History

Is Disney “Art”?

The debate that just won’t die.

An old French clock case, and a concept drawing from Beauty and the Beast of the French clock character.
Left: clock with pedestal, ca. 1690. Case attributed to André Charles Boulle, after a design by Jean Berain. Clock by Jacques III Thuret or more likely his father, Isaac II Thuret. Right: concept art for Beauty and the Beast, 1991, by Peter J. Hall. Photo illustration by Slate. Images by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1958 (58.53a–c) and Walt Disney Animation Research Library © Disney.

Excerpted from “Inspiring Walt Disney” in Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts by Wolf Burchard. Originally published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Copyright © 2021. Reprinted by permission.

This catalog is published in conjunction with an exhibition of the same name on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, through March 6, 2022. The exhibition will travel to the Wallace Collection, London, in 2022.

In 1938, Walt Disney presented the Met with a gouache on celluloid from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs depicting two avid-eyed vultures awaiting the animated feature’s denouement, the moment when the evil queen falls down a cliff and presumably dies. What at the time was planned as a public relations coup brought about little 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,” observed the Philadelphia Record. The Schenectady Union-Star, without a flicker of irony, declared, “We are getting to the point where we can detect kinship between Mr. Disney and the painters of ancient Crete, and today’s modernist and the pre-historic cave man, and where we can read that all these persons are chips off the same block of creation.” And the New York Times Magazine concluded, “All things considered, there wasn’t much fuss … about Disney’s joining the immortals. None of the museum’s trustees threatened to quit, and the folk who usually dash off whither-are-we-drifting letters to the editor kept a civil pen in their hands.”

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A painting of two vultures.
Walt Disney Studios, The Vultures, ca. 1937. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, gift of the artist, 1938 (38.154).

Walt Disney’s status as an artist has been a matter of much discussion. In the 1930s, when the Met acquired The Vultures, he and Disney Studios’ early achievements were hailed for their creativity and invention. In 1938 alone, Disney earned honorary degrees from Harvard, Yale, and the University of Southern California. Yet by the 1960s, following the opening of Disneyland in Anaheim, California, Walt grew to be perceived by many as a simple supplier of family entertainment rather than as a vanguard of the visual arts. This shift in appreciation may well have left Disney cold, as he never claimed to be part of the intellectual circles that so admired his early work. Indeed, the symbolic meaning some of his viewers attributed to his films often baffled him: “I make pictures for entertainment, and then the professors tell me what they mean.” In spite of the rejection of what he considered far-fetched interpretations, the examination of Disney’s output reveals much about his own time and the world he shaped.

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The presentation of Disney’s The Vultures to the Met was arranged by the modern and surrealist art dealer Julien Levy, whose gallery represented the likes of Max Ernst, Alberto Giacometti, and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Levy was acting on behalf of the San Francisco–based gallerist Guthrie Courvoisier, with whom Walt and his brother Roy had signed an exclusive contract to organize sales of animation cels. The Disneys had formed a new division at their studios, the “Cel Setup Department,” with the intention of keeping their Ink & Paint staff employed between projects. The aim was to generate additional revenue and publicity for Snow White. That way, anybody could acquire their very own piece of film history, an original fragment of Disney’s interpretation of the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tale. Of the nearly half-million individual cels made for the film, 6,700 were selected for retail sale. As each film shot required multiple animation drawings—each transferred onto a sheet of plastic—but only one background painting, new backdrops needed to be created. These could include hand-rubbed wooden veneers—used, for instance, in a composition of the seven dwarfs in the Met’s collection—of distinction between his sources of inspiration, no matter whether high or low. Discussing the celebrated canon of mastersThe Vultures was about to join, Disney found clear words:

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Most of these “fine artists” wouldn’t be worth shucks to us. Not unless they had a sense of humor and a gift for caricature. Of course lots of the old masters had that. Some of them would have been great for us and they’d probably have liked it, too. … Well, take da Vinci. He was a great hand for experiments. He could have tinkered around to his heart’s content working for us. He probably would have invented an improved camera for animation in his spare time. And Van Gogh: he was always working to get the effect of light shining through his painting. We get that just by having ours projected on a screen. And there was another fellow—Delacroix, wasn’t it?—who wanted to have music accompany the exhibition of his pictures. But don’t ask me anything about art. I don’t know anything about it.

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The interviewer conceded with a wink: “No, Disney doesn’t know anything about art. Today he is probably the world’s greatest single employer of artists: there are 600 of them on his payroll.” Harry B. Wehle, then the Met’s curator of European and American paintings and works on paper, who was in the throes of completing the Museum’s first collection catalog devoted to Italian, Spanish, and Byzantine paintings (1940), acted as the spokesperson for the acquisition. He called Disney “a great historical figure in the development of American art” who created “something that is incontestably art and probably is the greatest popular art of this generation.” The Vultures, Wehle added, was “a splendid moment of arrested motion,” and he argued that it was the context, the beholder’s awareness of the action happening outside the frame, that elevated the cel to a work of art, as the voracious birds contemplated the queen’s imminent peril. On the other hand, “taken from their delicate context,” Time magazine chillingly noticed about seven months before the outbreak of World War II, “the ominous birds seemed to be looking down at Europe.”

