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Say “Cheese” to Critical Theory: The Role of the Smiley in Late Capitalist Society

21 February 2023

Say “Cheese” to Critical Theory: The Role of the Smiley in Late Capitalist Society
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Vortumnus (Vertumno), Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1590; Image credit: Wikimedia

We live in a world of smileys. Everyday communication is full of happy, yellow faces seemingly expressing and promoting perpetual carefreeness and joy. This paper explores the less than happy consequences of our extensive use of smileys. Inspired by Max Horkheimer´s critique of the culture industry and the pleasant forgetfulness that its products offer the function of the smiley is analyzed as a mask and as a fetish of contemporary culture, covering dissatisfaction with simulated joy, making genuine concerns and discontent still harder to express.

We live in a world of smileys. Every day means multiple new encounters with the world-famous yellow face smiling at us from the end of an email or from the side of a coffee mug, a t-shirt or accompanying the latest posts on Facebook or Instagram. Online as well as offline, at work and in our free time, our lives are populated by grinning men who seem to pop up in any thinkable context and address us at any possible occasion. Giving the worldwide proliferation of this particular ideogram, its truly pandemic proportions, the lack of academic research and critical thinking devoted to the semantic and communicative implications and consequences of the use of smileys is surprising. It is as if the smiley has so far succeeded in charming its way out of any critical lineup and of any serious, academic confrontation – as if its disarming smile, its postulated gayness, has excused it from all questioning and debates. Too light as a subject for any serious academics and too innocent and unproblematic for more popular philosophers, the smiley has risen to the level of international  stardom without its history, its semantic and emotional functions being questioned. The simple truism that “everyone needs a smile” has appeared sufficient as explanation. In a modern world full of conflicts, insecurities and anxieties the smiley has appeared on the side of comfort, lightness and optimism and thus as part of the remedies against late capitalism´s and modern society´s many malaises. Happiness in spite of all seems, on this background, almost heroic – a silent expression of resistance, answering fatigue, stress and powerlessness with a smile. The question, however, is if such an easy and straightforward reading adequately represents the history and communicative function of the smiley? If this ambassador of optimism and civic servant of joy is as unambiguous and childishly innocent as it seems – or if, indeed, another less cheerful and less sunny story lies hidden beneath the yellow grin?


We know that the smiley was not born out of a spirit of happiness but as a   calculated attempt from the company owners of an American insurance company to cheer up their increasingly dissatisfied and disgruntled work force. (1) Designed by the commercial artist, Harvey Ross Ball, the first yellow, smiling face was brought into existence in 1963 in the hope that the happy ideogram would change the mood among the employees and take the air out of a potential revolt. The smiling face was printed on buttons and posters and handed out as part of a cooperate strategy whose main purpose was distraction: to lead the minds of the insurance agents away from their poor, unsatisfactory working conditions and cover up genuine, authentic concerns with a fake, mass-produced smile. Ball´s job was, in other words, not to address any causes but only to create theatrics and effects – to answer deeper-lying problems with pure surface and masquerade. The smiley´s first performance, on what would later become a much-celebrated world-tour, was thus carried out in the spirit of illusion and deception – a stifled smile on the lips of an immovable magician, who would soon prove far more effective in the art of cover-up and repression than any seductive figure Walt Disney ever made. Shielding the company owners from the anger of the employees, distracting the employees from their own dissatisfaction, the smiley was set in function in properly fetishistic ways: replacing a lack with a presence, replacing a fear with a smile, substituting an intangible problem with a concrete, palpable object the smiley met all the criteria of Freudian fetishism. Like the golden shield of Perseus something that could not be faced was faced – the head of Medusa was chopped off with a yellow grin.

In Max Horkheimer´s essay, “Art and Mass Culture”, (2) we find the purpose of mass culture described in very similar terms: the movies, the ball games, the cartoons, the popular music are, as products of the culture industry, all servants of the same capitalist agenda whose main objective is to lull modern man into submissive, uncritical passivity. Instead of provoking new thoughts, instead of providing the foundation for new and possibly revolutionary insights, mass culture is designed to occupy the hearts and minds of people and to sedate them with pleasant entertainment to ensure the undisturbed continuation of the established, capitalist order. As Horkheimer writes: “… the transformation of personal life into leisure and leisure into routines supervised to the last detail, into the pleasures of the ball park and the movie, the best seller and the radio, has brought about the disappearance of the inner life.” (3) Whereas the personal realm, the personal life of citizens used to be a space for reflection, a time for the free play of thoughts and ideas, untouched by the practical purposes of existence, this realm is now invaded by mindless tunes and silly cartoons, blocking the way to any critical and serious considerations. Where the inner life of people is thus controlled and colonized, where Donald Duck and Goofy has come to replace any free and innovative thought, man loses his power to conceive a world different from that in which he lives: “Long before culture was replaced by these manipulated pleasures, it had already assumed an escapist character. Men had fled into a private conceptual world … But with the loss of his ability to take this kind of refuge… man has lost his power to conceive a world different from that in which he lives.” (4) Superficial happiness and mass-produced cosmetic joy thus covers the true concerns of people who no longer find the means to express their unhappiness nor the insight to realize what they in fact have lost. In this state of social disempowerment, on this stage of easy theatrics and cultural masquerade, Horkheimer finds only one realm in which some notion of freedom is still alive and has the power to assert itself: opposing the culture industry is the artist and his free, uncorrupted creations. From the peripheries of society, standing outside the closed circle of practical demands, the artist is able to offer a different perspective on the modern conditions of man. Given its oppositional role, seeking to express the true despair of people, this art, however, cannot be harmonious and happy but must denounce any easy and lighthearted effects. The result is an inhospitable art, a seemingly hostile art, – forced into the rendering of strangely distorted figures and discordant, unrecognizable forms. Artistic autonomy thus comes in the form of a negation of all the easy consumable, easy discernible figures that mass culture has put into mass-circulation. Only from the midst of apparently meaningless creations, only through a communication that is deliberately estranged and hard to decipher is a glimpse of hope and an act of freedom retained – or as Horkheimer puts it: “The work of art is the only adequate objectification of the individual´s deserted state and despair.” (5)

