Arts & Culture

The Renaissance of Cute

How the street brought pleasure back to art — for free

by
• 3,095 words

She is an unlikely icon. She hid in back lanes on Bankside, under the South Bank bridges, in the corners of council estates in Islington. She survived just months, sometimes weeks, before disappearing, buffed off or covered over in paint’s endless war on paint. Sometimes she left traces behind, a ghostly shadow of her body or an outstretched arm for those who still sought her out.

Her image spread. From maybe a dozen appearances late in 2003 and through 2004, the little girl and her lost balloon appeared in hundreds of photographs, from blurred cellphone captures to staged shoots. Her copied pixels multiplied around the globe through countless photo-sharing sites, blogs, and web zines. She made a cameo in Woody Allen’s Match Point, filmed in London while she still lived under Blackfriars Bridge. She showed up in tattoos, on running shoes, T-shirts, posters, and wedding cards—copies of copies, made by fans for themselves and, inevitably, for sale. And sell she did. In February 2007, Sotheby’s sold a spray-painted stencil of the balloon girl at auction for £37,200. Her creator, the British street artist known as Banksy, posted a drawing on his website of art buyers bidding on a framed canvas of his scrawled response: “I can’t believe you morons actually buy this shit.”

Modern graffiti emerged in New York in the early 1970s as spray-painted signatures, or tags, still its most common form. Later came throw-ups and pieces—larger, more colourful, more intricate versions of the tag. It is an inherently political art, an assertion of the artist’s existence and, more distantly, of his (occasionally her) right to expression. In graffiti, the art of rebellion takes a back seat to the act of rebellion, to getting up, as often and as brazenly as possible. The graffiti artist has neither the time nor the interest for emotion recollected in tranquility.

Graffiti wasn’t a rejection but an extension of the high art of its century, an art equally interested in shock and action over aesthetics. From Marcel Duchamp’s urinal through Jackson Pollock’s drips to Damien Hirst’s pickled cows, twentieth-century art spurned beautiful imitations for provocative concepts. Some say graffiti is beautiful, that it beautifies the city, just as some say Picasso’s cubist prostitutes are beautiful. But beauty was never the point of either, except as the enemy. Graffiti disfigures the city in the same way Duchamp’s urinal disfigured the art gallery. Mayors understood this; that’s why they fought it. Art dealers understood it, too; that’s why they bought it.

By the early 1980s, graffiti and graffiti-inspired artists like Futura 2000, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Keith Haring had moved from city streets to gallery walls. Confused by graffiti’s lack of beauty, the commercial world was slower to catch on, but it came around because of the art’s supposed appeal to advertising’s eighteen-to-twenty-five demo. What had once subverted the ubiquity and clarity of billboards became a go-to style for advertisers from ibm to Apple. Today, many first-generation graffiti artists are designers for hip clothing companies or the entertainment industry.

Dressed up by art, pimped out by capital, aggressively hunted in its homeland by New York’s Anti-Graffiti Task Force. In North America and western Europe, traditional graffiti is now a mostly moribund art (elsewhere, for example in Brazil, it’s alive and dripping). But since the early 1990s, graffiti has been reinventing itself with new techniques and aesthetics under the new name of “street art.”

Many street artists began with graffiti, and many continue to use its spray can while adding posters, stickers, and sculpture. They’re still mostly young, for the obvious reasons that the work is usually illegal, potentially dangerous, and doesn’t pay. Men still outnumber women. On average, they’re whiter, more middle class, and better educated than their graffiti predecessors. Perhaps because of that education, graffiti’s political voice has expanded in street art, becoming less about the self and more about the world. It’s typically anti-corporate, though seldom overtly. Street art shares the sheets with culture jammers like Adbusters magazine, but it’s more hopeful than critical.

Following the example set by gallery art, some street art is more about the concept than the art. “Fuck Bush” isn’t an aesthetic; it’s an ethic. Shepard Fairey’s Obey Giant stickers and Akay’s Akayism posters are clever children of Duchamp, ironic conceptual art. But street art generally favours aesthetics, artistic styles that evoke feelings before thoughts. Some is grotesque, some fantastic. Some incites anger, some laughter. Some aims at wonder, the sublime’s territory. The California artist Above, for instance, hangs wooden arrows from utility lines over streets in North America and Europe, pointing up, above the familiar city to the unfamiliar sky.

Oddly—shockingly, in fact—the single most common aesthetic in street art, this child of shock, of defiant tags and disfigured letters, is cuteness. From São Paolo to San Francisco, Tokyo to Toronto, New York to New Orleans, the cute pokes its head through the tangled Duchamps of urban walls. Smiley faces. Pouting faces. Big eyes in big heads. Cartoon characters in cartoon colours. Sad cute. Silly cute. Sexy cute. Helpless. Playful. Innocent. Bambi goes downtown.

Street art’s turn to cuteness is a radical departure not just from traditional graffiti, but from its indoor relative. If beauty had a rough ride in the twentieth century, the cute got kicked to the curb, as impossible for high art to swallow as the disgusting was in Immanuel Kant’s time. “Nothing is so much set against the beautiful as disgust,” wrote Kant in 1764. “Good point,” said twentieth-century art, and went to work tagging toilets, scrawling moustaches on the Mona Lisa, defecating in tin cans, submerging crucifixes in urine, and feeding cow’s heads to maggots.

