Cute: From Hello Kitty to Sexual Subculture

That should have been the full title of the show currently on at Somerset House, half a mile along the Strand from Trafalgar Square. Unfortunately, only the four-letter word beginning with “c” was used, which dupes families into visiting an innocent, kiddy-friendly entertainment, only to find out that half of it is a show of transgression and perversion. I understand a number of parents have complained. I’m not surprised.

A disgruntled Jasmine Surreal by the poster for the show. Cat: “Playing dress-up with AI (2023)” by Graphic Thought Facility. Hello Kitty, bottom right.

The image above is the one used extensively to promote the show and was spotted by the bus stops outside East Finchley tube station by my colleague, Jasmine Surreal. She is self-confessedly besotted with cuteness and equally averse to transgression and perversion. Her enthusiastic anticipation of visiting the show was equaled only by her disappointment on experiencing it, specifically that she “didn’t want to see all that shit upstairs”.

I was also taken aback on my visit and I felt let down. I was expecting to enter a different world to that which I normally inhabit and to be drowned in an overload of cuteness, including the celebration of fifty years of Hello Kitty. In case the latter has inexplicably bypassed your cultural consciousness: it is a simple, highly-stylised, cartoon cat that generates billions of pounds in revenue each year. It is the epitome of cuteness (so I am enthusiastically informed) and also commerce.

The show is on two levels. Downstairs is OK, as far as it goes, though hardly spectacular in its displays. Most of the curatorial energy seems to have been reserved for upstairs, which is not about cute but about how cute can be warped in various dark ways.

A wall panel, titled “monstrous other”, declares: “Cuteness … slips easily into the realms of the uncanny and the grotesque.” Surely it then ceases to be cute and becomes, well, uncanny and grotesque – which, I would have thought, is not cute. But what do I know? Maybe cuteness, like gender and most other things these days is in the mind of the beholder.

“Untitled” by Juliana Huxtable.

Juliana Huxtable has excellent woke qualifications, being “a Black transgender woman who was born intersex.” Her three-titted, untitled aberration is a striking example of what some parents might not want their children to encounter just before bedtime, as it reflects the artist’s “fascination with the trans-humanist element of much online sexual subculture.”

The wall panel also describes, somewhat oxymoronically, the image’s “elegant portrayals of selfhood with lizard eyes, pig snout and cow’s udder,” which is apparently meant to “probe deeply into ideas of identity and hybridity.” Not my identity, I assure you. In fact not even the identity of one of my friends, who was born intersex like the artist. However, my friend isn’t Black and transgender, although she is a lesbian with past gender dysphoria, which I guess does something to make up for it and denotes a certain level of expertise in the field.

Some front covers of Arty magazine, issue number 14 on the extreme right.

There are other equally unappealing exhibits, at least as far as innocent cuteness is concerned. But why? A feasible explanation can be found in the writing of Cathy Lomax, artist and intrepid owner of the Transition gallery (founded 2002) in Bethnal Green. In the “Girls” issue, number 14, of her magazine Arty, published twenty years ago, there is an article “The New Girly” with concepts which apply equally well to “cute”:

“In the catalogue to the groundbreaking show the americans: new art the curator Mark Sladen says that some of the work on show was ‘playful and downright girly’ adding that ‘the derogatory overtones of the word (girly) have been undermined sufficiently for it to be reclaimed’. This comment was very liberating and opened up a whole new aesthetic …

Girly is an adjective describing all things associated with femininity i.e. frills, pretty colours, decoration, dolls, romance, flowers etc. The new girly is not however gender specific, it’s about an open mindedness, a mix of high and low, a gathering and reclamation of things that have traditionally been thought of as inferior, frivolous and weak. It is about a shift in power and a change in the world order, with the shy equal partners to the brash. Above all it is totally subversive.”

That probably explains why some thirty years before that, a (male) tutor at Maidstone College of Art, proclaimed staunchly that pink was a color that could not be used in a painting.

Cute per se is obviously too subversive for Somerset House, which explains why the exhibition has been turned into an intellectual thesis, which undermines its purported subject. This didn’t worry Jackson, newly arrived from Arizona via Thailand, with whom I fell into conversation and who commented perspicaciously:

“The exhibit is consciously aware that cuteness can very quickly become disturbing. I’m impacted by how it says that that which is cute is actually deeply powerful and knows its power; and the person who is enamored by the cuteness in some ways is actually ensnared by it. I thought the writing on the wall was going to be quite superficial, because I have this idea of cuteness as superficial, but this has actually been one of the most deep and intense art experiences I’ve had in a long time.”

Jasmine, newly arrived from East Finchley via the Northern line, had a very different but equally insightful view: “There was a big poster of the AI cute, rainbow cat. It was adorable and gorgeous. I thought the show was going to be filled with stuff like this and it wasn’t. My feelings are mixed: half of it I enjoyed and half of it was creepy and generates a horrible feeling. If I had known beforehand what I know now, I wouldn’t have gone to the show. I would have just gone to the cafe, because that was pure cute. That was really nice.”

A delighted Jasmine Surreal in the Hello Kitty Cafe.

Sir Nicholas Serota once said of Tate Modern: “better a destination gallery with a good café attached than the other way round.” Somerset House has succeeded in reversing the priority with this show. There are queues up to two-and-a-half hours to get into the Hello Kitty cafe. It is in the corner of the courtyard, independently run by ArtBox, and is an untramelled fulfillment of the show’s title.

Cute: the real deal.

The cafe is decorated with appropriate pastel (particularly pink) colours and images. It is not merely visual but also a gustatory cute experience, where you can devour opulent cakes with Hello Kitty labels and drink coffee, with a Hello Kitty design traced in chocolate, in a Hello Kitty mug on a Hello Kitty coaster, surrounded by walls with Hello Kitty pictures. You can also spot young people in Hello Kitty pink velour tracksuits. Instead of indifferent security guards, there was a warm welcome from Zayb, the manager.

The cafe is only open for the duration of the show, which ends on April 14, but all is not lost. There is a permanent Artbox cafe, currently Hello Kitty-themed, at 5-6 East Street, Brighton ( for reservations) and an Artbox shop, 44-46 Shelton Street, Covent Garden.

Meantime, an unexpected appetite for cute has been awakened in me, but as yet remains irritatingly mostly unfulfilled.

Charles Thomson is co-founder of The Stuckists.