I have to confess: I have a problem with cute.
Cute is for babies. It is a series of physical features meant to generate a response of protection from the caregivers. Since a baby cannot provide for itself, biology decided that there is a bigger chance for the baby to receive nourishment and care – vital for its survival and the survival of the species – if it displays cute features, such as big eyes. There is nothing about a baby’s appearance that is not cute, and same goes for babies of most mammals. Instinctively you feel that you need to protect them whether they are yours or not.
I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that there is an obsession with cute in the contemporary speech. There is talk about cute-everything: cute clothes, cute apartments, cute cafes and restaurants (where the food is, obviously, yummy), cute hotels, cute photos, cute movies… Why this obsession with cute? It drives me mad sometimes. I think it is because cute is comfortable. Cute is predictable. We know how to handle cute. We giggle and do what we do around a pet or a baby. Cute does not judge. Cute does not ask for accountability or complicated feelings. Cute is unanimously accepted, even encouraged. Cute is nice. Cute is easy. Of course we want cute.
From all things cute, I find it the strangest when people refer to cities as cute. And of course Amsterdam, with its picturesque centre, is many times referred to as such. Now, there is no harm about a city looking cute. But I think we should aim for cities like places of stimulation instead. I don’t see why a city needs to be cute at all. For cute, we can go to Disneyland.
When I think of cute, I think of a world in pastel colours: pastel coloured houses, pastel coloured outfits, pastel coloured cakes. The kind of world pictured in children’s books. A softer kind of world. Because this is exactly what pastels are: primary colours mixed with extra additives in order to obtain a paler, softer tone. They are colours made more pleasant, more palatable. Metaphorically speaking, they are sugar-coated, which is maybe why I think of cakes in this context.
The quest for cosy and comfy
Cute, however, is not alone. It comes hand in hand with cosy and comfy. What is it about Northern European cities and cosy? Gezellig and hygge are ubiquitous concepts here and they were successfully exported to the rest of the world. I am thinking that, if the American dream is about fame and money, the Northern European dream might just be about cosy and comfy. Maybe it has to do with the need to navigate bad weather, the dread, and sometimes even isolation, brought by the lack of sunshine. Why despair for feeling so miserable on a cold rainy day? Just make yourself some tea, burn a candle, and put your fluffy robe on! Now life is good. Except it doesn’t really work that way and we know it. But: it is cute.
The quest for cosy and comfortable is also reflected in how we furnish and accessorise our homes, the so-called Sandinavian design. I can’t help but wonder, why do we even want Scandinavian-like homes outside of Scandinavia? I believe houses – and interiors – are meant to be an extension of, rather than an implant in, the environments in which they exist. Unless… we are looking for an illusion. From the prettification of the home to the prettification of the city at large it is just a small step. I think of the home entrances here, in Amsterdam. Lush, flowery, they are like miniature gardens suspended on doorsteps or spread on the pavement. Is it the love of nature of the Dutch? The desire to impress neighbours and passers-by? Or is it all in the name of gezellig? After al, the pretty entrances go well with the pretty houses and the pretty canals.
Basically, what we want is something soft, something on the verge of infantile, something that has little to do with reality. An illusion of life. La vie en rose. A prettified and simplified life. La vie en cute. If possible, an alternative to life. Because real life sucks. Real life is so unbearable that sometimes at our origins it was decided we needed to be social animals. Only through relationships we might get enough of the power needed to deal with life.
What is the big deal?
So, what is the big deal? What is wrong with pursuing comfort and prettiness? The problem is that maybe you are pursuing a lie. Maybe you don’t even want all this cuteness. Maybe you don’t even like it. For sure, you don’t need it. Maybe your apartment in Bucharest – just giving an example – is supposed to look like an apartment in Bucharest, because it is an apartment in Bucharest. Maybe you don’t need that expensive candle smelling like forest because you are not living in a forest, you are actually living in a plain. Maybe that is why we like our grand-parents’s homes so much. Because they are exactly how they are supposed to be, a fair representation of the people who inhabit them and the environment in which they are located. They are not striving to look like something they are not, proud to be what they really are. And the real thing is the best thing there is – always.
I believe that chasing cute and its family of nuts are among the reasons why we are so depressed. We are looking for comfort – and by this, I mean mental comfort – in the wrong place. I read somewhere that the antidote for sadness is learning (I think Socrates said it). In other words, putting our brain to good use. Cute won’t make you happy. Cosy won’t make you happy. Pretty won’t make you happy. Even comfy won’t make you happy. But your brain will. Ideas – in other words, knowledge – will make you happy. Or at least they will comfort you in a real way.
A bad-ass Amsterdam
Just like there are hardly any ideas in hollow concepts, there are hardly any ideas in a hollow city. What I like during my walks in Amsterdam is not the cute-looking city centre, but rather the pockets of discontinuity: demolition sites, construction sites, message stickers attached to light poles, posters stuck to electricity boxes announcing an event or a movement, colourful graffiti, derelict walls. Everything that doesn’t have an aesthetic agenda. Everything that is not just cute. Something that leaves place to interpretation.
You know when you look at some people and you can’t see anything beyond their eyes, as if it were nothing more beyond that beautiful facade? The same goes for cities. Because you need more than looks to build a connection. Like somebody pointed out to me in a comment, life in Amsterdam is not a conversation, but rather a monologue. You interpret the city for yourself. The city does not engage with you other than superficially. The city does not speak.
Now, imagine a bad-ass Amsterdam. A bit like (some parts of) Spuistraat, or Waterlooplein, Weesperplein, or Wibautstraat until a couple of years ago. Multifaceted, conversational, sexy, with an edge too. Nothing cute about that. Instead, pure energy and substance. It sparks curiosity, it engages you, you might even raise an eyebrow. You might even be annoyed. And that is stimulating. Have you tried?