Think of great art, and great adjectives come to mind. Art, we tend to assume, should be "overwhelming," "beautiful," and "sublime." In real life, though, and even in museums, those emotions are rare. Most of the artworks and objects which surround us are weirder and less exalted: They're "cute," rather than beautiful, "zany," rather than sublime, and "interesting," rather than overwhelming. Sianne Ngai, a professor in the Stanford English department, has been thinking about these "ambiguous" aesthetic categories for years, in essays with titles likes "Merely Interesting." In an interview with Adam Jasper about her upcoming book Our Aesthetic Categories, published in the art and culture magazine Cabinet, Ngai explains why, exactly, we find the merely interesting so interesting.
In a way, Ngai says, the most striking fact is that these equivocal and ambiguous sorts of objects are everywhere. Cuteness, she thinks, is probably "the dominant aesthetic of consumer society." Even though cuteness is everywhere, though, "cute" doesn't mean "good": "To call something cute, in vivid contrast to, say, beautiful, or disgusting, is to leave it ambiguous whether one even regards it positively or negatively." Modern objects, whether they're in Walmart or the MFA, seem designed to fit into this ambiguous space, and we seem to like them that way.
There are reasons for that; these weird, ambiguous aesthetic categories tell us a lot, Ngai thinks, about our modern way of life. Cute things, she argues, perfectly embody the power struggle we often have with consumable objects: We have all the (purchasing) power and they helplessly await our beneficence, while, at the same time, they seem to exert an insistent, instinctual pull. Zaniness speaks to our almost work-like obsession with happiness and fun: If something is zany, it's frantically fun, but with an "unfun or stressed-out layer to it" -- think of overworked Lucy in I Love Lucy. And "interestingness" -- which, she points out, is what a lot of contemporary art aspires to -- suggests the degree to which we live in a "fundamentally taxonomized" world. "We find things interesting," she suggests, "only when they seem to differ from others of their type."
Ultimately, it's all about conflict: these objects provoke "multiple and even conflicting feelings: tenderness and aggression, in the case of the cute; fun and unfun, in the case of the zany; interest and boredom, in the case of the interesting." That funny combination of jadedness and confusion comes naturally, she thinks, in living in a world saturated with novelty. Things stand out less, and work harder to do so. And yet it's not as though we've gotten bored; we've invented uniquely modern aesthetic categories to describe what we see.
Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His last article for Ideas was about choosing Congress by lottery.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.