PART 1: INTRO
[EDIT: November 2023: This section was originally a fairly lame justification for why I wrote this essay. I don't really know what I was thinking at the time. I was kind of addressing it to an imaginary audience who was totally alien and opposed to the kind of art I make, but... who even is that? When do I even interact with anyone like that? On the contrary, the world in which my art exists is a warm and weird community of wonderful loving people who make stuff I like and who like the stuff I make. Those are the only people I think about speaking to. So I guess in light of that, this essay is a sort of love letter to cuteness as an aesthetic and storytelling device, and an attempt to think seriously about why cute stuff is so wonderful and compelling.]
PART 2: A CRITIQUE OF CUTENESS
Cuteness is an abstraction of the human form. It exaggerates elements that are visually engaging, but importantly elements that are comfortable rather than stimulating. That’s why cuteness is defined by childlike qualities – body proportions, relative size of ears / eyes, formless and blobby physique, so on. Obviously this applies to non-human things as well, but I think that’s because those things remind us of these abstracted human qualities.
In other words, it’s basically visually appealing, which leads me to the first of three artistic justifications for cuteness I make.
2.1: THE SUPREMACY OF CUTE
Cuteness can be justified on the basis of its aesthetic properties alone. This is true for most other more formal stylistic approaches to art – for example, this sort of justification would be totally natural for an abstract cubist painter or whatever. They paint in geometric, abstract forms as an exploration of certain fundamental aesthetic properties embedded in forms.
Portraying cuteness involves creating a distilled expression of the human form. Concentrated expressions of fundamental aesthetic properties like this are found throughout art, and create a kind of satisfying and occasionally transcendental experience of the viewer, allowing them to connect with a kind of hyper-reality that is basically pleasurable.
It also allows the visual communication of ideas that are otherwise too dilute to notice. In the case of cuteness, it distills ideas of vulnerability (more on this later), platonic warmth and affection, and innocence, all of which are embedded in the human form, but can go overlooked or repressed in our largely non-cute everyday perception of reality.
In other words, cuteness allows us to acknowledge and analyze these subliminal aesthetic qualities and explore the subconscious human qualities they reflect.
Call it moeism. For the unitiated, that’s moeism as in “moé-ism” by the way. Not “moh-ism”. That’s a quasi-Confucian philosophical movement from the Eastern Zhou period which is totally irrelevant here.
There is a more practical but equally important aspect to this aesthetic justification of cuteness. By reducing forms down to their stylized, fundamental cute components, an artist gains a great amount of control over what they’re creating. This isn’t unique to cuteness, you can see it in other abstracted styles of art. By stripping out unnecessary noise – all the visual baggage that would come with arbitrarily pursuing a more realistic style – an artist can focus on portraying what really matters, which is often subtleties of emotion and expression, or deliberate composition of the scene.
You can see this very clearly in the work of Tsukumizu, for example, who frequently uses simplified cute forms to create contrast or points of focus against dizzyingly complex and strange environments. Or, to cite another favourite of mine, The Imitation Crystal, who uses cuteness to enhance the clarity of their aggressively stark and gloomy scenes.
When you see cuteness used like this as an aesthetic device, and used really well, it’s totally sublime.
2.2: CUTENESS AND POSTMODERNISM
There’s more to comic art than just aesthetic properties. It’s a storytelling medium, so you’re ultimately creating something that is – in some cases – better described as literature than visual art.
Or maybe that’s a dumb line in the sand. It’s neither literature nor visual art. Regardless, my point is that in visual storytelling, the purpose of the art is not purely aesthetic, it’s also charged with meaning.
As a result, just like how we can talk about cuteness as an aesthetic device for distilling fundamental visual properties of the human form, so too can we talk about how cuteness helps to distill fundamental properties of the human experience.
This is quite a hard thing to talk about. Aesthetic properties, even abstract ones, are at least more intuitive to understand. But I think cuteness as a literary tool can be understood through the lens of postmodernism. Postmodernism is a pretty vague and general term, but I take it here to mean a movement characterised by dismantling superficially grand, beautiful and/or idealistic concepts, using tools like absurdity and irony to highlight the inconsistent, confusing, relativist nature of reality.
In postmodern literature, grand concepts are shown to be incongruent with reality through juxtaposition with contradictory ideas (a straightforward and well-known example of this would be the whole cyberpunk genre, where utopian ideas of salvation through tremendous technological progress and enlightenment is dismantled by demonstrating its incompatibility with human nature).
Cuteness in visual storytelling can serve a very similar purpose, through juxtaposing grand concepts and complex art with cute simplified forms, avoiding the cheapness of arbitrarily complex or realistic human forms, which seek to hide humanity behind superficial and dishonest beauty. Cute characters, despite their stylized nature, offer a more raw and honest portrayal humanity, through laying bare the vulnerability, meekness and fragility that defines us.
They dismantle the old (but persistent) posturing portrayal of humans as heroic and beautiful by setting humans as soft, squishy things in a dark and absurd cosmos. Pitiable, but precious and deserving of love precisely because they are pitiable. Isn’t this a better reflection of reality? And isn’t this a better starting point from which to approach organic character growth?
I think so, and I think that’s precisely why cuteness is such a powerful literary tool in visual storytelling.
Tsukumizu is a perfect reference here to lend some weight to my point. In their most famous work, Girl’s Last Tour, the two protagonsits Yuuri and Chito visit an art gallery long after the world has ended. Both characters are highly stylized – they are perhaps the archetypal moe blobs – but the environment of the art gallery is realised in complex, vivid detail, with baroque Greek marbles displaying every detail of the realistic human form looming over them, and great landscapes adorning the walls. The juxtaposition in styles between the characters and their environment is deliberate and striking.
Yuuri and Chito understand nothing of the aesthetic qualities of the art, which serves only to confuse them. Instead, the chapter ends with them concluding that the point of art must be to communicate a feeling across the void of time – a pure, intimate experience of human connection detached from pretense.
The closing panel is a drawing made by Yuuri and pinned to the wall of the gallery, a crude crayon scribble depicting her and Chito, almost certainly the last piece of human artwork ever made. It sits at the bookend of time, a simple expression of human friendship ending the entire grandiose history of human artistic expression. This is postmodern gold – it’s so transgressive, but so genuinely sincere and profound, and the cuteness of Yuuri and Chito is used masterfully as a visual storytelling technique to achieve this.
PART 3: CUTENESS IN PRACTICE
That’s kind of all I have to say about that for now. I’m not claiming my own work necessarily lives up to the high ideals described above, but it certainly aspires to, and the pursuit of those qualities is basically what constitutes my personal justification of my use of cuteness in art.
If you'd like to talk about cute manga, cuteness as a concept, or want me to show you a load of wonderful artists I've found or made friends with on the internet, please hit me up. :]
Thanks to my pal Andy (@artmachinebroke on Twitter) for conversations that formed my thoughts here – a serious artist also wrangling with cuteness. :]