Sianne Ngai’s Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting is about aesthetic judgments: an inquiry into the terms and origins of taste. How do we decide what we feel about the latest Chantal Akerman film or the fiction of Javier Marías, an Alexander McQueen ball-gown or an episode of Breaking Bad? How do we translate into language the sensations of pleasure and displeasure inspired by daily experience — and particularly our experience of art? What kind of conversation are we really having when we say “The Books make beautiful music!” or “The view out the window was picturesque?”
In her new book, which builds on the investigation of aesthetics and minor affects she began in 2005’s Ugly Feelings, Ngai, a professor at Stanford University, encourages us to look beyond traditional aesthetic categories like “beautiful” or “sublime,” terms still in heavy rotation in academic contexts, to the colloquial words the twentieth and twenty-first centuries use to talk about art, especially (though not exclusively) in the American context. In this case, the terms under discussion are “zany,” “cute,” and “interesting.” Ngai wants to know what we can learn about contemporary responses to art by attending to categories “marginal” to traditional aesthetic theory and what we can learn about culture by looking at the lexicon we use to describe it.
In the last hundred years, aesthetic schools, judgments, and styles have proliferated with fractal abandon. Some have done so officially, others unofficially; some by fiat, others by more mysterious processes of historical emergence; some with manifestos of varying degrees of bombast, others soldered together by geography, canny critics, and the decentralized susurrus of social networks, digital and otherwise. A conservative sampling might include Expressionism, Imagism, Objectivism, Cubism, camp, kitsch, hip, cool, retro, pop, minimalism, maximalism, hysterical realism, Flarf, New Wave, the New Weird, the New Thing, the New Aesthetic, the New Sincerity …
Among such a welter of words, Ngai’s selection of the cute, the interesting, and the zany might seem arbitrary and insignificant. But what this book does so well is convince us that, of the staggering array of verbiage we’ve developed for tracking styles of art and our responses to them, these unassuming, conversational words are some of those that speak most directly to “everyday practices of production, circulation, and consumption.” They are “the [terms] in our current repertoire best suited for grasping how aesthetic experience has been transformed by the hypercommodified, information-saturated, performance-driven conditions of late capitalism.” That is, Ngai is concerned with how art matters. If you buy her conviction that the way we talk about our response to art can tell us a lot about important non-aesthetic features of our culture — how we use and process information, how we labor, how we play, and how we trade, buy, and sell — then her choice of categories comes into focus. In order to talk about how the aesthetic and the non-aesthetic inform one another, we need to think about the kinds of aesthetic judgments that happen alongside the daily practices of working, consuming, and exchanging, the kind of judgments that, because we ma...read more