Twentieth-century artists turned on beauty for noble reasons, initially to avoid producing art for the pleasure of a society they held responsible for World War I. But increasingly, art’s main quarrel with beauty was over money. Expelled from high art, beauty and its companions found a home in popular art, in advertising, music, magazines, and movies. For serious artists, the beautiful became associated with the commercial, and therefore was to be avoided or attacked. That went double for the cute, anathema to art because of a wobbly fawn and a big-eared mouse. Art didn’t have a problem with selling Pollocks to the few for millions, but it did have a problem with selling Disneys to the many for the price of a movie.

Street art’s genius is to retake the tremendous power of aesthetics surrendered by art to commerce, while dodging the commercial by giving itself away. Street art is no more immune to commerce than graffiti turned out to be. The art dealers and shoemakers have come calling even faster than they did in the 1980s. But what they’re buying isn’t street art; it’s pale copies or other work. Street art is on the street. That’s why Banksy called Sotheby’s buyers morons, because they paid tens of thousands for copies when the originals sat outside for free. There, in her original frame, the little girl and her lost balloon are not for sale.

The giants of street cute are the London Police. Founded in 1998 by three expats in Amsterdam, tlp are renowned partly for the spread and scale of their street drawings and paintings in London, Paris, Tokyo, Berlin, New York, Milan, Brussels, Copenhagen, and other cities. Some stand over ten metres tall, stretching several storeys up the sides of buildings. Mostly, though, tlp’s reputation stems from their distinctive character: the round-headed, smiley creatures in clean black and white they call “Lads.”

Many street artists use cartoon characters as their signatures, cute figures with the same features that make people smile more at puppies and babies than at snakes and me. They’re little, even when they’re big. They have disproportionately large heads (some are all head). They’re often orphaned in some way, lost, like Michael De Feo’s lonely flowers in concrete New York. They’re curious, mischievous, childlike. Beauty is an adult; cute is a child.

For the Hanky Panky Girls, cute is a naughty child. A popular group of French street artists who emerged in Toulouse in the mid-1990s, the hpg paint full-body cartoons of young girls who use cute’s innocence the way porn stars use the name Bambi. Fafi’s girls, the Fafinettes, take back the large eyes and little clothes from Japanese lolicon that Osamu Tezuka, the father of anime, took off Betty Boop. The group’s best-known member, Miss Van, has created hundreds of street paintings in Europe and the United States of her puckered “poupées,”sloe-eyed dolls in pin-up poses. On a wall in Miss Van’s new home base of Barcelona, one of her poupées pouts blankly, barely miniskirted, astride a litigiously familiar fawn. The girls of the hpg flout what Disney dangles. They’re Little Mermaids gone bad, street Lolitas—with the key difference that, as Miss Van says, they’re her fantasy.

Some of street art’s cute characters aren’t so cuddly. London artist D*Face’s world-weary, helmet-clad post-9/11 Tin Head wavers with the day’s news between exhausted and angry, like the rest of us. His flying D*Dog snarls as often as he smiles. In Munich, Crooked Industries’ Mr. Krook donned armour after the Iraq War. Diego Bergia’s Lepos landed in Toronto in 2004, the sole survivor of the civil wars of an alien civilization. Chased by an army of small robots, Lepos has wandered from Kensington Market to Vancouver, New York, Los Angeles, Prague, and Stockholm. He’s cute, but he’s also scared—and armed.

Cute has been driving street art from Michael De Feo, Miss Van, and the London Police to such recent work as Chase’s eye-popping murals in Los Angeles and 6emeia’s storm drain creatures in São Paulo. Like the gallery art of its time, early street art tended to be about something: Jenny Holzer’s aphorisms in New York, Blek le Rat’s political stencils in Paris. But around the mid-1990s, street art became less about the idea and more about the art, more playful than conceptual. On the streets, shock lost its shock. Pleasure took its turn: the pleasures of making and seeing art for what it is, not for what it says, or what it costs. Pleasures art forgot.

Indoors, cute is queen in Lowbrow art, sometimes known as Pop Surrealism, which took off about the same time street art got cute, and is itself influenced by graffiti and street art, along with comics, cartoons, video games, science fiction, custom hot rods, and just about anything else you couldn’t see at your mom’s moma.

Like street art, Lowbrow rejects concept for emotion, narrative, and skill, the techniques of the Old Masters instead of the theories of the art schools. More obviously, though less trumpeted, Lowbrow ratchets up street art’s affection for cute into an obsession. Virtually all of the best-known Lowbrow artists draw, paint, and program in shades of cute, from whimsical to wicked, among them Gary Taxali and Ray Caesar in Canada, and Todd Schorr, Gary Baseman, Mark Ryden, and Marion Peck in the US.

