Walt Disney deserves more than the video store. He should be in the museums
In art museums across the world,someone who really ought to be there is missing. Theyve left Walt Disney out. Though handmade,Disneys drawings were made with a studio-factory of his own devising. Theyre active and rounded and juvenile,and they perform; theyre wholesome and scary,fantastical,folklorical and eerily transmissible. They put into the century a new mode of depiction that wasnt there when it started but was everywhere when it closed.
Walter Elias Disney (1901-1966) grew up in the middle of the country,on its farms and in its cities and little unpaved towns,a skinny,strangely gifted kid drawing flip-books for his pals. His art looks American,but not entirely,Disney having gotten a serious jolt of Europe when he drove ambulances in France during World War I. Once hed seen Paree,young Disney did not go back to the farm. Instead,he found his way to Hollywood,where,starting in 1928 with Steamboat Willie,he made Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,Pinocchio,Fantasiaastonishing things.
Officialdom once cheered him,Harvard and Yale gave him honorary doctorates on two successive days in 1938,but today if you go into the art museums you wont find him,only his reflections.
Theres a Mickey Mouse at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and another at the National Gallery of Art. The Hirshhorns is a cartoony-constructivist,round-eared,square-eyed,steel-and-aluminum Geometric Mouse by Claes Oldenburg,1971. The gallerys is an early Roy Lichtenstein oil,Look Mickey,1961,in which hes fishing with Donald Duck. These arent Disneys; theyre there only because pop is unthinkable without him. Andy Warhol multiplied the mouse and sprinkled diamond dust on his Double Mickey (1981),a silk screen that brought $113,525 at Sothebys in 2002.
Disneys exclusion isnt a conspiracy. Too much of what he made,especially later,looks robotic,less the output of an artist than the merchandise of a brand. And not even his best work is comfortably collected. What would you buyhis throwaway sketches,individual frames other artists painted,reels of film,DVDs?
Still,he deserves more than the video store. Disney was the one who made drawing move. Earlier artists had explored animationGeorges Melies in France,Winsor McCay in Americabut only tentatively. Disney went way beyond them. First he got rid of its jerkiness,and then he made it sing (When You Wish Upon a Star,Whistle While You Work,Whos Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?) and coloured it.
Neal Gablers 2007 biography reports that Disneys studio ground all of its own watercolour pigments,installed a spectrophotometer to measure them precisely and kept 1,200 distinct colours on its shelves. Practically every tool we use today, said Chuck Jones,of Bugs Bunny,Porky Pig,Wile E. Coyote and Looney Tunes fame,originated at the Disney studio.
No wonder Salvador Dali came to work with Disney,who shared the creepiness,the mining of memory,dream and irrational juxtaposition that we attribute to the best of surrealists. The night of our meeting, wrote Dali,I spent almost entirely without sleep. Disneys most surreal episode is the one in which Dumbo,drunk by accident,zooms off into a hallucination of blaring trombones,pink elephants,morphing blobs and infinite regressions.
Another surreal quality of his animation is its animism. Disney breathed bits of his living self into all his dancing toadstools,hippos and marching mops. The waves in the storm scene in Pinocchio arent water,theyre also monsters. Bambi is as much a person as a deer,but he sure looks like a deer. While creating him,the Disney studio brought in all the deer film it could find.
Our electrical,shiny,noisy 21st-century art brings with it a distinctive past just as much as painting does. It legitimises retrospectively the art Walt Disney made.