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If you do not appreciate “Cuties” as a nuanced and challenging work of art, you are an uncultured philistine—and how dare you comment on it without watching it. This is the general argument in defense of “Cuties” expressed in op-eds and on Twitter. People like Alyssa Rosenberg assure us the movie is acceptable because it condemns encouraging young girls to sexualize themselves.
Yet those of us who have not watched the movie have plenty of evidence (stills, clips, the comments of viewers) that it sexualizes preteen girls, that among other things it shows them scantily clad, twerking, suggestively sucking their fingers, and even one girl baring her breasts.
Never mind all that. The argument is that we should suspend moral judgment, that the film is a work of art with a complicated meaning, and the real problem is one of interpretation. If we just interpret it right, we’ll see that it agrees with the public recoil at what appears to be child pornography. The film may look like child porn, but it’s really against that sort of thing.
To anyone making use of common sense, this argument is damnable nonsense. But it is the type of damnable nonsense that, because we have been trained to see it as a plausible defense, reveals important things about our culture. Namely: how our social norms have derailed.
Would any responsible parent want her daughter to star in “Cuties,” performing sexually suggestive gestures for viewers’ pleasure? Of course not. But the question needs to be asked. It exposes the problem with the argument that the movie is fine because it can be interpreted as a critique of the depravity it enacts.
But the argument against “Cuties” does not only rely on only intuitive morality. The argument that it is art is wrong because those making it misunderstand the relationship between art and morality. Saying that something is art might complicate our moral judgments of that thing, but it does not suspend moral judgment of the artwork or its manner of creation.
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.
Glorifying the Ugly
We can see the complicated dance between art and morality in the idea that art focusing on the vulgar, immoral, or ugly is interesting and valid. This idea’s immediate groundwork was laid around the turn of the nineteenth century and has gained more traction since that time.
One of the most significant poets in this tradition was French (Charles Baudelaire, best known for his sordid descriptions of city life in “Les Fleurs du Mal”). British opinion around the turn of the twentieth century remained wary of such French-inflected artistic “decadence” without a constructive moral vision and is historically relevant for “Cuties,” a French film.
French schools (exemplified in Pablo Picasso’s warped figures and Marcel Duchamp’s found-art urinal) also played a large part in realizing the same principles in visual forms, thereby defining modern art. But in the intervening century, the idea that the representation of the disgusting and immoral can have aesthetic merit has become the norm in western art. It’s no longer a particularly French approach, although the French may still be best at taking it to shocking extremes.
Plenty of artists have represented the ugly and immoral for morally redemptive ends. Witness a poet influenced by Baudelaire, T.S. Eliot, and his masterwork “The Waste Land”—a poem that describes unfulfilling sexual encounters and dirty streets and the consequences of a botched abortion for the purpose of calling its contemporaries to witness. In the best version of this tradition of art-from-ugliness, art acknowledges and represents evil so it might point to an ultimate good.
Although “The Waste Land” offers an ambiguous redemption at best, it is not a 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 represent the world’s evil in order to present a grounded, non-escapist vision of the good.
The Limits of Showing Evil
But to find a redeeming potential in the representation of evil, we must assume that the evil is truly a representation: that it is not in fact real evil in itself but instead the description of it, the portrayal of it. Eliot’s description of casually predatory sex in a London apartment did not require an actual act of predation (and it is not especially graphic).
“Cuties” does not fit within this redemptive tradition because its “representation” is fundamentally different. Even if it is art, as many Twitter users have pointed out the film represents the sexualization of young girls by actually sexualizing them.
The sexually graphic actions those girls performed really did take place. That they took place in the name of art does not change how the art was made. The film’s “representation” records real outrages.
On one level, it is possible to understand “Cuties” as a work of art with a fictional narrative. But like other forms of recorded pornography, having a fictional narrative does not change the fact that actual bodies produced it (or that it has an obvious prurient appeal, although that is not my main point here). The bodies, in this case, are the bodies of young girls, who cannot possibly give informed consent to perform these sexualized gestures or sexually exhibit themselves for the viewing public.
As in films that explicitly present themselves as pornography, for “Cuties” the question of artistic interpretation is therefore beside the point. You could interpret this movie and come to the conclusion that it does in fact condemn the sexualization of young girls. But in doing so it would inevitably condemn itself, and in order to interpret it in the first place you would have to look past its obvious prurience.
The sexual gestures these girls performed are actual sexual gestures performed by actual girls. No appeal to “art” can override that fact, even if the rise of “artforms” like performance art in the context of postmodern sophistry has encouraged us to blur the boundary between the real and the aesthetic. But what happens to our bodies and what we do with them is a visceral matter, real whether we admit it or not.
What Is Depraved Is Defending Child Porn
You are not dense or uncultured 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 and distributed it.
You also do not have to see the film (as I have not) to condemn it, as if the actions performed during its filming could be “reinterpreted” in light of any artistic merit. Again, “art” is a significant factor in the present controversy only to the extent that the people defending “Cuties” incorrectly find “art” a plausible defense. “It’s an award-winning film!” some remind us, as if artistic merit amounts to anything for moral considerations, or if awards can counterbalance the obvious abuse of children.
Forget the awards and the critics who think they know better. The most “artistic” child pornography is still child pornography, and it is still evil.
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