From Barbiecore to bitmojis, cuteness is now the defining aesthetic of our time. But what has often been dismissed as trivial or childish, is now being reappraised. Now a major exhibition Cute at London’s Somerset House points to complexity, ambiguity and even a capacity to unsettle. Behind that soft fluffy exterior, there are teeth.

With roots in ancient Japanese art and Renaissance cupids, digital culture has amplified and spread the cute aesthetic far and wide to the point that it could now be described as our universal language. And in troubled times, cute offers a counter. Engaging with cute content releases dopamine, soothes stress and makes us happy, providing a refuge and transporting us from the everyday. It’s also big business: Sanrio’s Hello Kitty, the bunny who is “the height of five apples,” celebrates her 50th anniversary this year as a multibillion-dollar brand.

As humans, we are wired to respond to cute: big round eyes, chubby cheeks and stubby little limbs stir warm feelings whether they present as human, animal or even inanimate. Experts propose that cuteness played a role in evolution, driving the impulse to care for and socialize babies. Academic Joshua Paul Dale, a pioneer of the emerging field of Cute Studies, and author of Irresistible: How cuteness wired our brains and conquered the world, explained to CNN that it “gets the brain ready for certain kinds of behaviors associated with caregiving.”

Brands have long been alive to the potential of cute to ignite warm fuzzy feelings and even break down price sensitivity. Cute mascots and logos increase positive feelings towards brands; hence adorable puppies and koalas sell toilet tissue while geckos and meerkats make insurance more compelling.

But can brands harness cute power to do more than just lift our spirits? For one, it seems cuteness also primes us for empathy and sociability, fostering community – a key focus for consumers this year, as reported in the Future 100 2024 report. Proving the point, a My Little Pony exhibit at the Cute show points to adult fan communities the ‘Bronies’ and ‘Pegasisters’, who have bonded over their love of the toys.

In the show catalog for Cute, essayist Dr Isabel Galleymore of the University of Birmingham cites Joshua Paul Dale’s belief that cuteness invites “companionship, cooperative action/play and communication.” She points to a 2017 study which recommends cuteness as a strategy for meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. Cosima von Bonin’s installation, Killer whale with long eyelashes I (Rhino version), which shows a stuffed killer whale slumped against a chair and leaning on a toy rhino, is one example which invites reflection on our responsibility to nature.

Yet as the Cute exhibition proves, the aesthetic is about more than feelgood whimsy. A shapeshifter, it is complex and ambiguous. It seems weak and powerless, but its ability to captivate and enchant us gives it power. And like the multi-limbed AI kitten that welcomes visitors to the show, cute can harbor a queasier, unsettling side. Rachel Maclean’s diptych !step on no petS Step on no pets! explores this duality, showing a world of opposites and doubles where young and old, beautiful and grotesque mirror each other.

According to Somerset House senior curator Claire Catterall, this blurred line between cute and monstrous also has an upside, making space for otherness, meaning cute can offer a safe space for people to process and explore identity. Among the artworks in the show, artist Hannah Diamond’s self-portrait for Affirmations makes the case for hyperfeminity, while Nayland Blake’s sculpture of a black porcelain doll in a bunny suit, dubbed The Little One, offers an exploration of racial and sexual identity.

Can cute save the world? Looking ahead, it will serve as a route to understanding it says Catterall: “as we begin to see the world change even more and our relationship with the technological landscape evolve to something increasingly entangled, we’ll need to find a different tool to cope […] Cute is not only being used as a coping strategy, it’s also being channeled by artists as a radical new way of understanding and experiencing the world.”

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