the “cute” avant-garde

Posted by @ 12:56 pm on May 5th, 2010

I have this thing against cuteness. Cuteness is dismissable, cast to the side as irrelevant. And I suppose, to be fair, what was the last cute thing you actually took seriously? There seems to be something inherent to cuteness that begs to be cuddled and pet, smooshed and distorted. Taken seriously, though, nah. Nope.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been described as “cute.” And I admit, I have something to do with it. I’m short, compact, I have a collection second-hand t-shirts, brightly colored with some kiddie design on it. When I’m nervous—and I’m always nervous—I fold, make myself smaller, and my voice goes higher, “cuter.” And yet, I’ve tried to balance this with being an “adult.” I’ve changed my wardrobe. These days, instead of emerald green short skirts, I wear drab slacks. Instead of bright blue t-shirts, I wear black or grey. I’ve learned that as a woman—a young woman, an Othered woman, a “cute” woman—in order to be taken seriously, I have to dress the part. Being a writer certainly doesn’t help. If anything, it makes other people see me as more quirky, more “cute.”

And as if being a writer wasn’t enough, when asked what kind of writing I do, the word “novel” is never an adequate answer, and so I have to explain words like “conceptual,” “hybrid,” “experimentalism,” “avant-garde.” I explain while squirming, because again, I’m nervous, AND, and I hate these words, almost as much as I dislike the word “cute,” so naturally, when I came across an article titled “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde,” I was compelled to read it.

Sianne Ngai’s article is brilliant. She makes the argument that there is a violence to cuteness, which I totally dig. She draws heavily on art, citing example after example of cute art turned violent. But then, she uses Stein’s Tender Buttons as an example of both literary cuteness and avant-garde:

In fact, all the poetic explorations of cuteness above [Stein’s Tender Buttons and Ponge’s poetry], arrayed across the twentieth century, can be read as a way of acknowledging but also critically addressing oft-made observations about the literary avant-garde’s social powerlessness, its practical ineffectualness or lack of agency within the “overadministered world” it nonetheless persists in imagining as other than what it is. While the cute is an aesthetic of the small, the vulnerable, and the deformed, the avant-garde’s lack of political consequence is typically attributed to the short or limited range of its actual address, often taken as a sign of its elitism as a mode of “restricted production” (Bourdieu); its susceptibility to becoming routinized, in spite of its dynamism and commitment to change, and thus to being absorbed and recuperated by the cultural institutions it initially opposes. (837)

After reading this article, I re-read Tender Buttons. I’m not sure if I could, in all good conscience, call it “cute,” but sure, Stein uses words that could be seen as “cute”: muncher munchers, a dirty bird, the little, trimming, sweet, etc. But there is nothing cute about a passage like this:

Out of kindness comes redness and out of rudeness comes rapid same question, out of an eye comes research, out of selection comes painful cattle. So then the order is that a white way of being round is something suggesting a pin and is it disappointing, it is not, it is so rudimentary to be analysed and see a fine substance strangely, it is so earnest to have a green point not to red but to point again.

Even though I have issue with Ngai’s example of Stein as cute, I found myself agreeing with her argument as a whole. The literary avant-garde is powerless, then as it is now. It’s easy for us at our desks with our laptops, trolling blogs like HTML Giant etc., to focus on our own relevance—because to the marginal readers of blogs like HTML Giant, we ARE relevant—but let’s be honest, out in the real world, who cares? I mean, what is the “range of our address,” if we’re to follow Amy’s post about art v. politics? Are we chasing our own “elite” tails? (Here, I ought to clarify that Ngai argues that there’s a relationship between “elitism” and “restricted production,” which is one of the markers for indie press.) Furthermore, if routinization leads to absorption, what’s the end goal? I mean it: what’s the end goal?

[Note: Sorry this post is so disorganized. I have a lot of thoughts on these matters and can’t seem to keep them straight.]

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