question of the day: Are the artists at Pixar collectively today’s Leonardo da Vinci?

With Toy Story 3 about to land at British cinemas — it opens on July 23 (it has already earned more than $250 million in North America, which it did at a near-record-breaking pace) — art and design writer Jonathan Jones in the Guardian decrees that digital animation, especially as exemplified by the works of Pixar, are modern masterpieces of fine art:

[I]t is time to acknowledge the Renaissance masters of our time. Pixar and other studios at the forefront of digital animation and effects are dealing with something very comparable to the problems solved by artists in 15th-century Italy. In the current exhibition of Italian Renaissance drawings at the British Museum you can see a drawing of a goblet by Paolo Uccello to which the natural reaction is “it looks just like a computer graphic”. The reason it looks so digital is that artists such as Uccello were trying to turn their minds into computers. They did not just strive to paint “what they saw”; they wanted to create a completely convincing three-dimensional simulacrum of it, by plotting the contours of a virtually real space into their pictures.

Toy Story and its successors are colossal artistic achievements. There is, perhaps, nothing happening in “fine art” today to match what the whizzkids who created them have imagined. Just as the great Disney films of the 1930s and 40s stand equal to the best of modern American painting, so does Toy Story tower among the aesthetic inventions of our time.

Certainly there is something aesthetically pleasing — from composition and technique to just the simply beautiful — in Pixar’s work:

But does it rise to the level of great art that, 500 years from now, we’ll still be marveling at?

Are the artists at Pixar collectively today’s Leonardo da Vinci? If not, where is today’s great art being made? Is it even possible for us to know here and now what future generations will cherish as great art?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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Fri, Jul 02, 2010 11:11am

Nothing against Pixar, but if there’s any filmmaker who matches Leonardo da Vinci, it’s James Cameron. He has an extensive knowledge of technology and science, as well as piloting and undersea experience that he uses to create even more ambitious film productions.

History of Bubbles
History of Bubbles
Fri, Jul 02, 2010 11:31am

I think there is certainly a wealth of artistic achievement in the popular arts. The barrier to them being enjoyed and studied in the future, however, may be the sad realities of the medium. Anyone can view a painting, but a film needs to be played back. This may become more and more difficult as media change and film projectors become obsolete; even more so for works that exist mostly or exclusively on digital media.

I worry sometimes that, because of this, what is in reality an age of artistic flourishing will be seen in the future as a lost or dark age.

Fri, Jul 02, 2010 12:50pm

DaVinci’s artistic exploits are the lesser of his accomplishments

Fri, Jul 02, 2010 2:26pm

even collectively, the craftsman at Pixar cannot approach LdV for sheer genius and wide ranging skills, artistry and imagination. da Vinci lived at a time when it was possible to still have a working acquaintance with most levels of human knowledge — math, science, invention, art, music, history, astronomy. which he did. and while i do see a bit of The Last Supper in the framing of that mouth of the incerator shot, even that brilliance owes itself to.. Leonardo da Vinci. there may be collective brilliance, but i don’t see that as being the same thing.

Fri, Jul 02, 2010 3:58pm

It’s an impossible question, MAJ. Da Vinci wasn’t Da Vinci in his time.

Nonetheless, I believe that in the past quarter century, Pixar has advanced the field of digital animation in specific and of cinema in general more than any other single artist or studio. They were the first – the first – to actually tell a story with computer animation with “The Adventures of André and Wally B.” in 1984. (Their iconic “Luxo, Jr.” came out only 2 years later, in 1986.) With advents likes their proprietary Renderman software and Pixar University, they are constant innovators not only in popular storytelling but also the very technical side of film production today.

For anyone interested, the extra features in Volume 1 of the Pixar Short Films Collection is a wonderful resource. Gotta love the folks at Pixar, they document everything

So, will some 26th century Dan Brown write “The Pixar Code”? Who knows? But I think they’re pretty good candidates and at the very least should be heralded for both their technological and storytelling accomplishments.