Harvey Ball, right; Image credit: Wikimedia
Harvey Ball, right; Image credit: Wikimedia

One can only wonder how Horkheimer would have greeted the smiley had it appeared 20 years earlier, in the 40s, when he wrote his essay. His close colleague in the art of cultural theory and cultural critique, Theodor Adorno, had ample opportunity to include some reflections on the smiley in his Aesthetic Theory, (6) published posthumously, but, as we know, he never did. Thus, the smiley proceeded unchallenged and unharmed from the attacks that the two defenders of an unhappy art in all likelihood would have launched on it. Behind the backs of Walt Disney figures, in the cover of jazz and Hollywood movies, the smiley survived its first steps into this turbulent world without losing any of its childish appeal, without its innocence being truly questioned. It is difficult, however, to think of a more emblematic figure of everything that Adorno and Horkheimer so ferociously opposed than this smiling ideogram and the conditions of its existence: the right to be unhappy and to express one´s genuine discontents is precisely what the smiley forecloses. It is a forced smile, a smile without referent, a grin without origin, drifting homelessly from posters to coffee mugs, from t-shirts to album covers, everywhere imposing its happy order, its joyful dictate, its bright and sunny laws. And so no one seems to notice what is in truth fairly obvious: that the smiley is a troubled man, an unhealthy man, yellowly sick to the bones.  

It is an interesting historical fact that the smiley appeared more than a decade after the abstract expressionists had completely abandoned figuration and at a time when pop art is quickly growing to become the next dominant art style. It is as if figuration, deemed uninteresting and unworthy in the art world for so long, returned with a vengeance. Thus, the smiley entered the scene together with Warhol´s Campbell´s soups and Roy Lichtenstein´s cartoon figures – but without the latter´s artistic ambitions. The smiley remains wisely outside the spotlight of the intellectual elite. It is kitsch without irony, it is cheap and mass-produced without pretending to neither criticize nor celebrate the society of mass-consumption. Conservatives and liberals, republicans and democrats, workers and intellectuals can all greet each other with a smiley without there being any discomforting political or ideological implications. Neutral like a slice of cheese the smiley is everyone´s in general and no one´s in particular. The simplicity of Ball´s design here shows its perhaps most significant characteristic which is its complete lack of any features, attributes and characteristics: by reducing a head to a circle and a face to two dots and a line the smiley has emptied the representation of man of all individual and personal traits – a smile without lips, two eyes without pupils and contours, the smiley only hangs on to the human face by the thinnest possible thread. Indeed, it is a faceless face, a face robbed of its humanity, of its human base, cut down to a single expression which is the expression of nobody.

In his famous essay, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch”, (7) Clement Greenberg defines kitsch as cultural expressions that are mechanically produced and operates by simple formulas. Where folk culture retreats in the urbanized, industrial West, kitsch emerges as the preferred art form of modern but uneducated man. (8) In opposition to the challenging art of the avant-garde, which constantly questions and alters its own means of expression, kitsch is easily accessible, reliable and can be consumed without intellectual effort. By always staying safely behind the avant-garde, by deliberately dragging its feet along the cultural horizon, kitsch can and will, however, reuse and re-circulate the inventions of the avant-garde once these inventions have lost their initial powers of questioning and forces of provocation. As such, what is kitsch is parasitic in nature, and its popularity based entirely on reductions and simplifications: what was once dangerously radical is reborn in the harmless and unchallenging guise of the kitsch. (9) That is why kitsch for Greenberg is necessarily a forgery, repeating and faking what used to be genuine experiments and authentic ideas and sensations, emptying avant-garde art of its content but retaining and repeating its effects. As such kitsch is a cultural masquerade designed to satisfy the masses, who can hide safely within the recognizable forms that purely confirms the world as it is. In a passage that echoes many of Horkheimer´s ideas, Greenberg places the main blame for this poverty on the workings of society itself. (10) In an age where the average man is overburdened by work, where he is given neither the space nor the time necessary for independent reflection and contemplation, the appreciation of anything that challenges and transgresses the well-known and instantly recognizable is simply impossible. The average man doesn´t have the energy. Thinking requires resources that he has already spent, true art asks for sensibilities that he can no longer afford. Picasso and James Joyce are thus luxuries on the top of a pyramid of mental and physical exhaustion. The only kind of possible art appreciation there is left is one of shortcuts and instant gratifications. Hence the popularity of kitsch and of the culture industries redundant productions; hence a thinking that is always cut short and stops at slogans, clichés and colorful, childish fabrications. Thinking, not least of the critical kind, not least of the inquiring type – the sort that may one day evolve to offer the world surprising and novel perspectives – is the silent victim of a culture that distributes only smiles and acknowledges only optimism, enthusiasm and happy consumerism.