Japanese of all ages have long adored commercial cute, its army of lovable characters who spawn new products faster than you can drop-kick Hello Kitty. Japan’s kawaii tsunami has powerfully influenced the West’s cute renaissance, from Invader’s tile mosaics of early Japanese video game characters to the influence of loli-manga on Fafi and rising Lowbrow star Audrey Kawasaki. But around 2000, Japanese art took a cute turn of its own in the Superflat style of Takashi Murakami, a combination of Japan’s classical art with its pop culture. Ostensibly, Superflat parodies the shallowness of kawaii, but it also enjoys it. In The Birth of a Giant Zombie, a large ink-jet print by one of Murakami’s employees, an axe splits a young girl’s head while a tiny Bambi watches. The title makes its point, but the girl is still very cute, and very naked.

In the West, highbrow cute is mostly limited to the art world’s grudging acceptance of cute from elsewhere, so long as it brings buzz and buyers. Superflat at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Norman Rockwell at the Guggenheim. Banksy at Sotheby’s. Last spring, Lowbrow’s champion, Mark Ryden, sold one of his hauntingly cute little girls for $800,000 (US) before his show at the Michael Kohn Gallery in Los Angeles had even opened. With prices like that, moma can’t be far behind.

It’s not just the Madonnas and Michael Jacksons snapping up these very precious moments. Lowbrow happily sells itself to the credit card crowd in limited edition books, prints, and merchandise, especially in the apocalyptic world of very cute, very expensive designer toys. Lowbrow artist Gary Baseman prefers the term “Pervasive Art” to Lowbrow or Pop Surrealism, partly to stress its accessibility. But the term also intentionally highlights Lowbrow’s willingness to be art or product, whatever the customer wants.

Street art is also selling briskly these days. Banksy was again on the auction block in January, this time on eBay, where another, larger moron offered the owner of a building in West London £208,100 for his wall—Banksy included, removal extra. The London Police, D*Face, Fafi, and other popular street artists have turned their cute characters into stickers, prints, toys, and T-shirts. Like many graffiti artists before him, the American artist Dalek has all but quit street art for gallery sales and commercial work for Sony, Nike, Altoids, mtv, Rookie Skateboards, and Calvin Klein, among others.

It’s easy to sniff at all this, to feel the same suspicion of contamination by commerce that gave beauty away to the billboards. But art lost its virginity long ago. Retail cute just exposes what art struggles to hide beneath its Kantian disinterest: our hard-wired desire to possess beauty, to touch it, cuddle it, make love to it. If we’re not rich enough to own the original, we’ll take a calendar and a fridge magnet, please.

Which is why Dan Witz, the godfather of New York street art, calls it the most radical development in art since abstraction—because it’s not for sale. Because, like sunsets, street art precludes ownership. Because street art is challenging the past century’s surrender of beauty and its attendants to commerce.

It is an uneven contest. On one side, busy buffers and busier billboards, not to mention the odd street crazy or diehard tagger. On the other, art that’s hard to see from a car, that disappears almost as fast as it appears, and that is mostly banal crap. So is most other art, but street art suffers as much as it gains from its lack of filters, the editors and dealers who protect us—usually—from Aunt May’s sonnets and Cousin Navdeep’s “representations of the dialectics of negative space.”

Against all that, street art survives by learning from the enemy. Instead of graffiti’s tags, illegible and indistinguishable to outsiders, street art prefers clear, distinct signatures, what the London Police and others openly call their “brand.” Banksy and Above sign their names in a commercial stencil font. D*Face signs in the same script as Disney’s logo. Street art’s cartoon characters owe much to necessity, to the need to get up quickly and distinctively, but they also borrow the cartoon’s iconic blank slate, which has allowed millions to see themselves in a mouse, and the mouse to make millions for its owners. Street art takes from commerce not just art’s surrendered aesthetics, but commerce’s own designs, styles, and tactics. It’s not parody: it’s recovery, with interest.

From the abject to the sublime, aesthetics evoke feelings that all people have before they suggest concepts that only some people know. But like beauty, the cute unites accessibility with pleasure, the marriage that made Disneyland. Twentieth-century art surrendered this tremendous power because a toilet taught it that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Sure it is, but as both long experience and recent science show, we agree more often than not, agreement that cuts across class, gender, age, and even race. And right about now, our cities could use some public reminders of our shared humanity.

Beauty’s fragility compels our care. We protect beautiful paintings in museums; we try to preserve as long as we can beautiful flowers and beautiful faces. But the beautiful is also powerful. Helen weakened the knees of Paris; Bambi has week knees. Because of its helplessness, the cute needs our protection more than the beautiful, and so might arouse us even more than beauty does to extend our care from the extraordinary artwork to the ordinary person. Especially outdoors. In 2005, Banksy reprised his balloon girl in a silhouette on the West Bank wall of a young girl being lifted over the wall by a bouquet of balloons.

Street art loves the cute because street art loves the streets. Like any good art, in other words, it matches its aesthetic to its content. It finds pleasure in line, colour, and context, in providing what the London Police call “free smiles for anyone willing to lend us an eye.” Street art looks at the city through the eyes of a child—sometimes sad, sometimes angry, as children will sometimes be, but more often playful, curious, hopeful. Banksy’s balloon girl is a self-portrait.

Nick Mount is the magazine’s fiction editor.