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.
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”?