Still from Perseverance in the Face of Absurdity, James Joyce, Dismaland (Banksy’s themepark), 2015; Image Credit: James Joyce, 
Still from Perseverance in the Face of Absurdity, James Joyce, Dismaland (Banksy’s themepark), 2015; Image Credit: James Joyce, 

It is easy to see how well the smiley fits Greenberg´s definition of kitsch. Itself a parasite on genuine sensations and a simulation of effects robbed of content and authentic emotions, the smiley is emblematically kitsch. But what is possibly of greater interest and importance in continuation of Greenberg´s cultural critique is the way in which the smiley also functions as a roadblock for any prolonged or deeper reflections. Sugar-coating every message with a smile, rendering all communication harmless and superficially pleasant, the smiley operates semantically like an all-embracing stabilizer and harmonizer, sending its fakeness forwards and backwards through entire chains of linguistic signifiers. But of course, the reassuring smile has no real assurance to offer – no solid goodwill or friendliness to substantiate or consolidate the grin. It postulates happiness where no happiness is to be found; it signals brightness and joy where brightness and joy has long since disappeared. Taking the edge off of any written communication, taking the bitterness and hostility out of any situation, it makes it possible to be tough without appearing unfriendly, demanding without seeming insensitive, cut-throat without seeming inhuman. It is, in other words, the perfect communicative tool to ensure peace and productivity, to keep business in its usual flow. In this sense, the smiley of today, the smiley of emojis and emoticons, the smiley of emails and social platforms remains faithful to its analog beginning and origins. Any genuine dissatisfaction is pushed aside with a smile, making unhappiness an inexpressible, seemingly isolated, lonely affair. Man stands alone with his despair while men come together under the yellow sun of a smiley.

Today, the Smiley Company is a million-dollar business and among the top one hundred licensing companies in the world. (11) Operating globally it is responsible for every copyrighted smile around the world – from the smiley on a Japanese tea mug to a Canadian sweater with a grin. No happy, yellow face goes uncharged or gets away without paying the bills. Harvey Ross Ball who didn´t have the foresight to patent his creation, was immediately cut out of the profitable loop and never received more than the 45 dollars that the insurance company originally payed him. In this sense, the smiley of today is therefore a stolen smile, a smile robbed from the hands and crib of its creator. But it is precisely the smiley´s perfect malleability, its adaptability to any given situation, its servility and serviceability to any owner or master that makes the smiley such a superb navigator of today´s constantly changing world. While the earnings of happiness, the profits of joy lands securely in the hands of the Smiley Company owners the yellow face continues its analogue and digital world-tour, conquering new t-shirts, new emails, new posters, and text messages every day, seemingly without any other purpose than to wish us a happy day.

As the prize of happiness is being calculated, tapped into excel-sheets, added, and summed up in financial records, there is a semantic, emotional and communicative prize that remains unregistered and unaccounted for. Beneath the success of the smiley is an entire class of thoughts, a vast proletariat of sensations and emotions which are kept in the poverty of bad expressions and poor communication. The smiley doesn´t cover their needs, doesn´t answer their call, doesn´t acknowledge their existence. Toiling in the depths of the human psyche, these feelings and thoughts grow darker and bitterer every day. Under the reign of quick reactions, subject to the laws of short messages and Twitter character counts the complexities of human existence are sliced into their most diffusible and vendible form. Here is no time for subtleties, nuances or mixed emotions. Everything must be discernible and recognizable from the start. As the possibilities of expression thus become ever slighter, as language is cut down to simple statements and popular, repeatable slogans the power of the smiley will only continue to grow. We are therefore looking into a future that will seem brighter and happier than ever, a truly sunny epoch in the history of man, as man trades his old vocabulary for the stops and stutter of smileys.



1. See:  

2. Max Horkheimer, “Art and Mass Culture” in Critical Theory: Selected Essays, New York: Continuum Publishing Company, 1975.

3. Horkheimer, Critical Theory, p. 277.

4. Horkheimer, Critical Theory, p. 277-278. 

5. Horkheimer, Critical Theory, p. 279.

6. Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998.

7. Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” in Art and Culture: Critical Essays, Boston: Beacon Press, 1965.

8. Greenberg, Art and Culture, p. 10.

9. Greenberg, Art and Culture, p. 10-11.

10. Greenberg, Art and Culture, p. 18.  

11. See: 

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