Thursday, 28 April 2011

Too Cute!

A few weeks ago, one of my favourite painters, Nicki Ault, posted on her blog, two stages of a painting of the view from her studio window. 

Something she said about adding the snowflakes in the second stage, made me think about how we want our artwork to be perceived.

“I do have a bit of a fear that they make the painting a bit cute."

Why was Nicki afraid of the painting being ‘cute’? It’s a term that is used pretty widely in the world of art and design, particularly in relation to greeting card design. In that case it’s usually a compliment so why is ‘cute’ something we try to avoid in the world of Fine Art?

I looked up some dictionary definitions and wasn’t too surprised to find that the word isn’t even included in some of my older English dictionaries. I think it’s only through the internet that the word has become part of our UK vocabulary, though my mother did use it in its original, now outdated sense, meaning ‘shrewd’ ‘ingenious’ or ‘clever’.

Definitions I found included:

  • attractive
  • pretty
  • charming
  • delightfully pretty or dainty

All quite positive meanings  - so why are we afraid of our work being dubbed ‘cute’?

I think one of the definitions I found, hints at the answer:

‘obviously contrived to charm’

This, for me, at least, suggests something less ‘worthy’, something shallow or insincere, maybe with overtones of deception, manipulation, not something that came from the heart!

To me this is fine for a greeting card, which is likely to be ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ but not for a piece of art that we hope will stand the test of time, the sort of work that, as in Van Gogh’s case, may not be appreciated until many years later!

Nothing wrong with 'cute' 

‘Cute’ is a word that is often quite appropriately applied to small children and baby animals. But then the cute child grows up – and rightly so! – and their ‘cuteness’ fades away. Again, this may be a clue as to why ‘cute’ is not something that a fine artist like Nicki would take as a compliment. It’s a bit like comparing a catchy pop song that is top of the hit parade one week then fades to obscurity, with the lasting work of classical composers or even the work of the real ‘greats’, like John Lennon and others.

There’s nothing wrong with ‘cute’ in the right context but I can understand why Nicki wanted to avoid it in her snow painting.

How to avoid it? I don’t have an answer except that every artist probably has to sense for themselves the whereabouts of the fine line that separates the ‘cute’ from the ‘non-cute’!

The dictionary gives ‘homely’ and ‘ugly’ as the opposites to ‘cute’. I think this is rather limiting. A work of art can avoid being cute without being ugly, though I do think that there is plenty of room for ‘ugly’ in fine art.

I think Nicki clearly avoided allowing the snowflakes to make her painting ‘cute’. What do you think?


Nicki said...

Thanks, Judy, for your thoughts on this topic. I think you got it right when you found the definition "something shallow or insincere... not something that came from the heart". I think this is also why I tend to avoid soft, baby pink in my work... something I need to get over. Definitely a hang up on my part!


Judy Adamson said...

Hi Nicki - I think you're probably right to avoid that soft, baby pink and no need to get over it! I think some of your best paintings (in my opinion!) are the ones where you use a lot of neutrals. It's tricky and you carry it off so well!

Barbara M. said...

Hi Judy,

Nicki did avoid being cute. Her work is so marvelous. Nice topic I must say. Well I think that art can be charming and that that's just fine. In fact why can't we be cute, funny, charming, pretty or whatever we want in our art? I love van Gogh, but I don't want to be him. Pretty is perhaps not right, but beautiful -- what is wrong with that? These questions are the stuff art chat is made of.

Good for you raising the topic. I love your pastel paintings.

Take care,


Judy Adamson said...

Hi Barbara - thank you very much for your visit and for leaving your comments.

You've raised some questions that are making me think that a 'Part 2' to this post might be on its way!!!!

Glad you like my pastel paintings. Unfortunately my beloved soft pastels are put away at the moment and I daren't let them out of the cupboard because I know that once I get started again, I won't stop!

Country Mouse Studio said...

Good though,
I like cute as you know. I think people also worry about that snob issue as if cute couldn't possibly be real art. Oh well, art is supposed to evoke an emotion and cute does it for me. :O)

Judy Adamson said...

Hi Carole - that's interesting! In fact when I was thinking about 'cute' some of your paintings came to mind, in particular, as you know, my favourite little mouse!

But I think the difference is that the creatures in themselves are 'cute'and you've represented them faithfully. Not the same thing at all as setting out to charm in a 'contrived' way.

What a complicated subject this is turning out to be!!!

Michele said...

At the end of the day cute sells. Of course some people don't like it, but the more types of art you have, the more people you appeal to, so sometimes perhaps we should all do 'cute' regardless of our personal likes or dislikes. Or is that selling out?!

Judy Adamson said...

Hi Michele - no, I don't think 'doing cute' is by any means selling out in the right circumstances. Greeting cards and designs for gifts will certainly sell better if they have that kind of appeal. But there are other 'outlets', such as some galleries where it certainly wouldn't sell, even if it got shown there in the first place! So yes, diversification ought to be an advantage when it comes to selling, though it might inhibit establishing one's 'brand'!

Carole Barkett said...

Congratulations on your Greeting Card Universe All Star award!

Judy Adamson said...

Thank you, Carole - the real achievement was working out how to put it on my blogs as a link to the community newsletter, and I had some help with that!