If you don’t appreciate “Cuties” as a nuanced, thought-provoking work of art, you’re an uneducated philistine — and how dare you comment on it without looking at it. This is the general argument in defense of the “Cuties” expressed in the stands and on Twitter. people like Alyssa Rosenberg assure us that the film is acceptable because it denounces the fact of encouraging young girls to sexualize themselves.
Yet those of us who haven’t watched the film have ample evidence (photos, clips, viewer comments) that it sexualizes tween girls, including showing them scantily clad, twerking, sucking their fingers suggestively, and even a girl baring her breasts.
Never mind all that. The argument is that moral judgment must be suspended, that the film is a work of art in a complicated sense, and that the real problem is that of interpretation. If we interpret it correctly, we will see that it accords with the public’s pushback from what appears to be child pornography. The movie may look like child pornography, but it’s really against that kind of stuff.
To anyone with common sense, this argument is reprehensible nonsense. But it’s the type of condemnable absurdity that, because we’ve been trained to see it as a plausible defense, reveals important things about our culture. Namely: how our social norms have gone off the rails.
Would a responsible parent want their daughter to star in “Cuties”, performing sexually suggestive gestures for the pleasure of viewers? Of course not. But the question deserves to be asked. He exposes the problem with the argument that the movie is good because it can be interpreted as a critique of the depravity it enacts.
But the argument against the “Cuties” is not based solely on intuitive morality alone. The argument that it is art is false because those who make it misunderstand the relationship between art and morality. Calling something art may complicate our moral judgments about it, but it does not suspend moral judgment of the work of art or its way of creating.
If I kill a man to use his blood in my painting, I may or may not be a good artist. But I am definitely a murderer.
Glorify the ugly
We can see the complicated dance between art and morality in the idea that art focused on the vulgar, the immoral, or the ugly is interesting and worthwhile. The immediate foundations of this idea were laid at the turn of the 19th century and have grown in popularity ever since.
One of the most important poets of this tradition was French (Charles Baudelaire, best known for his sordid descriptions of city life in “Les Fleurs du Mal”). British opinion at the turn of the 20th century remained wary of such French-inspired artistic ‘decadence’ without constructive moral vision and is historically relevant to ‘Cuties’, a French film.
French schools (exemplified by the deformed figures of Pablo Picasso and the found art urinal of Marcel Duchamp) also played a large role in realizing the same principles in visual forms, thus defining modern art. But in the century that followed, the idea that depicting the disgusting and immoral can have aesthetic merit became the norm in Western art. It’s no longer a particularly French approach, although the French are perhaps even better at taking it to shocking extremes.
Many artists have depicted the ugly and immoral for morally redemptive purposes. Witness a poet influenced by Baudelaire, TS Eliot, and his masterpiece “The Waste Land” – a poem that describes unsatisfying sexual encounters and dirty streets and the aftermath of a botched abortion in an attempt to call his contemporaries to witness. In the best version of this tradition of the art of ugliness, the art recognizes and represents evil so that it can indicate ultimate good.
Although “The Waste Land” offers ambiguous redemption at best, it’s no coincidence that Eliot converted to Anglicanism six years after publishing the poem. The first step to redemption is recognizing the need for it. Eliot, in his post-conversion poems, continued to portray the evil of the world in order to present a grounded, non-evasive view of good.
The limits of showing evil
But to find redemptive potential in the representation of evil, one must assume that evil is really a representation: that it is in fact not real evil in itself but rather its description, its representation. Eliot’s depiction of casually predatory sex in a London flat didn’t require an actual act of predation (and it’s not particularly graphic).
“Cuties” does not fit into this redemptive tradition because its “representation” is fundamentally different. Even though it is art, as many Twitter users have pointed out, the film represents the sexualization of young girls by actually sexualize them.
The sexually graphic actions these babes performed really did happen. That they happened in the name of art doesn’t change the way art was made. The “representation” of the film registers real outrages.
On some level, it’s possible to understand “Cuties” as a work of art with a fictional narrative. But like other forms of recorded pornography, having a fictionalized narrative doesn’t change the fact that real bodies produced it (or that it has an obvious lustful appeal, though that’s not my main point here. ). The bodies, in this case, are the bodies of young girls, who cannot give their informed consent to perform these sexualized gestures or display themselves sexually in front of the public.
As in films that explicitly present themselves as pornography, for “Cuties”, the question of artistic interpretation is therefore irrelevant. You could interpret this film and come to the conclusion that it actually condemns the sexualization of young girls. But in doing so, she would inevitably condemn herself, and to interpret her in the first place, one would have to look beyond her obvious pruriance.
The sex moves these girls performed are real sex moves performed by real girls. No appeal to “art” can outweigh this fact, even though the rise of “art forms” like performance art in the context of postmodern sophistics has encouraged us to blur the line between the real and the aesthetic. But what happens to our body and what we do with it is a real, visceral matter, whether we admit it or not.
What’s depraved is advocating child pornography
You are not dense or uneducated for insisting that “Cuties” is morally depraved, that it should never have been made, and that there should be legal consequences for those who made it and distributed.
You also don’t have to see the movie (as I didn’t) condemn him, as if the actions performed during its filming could be “reinterpreted” in the light of any artistic value. Again, “art” is only a significant factor in the current controversy to the extent that people defending “Cuties” mistakenly find “art” to be a plausible defense. “It’s an award-winning film!” some remind us of this, as if artistic merit counted for moral considerations, or if rewards could outweigh the obvious child abuse.
Forget about awards and reviews who think they know best. The most “artistic” child pornography remains child pornography, and it is always diabolical.
Jeremy Stevens is a soon to be official doctoral student who wrote his thesis at Columbia University on secularization and British poetry. He tries to stay off social media for his own good.