I'll have to take your word on how it would bother you, but I think a crucial difference is that in the instance of the cute salt shaker, the instinct is to protect - notice that the word used, "cruel," is dependent upon how it's received by the anthropomorphized salt shaker. If I tell the soup, "You're too cold and have too high a potato-to-clam ratio!" - is it seen as cruel or mean? It seems more like it's seen as, like you said, hostile - a statement more about my feelings in intent than the "feelings" of the salt shaker in consequence.
I also understand that I may be putting too much emphasis on your particular words, inferring precision where none was intended, so if that's the case, let me know. But I think in the case of the cute object, I would be seen as a "bully," whereas in the case of the soup or the painting, I'd be seen as generally unpleasant and critical. To the extent that there's a victim with the un-cute objects, it's the person who values them - I have insulted their taste. This is as opposed to the cute object, where the victim is the object itself.
My point is that it's perceived as nasty and cruel at all, rather than bizarre or slightly rude or honest. Imagine it was an excessively large salt shaker - say, several feet tall. And faced it and said, "You're worthless because you're too large to be useful." People would give me a quizzical look, like, what's wrong with this guy? But the instinct wouldn't be to protect the large salt shaker.
I actually included that because of exactly that response from various girls about objects like hotel shampoo bottles, Japanese candies, a very small salt-shaker, a tiny spoon, etc. It usually goes something like, "Look at that salt shaker; it's so cute." And then I look at the salt shaker and say, "You're worthless because you're too small to be useful." And the girl will go, "Don't say that!" and then immediately grabs the salt shaker.
One time I drew pictures on a piece of scratchpaper in such a way that when a Japanese candy was placed in the middle of it, it looked like I had the candy strung up by chains and was being tortured via electric shock. My co-worker snatched the candy and still hasn't eaten it; it's still in her desk.
tl;dr: Cuteness is the word that we use when we want something to experience a feeling of safety or otherwise be more confident than we think they would feel without special effort to make them feel that way.
Thanks for expanding. I want to throw out a warning that we're treading dangerously close to the foul line, but I think we're still in-bounds.
Using the word "cute" sarcastically is a very different use of the word with a completely different meaning.
I understand the general point that words can have different meanings, and I'm open to the possibility that I'm falling victim to the typical mind fallacy. I don't have any alternate meanings suggested yet, so I'm going to try to preemptively defend my definition below.
I want to test this hypothesis with a visualization experiment. I don't expect it will take longer than about 2 minutes to do all of the visualizations. This is the scene I want you to imagine: the person, animal, or object is standing or sitting, whichever can be expected of it. If it's a person, he or she has a blank, unsmiling, neutral, unaggressive facial expression. If it's an animal, its face is similarly at rest. It's facing either Data or Spock (take your pick). Imagine Data or Spock saying the sentence out loud to the person, animal, or object.
52" plasma television set - It's flipping through many channels, previewing each one for about a second; someone is channel-surfing. "You will be replaced by better, cheaper technology in less than a year."
Baby - "You would test very low on an IQ test. You will continue to be a net resource drain for several years."
Sexiest person alive - Doesn't matter who or what gender - this person is desired greatly, and desired primarily for their ability to satisfy you, personally, sexually. Take a minute and picture this person facing Data or Spock. "Your opinion isn't respected in virtually any matter; people agree with it out of hope they'll be able to sleep with you."
Bunny - "In a year's time, you will be harvested and your muscles will be cooked in a soup."
Cute boy or girl - Crucially, "cute" describes a particular type of attractive person. Imagine a person you would describe as cute, but not a person who is attractive who could not be described as cute. For me (and some others), "attractive but not cute" is a category that includes "hot," for example. If the word "cute" is a synoynm for "attractive" with perfect overlap, skip this question and note it below. If you imagined a girl: "You are valued for your womb and your abilities as a nanny. Men will want you for a wife but will consistently lust after other women for their sexual satisfaction." If you imagined a boy: "Women will tolerate your lovemaking, but you will be valued for your patience and because your timidity makes women around you feel outgoing, bold, and charismatic."
Hyena - "You will never have the opportunity to reproduce."
Tiny shampoo bottle - Imagine a small carnation-pink shampoo bottle, perhaps 2 inches tall. It has a white, spherical cap. The spherical cap has a very small, intricate, carnation-pink ribbon affixed atop it, as if it were a Christmas gift. "Throw this bottle away; its small volume makes it effectively worthless as a shampoo container."
An old man - Imagine an old man who could be perceived as "cute." Perhaps an old man, short, 90 years old, who walks very slowly, bringing his elderly wife, of roughly the same build, a plate with a sandwich on it, and he's torn the crust off the sandwich because he knows his wife doesn't like it. His hair is combed impeccably over his bald spot. His pants aren't long enough for his legs; they're "highwaters." After he sits next to her, he pats her knee. Now imagine this old man facing Data or Spock. "Your wife is still hiding love letters in her closet from her boyfriend before you, who left her. She still reads them and has never been as satisfied since marrying you."
A creepy old man - Leering, sexually active. "You give women the creeps, so you won't have sex again between now and when you die."
Did some of these statements seem meaner than others? Did any of these make you want to say to Data or Spock, "Don't say that!" or "You're going to hurt his/its feelings"? If so, which?
My hypothesis is that the following visualizations will incite, in the typical person, either slight anger at Data or Spock, an instinct to reassure the object at which the unpretty truth is directed, or in some other way some protective behavior, such as an urge to refute the hypothesis especially emphatically for that particular visualization, more than the others: baby, bunny, cute boy/girl, tiny shampoo bottle, old man. My hypothesis is that the following incited either zero emotional response or a non-negative emotional response: TV, sexy person, hyena, creepy old man.
It seems very oversimplified to say, "We think babies are cute because we have to." "Cuteness" casts a pretty wide net when you start thinking of all the things we say are "cute." A sample list of things I've heard described as cute:
It seems like we reserve the word for "things that are vulnerable/harmless/ineffective and don't realize it, which then triggers an urge to keep the thing's inaccurate self-perceptions about its own effectiveness intact."
This argument would have to apply to people who were born completely blind, or completely deaf. Just imagine that all humans are echolocation-deaf/blind.