Why We’re So Obsessed With Cute

A London exhibition explores how cute became such a powerful—and sometimes dangerous—cultural force

AI Cat
An A.I.-generated image of a kitten on display in "Cute," the new exhibition at London's Somerset House Graphic Thought Facility

The concept of cuteness has long ruled internet culture. In fact, when computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee, credited as the inventor of the web, was asked in 2014 to name an unexpected use of the internet, he answered: “Kittens.”

The web’s trove of cat memes is just one aspect of our obsession with cuteness. In January, a new exhibition that examines this phenomenon opened at London’s Somerset House. The show—titled simply “Cute”—is billed as “the first major exhibition to explore the extraordinary and complex power of cuteness in contemporary culture.”

“Cuteness has been slowly taking over our world,” Claire Catterall, the exhibition’s curator, tells the Observer’s Rhik Samadder. “It’s now accepted as one of our languages.”
Cat in Basket
The cat sitting in its favorite basket out in the blizzard, the Himalaya, Karen Kilimnik, 2020 Karen Kilimnik, Sprüth Magers and Galerie Eva Presenhuber via Somerset House

When visitors enter “Cute,” they will see 18 images of cats—all generated by artificial intelligence—that possess scientifically adorable traits like large heads and eyes. “They get less cute, though, the more you look at them and notice that there is something not quite right about the light shining in their eyes, and that some of them have the wrong number of feet,” writes the New York Times’ Rosa Lyster. “The creepiest kitten had pupils like a crocodile, long and narrow, and horrifying, waist-length hair.”

Ginger cat
Ginger Cat, Louis Wain, 1931 Bethlem Museum of the Mind

Next, the exhibition moves to the cultural history of cute around the world. Per the Observer, much of our “sparkly, rainbow vocabulary of cuteness” comes from the aesthetic called kawaii, the Japanese word for “cute.” Taking off in Japan around the late 1960s, kawaii culture incorporates traits of “shyness, embarrassment, vulnerability, darlingness and lovability,” as the Conversation’s Hui-Ying Kerr wrote in 2016. The aesthetic can be found in a number of consumer products in the decades that followed.

Among those products is what the Times calls the “celebrated 50-year-old ur-kitten”: Hello Kitty. The character was created in 1974 by the Japanese company Sanrio (which sponsored the exhibition) and gained popularity in the ’90s long before cat memes flooded the internet.

The show includes pop culture phenomena—such as music, fashion, toys, video games and social media—alongside contemporary works and new commissions by more than 50 artists. Many of these items are divided into five thematic sections: “Cry Baby,” “Play Together,” “Monstrous Other,” “Sugar-Coated Pill” and “Hypersonic.”

“Cute is undeniably the most prominent aesthetic of our times. Yet it has only now begun to be taken seriously,” says Catterall in a statement from Somerset House. “As it saturates our digitally mediated age, cuteness feeds and compels us in ways that suggest there is so much more to it than its adorable and seemingly harmless exterior might imply.”

“Sugar-Coated Pill,” for example, focuses on how cuteness has been used to “soften the unpalatable,” from “far-right extremists to big pharma.” Advertisers in many industries have successfully co-opted cuteness to make products more desirable. “Cuteness reduces price sensitivity, which makes us happier to hand over money,” writes the Observer. “Research also suggests that when companies transgress, having a cute mascot makes consumers want to protect them. The brands themselves are seen as ‘malleable,’ or in the process of growing and learning.”

“Cute” also features immersive rooms and displays, such as a games arcade that examines how the culture of cute has influenced independent video games. Another installation is set up to mimic a teen sleepover, celebrating and affirming the idea of girlishness, per the Guardian’s Oliver Wainwright.

The power of cuteness “lies not only in its ability to challenge the norm, but to transform it,” says Catterall in the statement. “I hope this exhibition will delight and surprise in equal measure—rather like cuteness itself—and show that cute may not only help us to process an increasingly overwhelming and complicated world but might also have the radical potential to change our way of being.”

Cute” is on view at Somerset House in London through April 14.

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