact, the assumptions underlying these classic categories can be called into question in order to open the way to new categories. Why NOT cute? Why NOT zany? These — “our” — categories have everything to do with consumption, of goods, of data, of our own finite energies. They illuminate the ways that aesthetic judgment rests on both concept and affect, on description and evaluation, and they expose the dualities that lie at the heart of all aesthetic judgments.
Ngai’s fundamental point: We need the tools to do aesthetics differently in a post-Fordist world where everything is potentially a buyable or makeable (or Instagrammable) aesthetic experience, everything exists within a matrix of production and consumption, everything is part of an ever-expanding network of information. We name something when we judge it, per Austin — our aesthetic judgments thus have illocutionary force, bringing something into being, but are at the same time perlocutionary, true only to the speaker, because we’re the only ones who know if we’re right. Without naming things zany, cute, or interesting, these cannot exist as aesthetic categories, but true to our postmodern moment, nothing is fixed. Once Ngai names them, and she does so with quite a bit of verve, glee, and wry wit, we can’t see the world quite the same.
Fig. 1: Still from Anchorman; dir. Adam McKay, perf. Will Ferrell and Christina Applegate; 2004; fig. 2: Photograph from the installation “An Accumulation of Information Taken from Here to There,” Sperone Westwater Gallery, New York, 2012; fig. 3: Still from “The Abominable Snow Rabbit,” Looney Tunes, 1961; fig. 4: John Singer Sargent, The Wyndham Sisters, 1899. Metropolitan Museum of Art online collections; fig. 5: William Gilpin, Grand Woody Banks near Ross-on-Wye, 1782. Department of Special Collections, University of Wisconsin-Madison; fig. 6: James Ward, Gordale Scar, 1812. Tate Gallery.