loaded question: does Disney animation belong in the Metropolitan Museum of Art?

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is currently showcasing a collection of Disney animation in an exhibition entitled “Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts,” which opened on December 10, 2021, and runs through March 6th, 2022. The Met’s description of the exhibition begins:

Pink castles, talking sofas, and objects coming to life: what sounds like fantasies from the pioneering animation of Walt Disney Animation Studios were in fact the figments of the colorful salons of Rococo Paris. The Met’s first-ever exhibition exploring the work of Walt Disney and the hand-drawn animation of Walt Disney Animation Studios will examine Disney’s personal fascination with European art and the use of French motifs in his films and theme parks, drawing new parallels between the studios’ magical creations and their artistic models.

(You can see small images of some of the objects in the exhibition and listen to the audio guide at the Met’s site for the show.)

Now, perhaps this exhibition does fit within a generous interpretation of the Met’s mission:

Since its founding in 1870, The Met has always aspired to be more than a treasury of rare and beautiful objects. Every day, art comes alive in the Museum’s galleries and through its exhibitions and events, revealing new ideas and unexpected connections across time and across cultures.

(Emphasis mine.)

But is anything about this “new” or “unexpected”? The animated fantasies of Disney have, until only very recently, focused almost exclusively on tales spun out of European culture, with very few outliers prior to the 2000s, and then extremely overtly. Even if we give that a pass, Max Lakin, in a review of the exhibition in The New York Times, highlights much bigger potential problems:

As the title suggests, there are plenty of 18th-century French whorled gilt bronze candlesticks and treacly soft-paste biscuit porcelain figurines, but there’s also, by dint of the four Disney films included in the thesis, a good share of German, Netherlandish, and British examples, too. And those pieces, 60 in total and largely from the museum’s own collection, are outstripped more than two to one by items on loan directly from Disney: 150 pieces of concept art, works on paper, and film footage from the Walt Disney Animation Research Library, Walt Disney Archives, Walt Disney Imagineering Collection, and the Walt Disney Family Museum, which can make a viewer at the exhibition feel like Alice falling down the rabbit hole into a sponsored content post. (The Met says the exhibition is not underwritten by Disney, which I’m not sure makes this level of sanctioned corporate capriccio better or worse.)

(Again, emphasis mine.)

The Times review includes a few contrasting images, Disney art next to Met pieces, and the juxtapositions are interesting… though perhaps mostly for, as Lakin notes, how the Disney versions are comparatively toned down and often even flavorless. Indeed, Lakin’s overall takeaway seems to be that the Met is overly generous to, even ignoring of Disney’s — and, by extension, corporate culture’s, and by further extension, American culture’s — tendency to water down the European ideas it appropriates.

The entire review is worth a read, and for our purposes, for the question Lakin asks:

Is Disney’s output art? It’s not really a question that troubles the exhibition… [Anyway,] Disney transcended the high-low debate a long time ago. A better question is whether a major art institution dedicating programming to a multibillion dollar corporate behemoth best serves a viewing public (the Met allows Condé Nast to do this once a year, too, of course, with its Costume Institute Gala).

So our topic for discussion is not about Disney as art but Disney as corporate product. Does Disney animation belong in the Metropolitan Museum of Art? And if it is going to appear there, does the museum have an obligation to engage in robust criticism of it (not necessarily negative, just analytical) to avoid it feeling like, as Lakin termed it, “a sponsored content post”?

(You can also discuss this at Substack or Patreon, if you prefer. You don’t need to be a paying subscriber to comment, but you will need to register with either site to do so.)

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Tue, Jan 11, 2022 11:43am

I dunno, are they crediting the artists?

(Hint, they aren’t. Disney didn’t keep records of who worked on what.)

reply to  RogerBW
Tue, Jan 11, 2022 1:12pm

I’ve never come closer to downvoting one of your comments.

Andreas Deja and Floyd Norman and Shamus Culhane and Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston and Charles Solomon, among others, would all disagree with you, and their books and films are very much worth seeking out if you’re interested in the history of animation. A ridiculous proportion of my budget has been spent on enormous illustrated books showing exactly who drew the pictures and why they’re more lifelike and the animation is more fluid than in films made even a few years earlier. Their names have been so minutely documented that saying they’re unknown is like telling a music fan we know nothing about the history of the Beatles.

ETA: Disney itself has extensively documented its artists and performers, sometimes declaring them Disney Legends.

Some of the early animators were so well known—particularly to people like me who are obsessed with these things—that they even have a collective nickname, the Nine Old Men. Andreas Deja’s book about them is one of my prized possessions, and it shows exactly why they’re held in such high renown. He shows every frame of some of great, tiny moments from classic Disney films: Bambi struggling to walk, Pluto trying to get free of the flypaper that’s tying his body into knots, Medusa putting mascara on her eyes.

When I watch those few minutes of film, I genuinely believe the characters are alive. Bambi is a real deer walking on a real sheet of ice. And that’s why, for me, this Loaded Question makes no sense. Whatever you think of Disney, the deer is alive, and by my definition, that makes it art.

We could answer the question in other ways. Asking what makes something art is one of the most absurd and subjective questions in the history of people, which is why so many people ask it and fail to come up with an answer. The ridiculous answers I might come up with would talk about Disney’s influence on the way we think about fairy tales and super-heroes, and their work on creating the characters some of us think about everything day. When some people get married or raise children or go to war, they do it in ways that are influenced, at least a little bit, by what Disney told them about heroes and childhood and romance. But for me, that’s not the main thing that makes Disney films art. It’s those few seconds when Medusa is putting makeup on her eyes and blinking, and i know exactly what kind of person she is.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Danielm80
Sun, Jan 16, 2022 1:55am

I tried to make it clear — maybe I failed — that the question isn’t whether Disney animation is art but whether there were any problematic issues with the way Disney animation is treated in this exhibition, which sounds like it’s far more straight-up promotional than it is critical and analytical.

In fact, I might venture to suggest that this exhibit sounds like it could be used to support an argument that Disney animation is not art precisely because the exhibit does not treat it as rigorously as it might have.

Of course, that conclusion is based more on the review of the exhibit than the exhibit itself, though I make those conclusions from facts presented in the review rather than opinions. Maybe you’ll be able to get to the exhibit itself before it closes, Daniel, and let us know what you make of it, since you really know your Disney stuff. :-)

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Sun, Jan 16, 2022 2:55am

Fair enough. All I have to add is that when I first saw the preview of the exhibit, my immediate instinct was to buy the catalog on the spot. Then I actually paged through the book online and ordered the making of Encanto book instead.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Danielm80
Sun, Jan 16, 2022 4:32pm

Oh, okay! So you have seen the exhibit. Cool!

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Tue, Jan 18, 2022 3:21pm

At least this exhibit can be experienced from home, unlike, say, the Strettheimer dollhouse

http://mcny.orghttps://www.mcny.org/exhibition/stettheimer-dollhouse-0 @MuseumofCityNY

or the puppets on view in another room of the same museum. Though I imagine I could purchase books about the dollhouse in the museum gift shop.