Is Disney art?

Tonight I had the pleasure of hearing Neal Gabler talk about the life and times of Walt Disney and his animation career. Gabler has recently published a biography on Disney, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination. During his talk he described the artistic pursuits of Mr. Disney, how it was never about the money for him but about the goal of realism. This, he claims, explains why Walt was always on the verge of bankruptcy, if not there completely. It is truly an inspiring story about one man’s pursuit for the ultimate achievement in animation, to make it real.

But I am not writing about my childhood hero to talk about is inspiring nature. I am brining him up to talk about his artistic attributes. Does Walt’s creations stand as art? It can be very easy to say yes, but also very easy to say no. Yes, they represent artistic achievement in that their goal is for the creation of art, that object that has no other primary function but to interact with us on a purely aesthetic level. But also they are challenging in that they push the medium, that of a hybrid between film and painting/drawing, to its limits, to the fringes of its capabilities where it becomes truly a hybrid with film and later, speaking of today’s animation, a hybrid with technology itself.

But it also is not art in that its goal was not to challenge society. He wanted those same renaissance creations, just with the addition of movement. What he was doing was not expanding the ideas of aesthetics but rather limiting them to that which is expected, that which we see in a linear fashion. And it wasn’t for a long time before animation was freed from its linearly established reflection of reality.

But I don’t think I agree with this either. I would like now to connect to an older post of mine, First step towards... Here I described art not as an object but as an interaction. With this much freer definition I believe one like myself can easily call the experience I had with the Disney cartoons and theme parks as artistic. So with that being said I open it up to further comments and criticism. But for myself Disney remains an inspiration of mine and an artist/imagineer/entrepreneur I aspire to be.



One Response to Is Disney art?

  1. David Thomas says:

    Art, how simple life would be if we could all agree on some compact formulaic definition printed on a small laminated card and produced on the spur of the moment every time we encounter something vaguely unfamiliar or out of place. Think of the endless hours of argument saved and channeled in to drinking or attending sporting events, or even the number of teaching positions that could be eliminated in Critical Theory, Literature and Art History departments across the land, savings from which could solve global warming no doubt. But alas, it is not to be, art lends itself to no simple formulation. In the words of the Tao Te Ching, “The Way that can be told is not the Eternal Way.” Why is this so?

    Art is after all a uniquely human form of expression. We have heard animals communicate, though there seems to be a clear Darwinian preference for keeping those communications standard and not subject to random or planned variations. On a more complex level we know certain primates can fashion tools, organize social groups and even create war parties for aggressively patrolling their territory, but we have yet to find primate cave paintings. We also know that human communication is complex running from head and hand movements, facial expressions, vocalizations, speech, drawing object-making and even symphony writing. This continuum of communication/expression has in its far extreme artistic expression but where that line sits is indeterminate, that is, there can be no commonly agreed to placement of the line. It may be that a particular work is not currently “understood” or appreciated, it may be that the artist has hidden it, it may be that we are in a time of war or crisis where such expressions have been banned or are otherwise ignored or it may simply be that what was once adored is now forgotten. So at one extreme we know that to nod yes is not to create a work of art and on the other extreme we know that Beethoven’s Ninth is unlikely to be knocked off its pedestal.

    One additional consideration must however enter the picture, just as a peasant farmer with no formal education is unlikely to understand a lecture on quantum mechanics, rational choice theory or modern portfolio theory, so some degree of sophistication must be used when encountering (not interacting) with the highest forms of human expression. While it has been said that music tames the savage beast, my experience has been that without the proper education and exposure the savage beast sits and listens for about five minutes and then there ensues, sighs, throat-clearing noises, and enough paper shuffling to deafen the orchestra. Does this mean that a level of elitism is involved in art appreciation, yes and that comports well with what is required to understand and appreciate many other forms of human expression and communication.
    What does all this have to do with Walt? Disney was an entrepreneur, a businessman who by dint of inspiration and perspiration sought to make an enterprise out of his transformative vision of animated entertainment. He was an artisan, not an artist and his work was the work of an enterprise. Jeff Bezos did the same for book retailing (Amazon), Bill Gates for personal computing (Microsoft), Sarnoff, for sound reproduction, Land for instant photography and many, many more. To suggest that because Disney poured money into his filmed projects and therefore worked for his “art” instead of his shareholders is to mistake his lack of business and managerial acumen for an artistic mission or temperament. Was this the highest form of human expression, or rather an advanced but ultimately overtaken technological innovation, clearly it was more a mechanism than a creation and today who watches such early Disney animations as “The Old Mill” or the other “Sill Symphonies”. Disney’s enduring desire to control a reality of his choosing and then share that product with an audience does not express a new or deeper insight into the human condition, in fact in works to blind the mind’s eye and reduce the viewers’ use of imagination. To hear Beethoven’s Sixth is now to see cute flying horses, an egregious limitation placed on the mind’s eye by the first Imagineer.

    One last thought. At some point in the history of our species we became productive enough to express ourselves for expressions sake and to have extra resources to compensate the creator of the expression. At that same moment the marketplace of ideas was born and like all markets it operated to allocate resources. Highly valued expressions were rare and common expressions soon lost value. Artists could always choose to ignore the marketplace but ultimately if they wished to eat they either abandoned their art or received adequate compensation, but the existence of this marketplace acted as somewhat of a regulator, rationing artistic output. Today the internet has caused the cost of certain forms of expression to effectively be zero thereby effectively flooding us with expressions of all sorts, the regulator is non-existent. This, more than anything else, makes me dubious that blogs will ever be literature as there are simply to many of them with little or no “quality control”.

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