Walt Disney as Collector

This weekend a friend and I saw a new exhibit at the Met on different sources of inspiration for Walt Disney.

It opens with how a trip to France in Walt’s formative years ended up having the French Decorative Arts influence the style of Beauty and the Beast. It was hard not to delight in the collection of visual inspirations and other curios that followed: The Cloisters’ Unicorn Tapestries and Sleeping Beauty; The Swing and Tangled; a table sized drawing of Disneyland drawn over a weekend as a visual pitch deck to investors in 1953; and lots more.

But others will probably ask the question my friend asked when we stepped out of the cinematic exhibit – is it art?

People have asked this for decades. In 1938 Walt Disney gifted a picture of two vultures from Snow White to the Met. Wolf Burchard, a curator at the Met, recently commented how the expected “public relations coup” instead caused a minor controversy:

“Disney’s water color[s] … will be hung under the same roof with the greatest works of the greatest masters of painting, and the Metropolitan isn’t blushing about it.”

The Philadelphia Record

One reply to this sort of criticism is to point out the similarities between Disney’s studio process and the studios of different artistic masters throughout the ages: Walt Disney as studio maestro. Is there a comparable combination of artisan, craftsman, technologist, manager, and businessman? I’m not sure.

But I think this new exhibition at the Met provides another answer to the “It’s Disney, but is it art” question. Walt Disney was a collector.

Tyler Cowen recently asked artist David Dalle to recommend “one actionable step tomorrow to learn more about art.” Salle replied with some advice the first curator of contemporary art at the Met, Henry Geldzahler, gave about the “taboo subject” of acquiring taste:

Start collecting. “Okay, but I don’t have any money. How can I collect art?” You don’t have to collect great paintings. Just go to the flea market and buy a vase for 5 bucks. Bring it back to your room, live with it, and look at it.

Pretty soon, you’ll start to make distinctions about it. Eventually, if you’re really paying attention to your own reactions, you’ll use it up. You’ll give that to somebody else, and you’ll go back to the flea market, and you buy another, slightly better vase, and you bring that home and live with that. And so the process goes. That’s very real. It’s very concrete.

Walt Disney was talented at going to the cultural flea market and making distinctions about it. Transforming the raw materials displayed in the current exhibit into the Disney oeuvre may or may not be art, but it is close to magic. Though maybe not greater than, it as least different than the sum of its parts (in a good way).

In some ways, Disney films are a very commercial deconstruction of cultural codes at the most popular mass market level. Is that art? I don’t know. But as Cogsworth says: “if it’s not baroque, don’t fix it!

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