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Walt Disney is unlikely ever physically to have touched The Vultures, and the lack of acknowledgment given to individual studio artists in the museum’s acquisition process did not go unnoticed. A New York–based painter named Emile Gallet immediately leaped into the breach, writing to the museum to defend their honor: “I beg to state that it is impossible that the work selected has been made by Disney alone, this sort of design is what I call a composite work to which about a dozen of artists can have contributed.” In his interview with New York Times reporter Frank S. Nugent, Disney communicated a sense of embarrassment, as he felt that his staff, not he, should have been credited with the work, although he maintained, “We can’t have individualists around here … not even me.”

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Who received credit at the beginning of each film—and who did not—was cause of much tribulation among Walt Disney’s employees. Disney created a brand, one of the most recognizable trademarks founded in the 20th century. Consumers’ limited attention span curtailed the length of opening credits, which eventually moved to the end of each feature film. Consistency and recognition are key to the success of any corporation and its logo. This rationale led the Walt Disney Company’s film division in 2011 to rebrand, from then on using the singular “Disney.” The concentration on a sole name or personality is a practice shared by museums, where artists’ studios such as those of Rubens, Velázquez, and van Dyck are acknowledged only if a painting is deemed of lesser quality. Such shortcomings in curatorial interpretation are particularly prevalent in the field of decorative arts, where entire groups of artisans practicing a great number of different crafts are often bundled under a single moniker: Boulle, Meissen, Sèvres—all of whom employed dozens of skilled craftspeople who remain mostly anonymous.

A teapot with a cover featuring a bearded man
Teapot with cover, ca. 1719–30. Meissen Manufactory (German, 1710–present). Decoration attributed to the Aufenwerth Workshop. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Irwin Untermyer, 1970 (1970.277.5a, b).
A drawing of the teapot character from the animated Beauty and the Beast
Chris Sanders, Beauty and the Beast concept art, 1991. Walt Disney Animation Research Library © Disney

An anonymous artist working in the Disney Studios called Walt “a one-man Renaissance,” highlighting the magnitude and revolutionary qualities of his ideas. Such a nod to Italy’s age of rebirth becomes relevant as we consider the Renaissance double meaning of disegno, which distinguishes two types of design: one of the mind, disegno interno (an idea), and one of the body or hand, disegno esterno (a drawing), the latter being the physical translation of the first. The disegno interno is the intellectual foundation for the orchestration of any artist’s studio. The ability to develop new ideas while identifying and motivating talent to bring these ideas to life is the key trait Disney shared with the leaders of the great workshops of the past. An obituary published a week after Walt’s death described him as a “twentieth century Cellini who supervised the mining of his own gold,” emphasizing his masterful control over supply, manufactory, and distribution chains, and suggesting a combination of early modern artistic practice and American capitalist culture spearheaded by Henry Ford and his contemporaries. Sir David Low, the political cartoonist, went as far as advancing that “as an artist who uses his brains, [Disney was] the most significant figure in graphic art since Leonardo.” Incidentally, it would be wrong to assume that Walt lacked drawing skills. He produced numerous cartoons and caricatures while establishing himself in the late 1910s and early 1920s, yet relinquished these tasks to more gifted draftspeople once the studios expanded to focus on ideas and new ventures.

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Painting of a drawing room with three women standing near a piano.
Mary Blair, Cinderella, background painting, 1950. Walt Disney Animation Research Library © Disney

Authorship and acknowledgment continue to be contentious matters in contemporary art, where Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and others are in command of enormous factories. So too is the subject of reproducibility. Disney’s selling of original cels from Snow White suggests that, to him, the works of art were not the individual, physical celluloids, but the end product, the endlessly reproducible image as projected onto the screen. One could, of course, argue that the cel itself—a tracing of the animators’ drawings on a sheet of plastic—was but a mere simulacrum of the original work on paper. Walt’s unshakable belief in new technologies of reproduction, paired with a limited reverence for the concept of the original, also informed his plans for a Seven Arts City. The utopian town would be complete with theaters, academies for the visual and performing arts, and an encyclopedic museum, “the first institution of its kind” that would “collect in one place the great art treasures of all time in reproduction so scientifically exact as to be indistinguishable from the originals.”

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Designed to entertain their beholders, both Disney animation and Rococo decorative arts represent tangible records of the societies for which they were made. Film critic Neal Gabler comes to the conclusion that “to understand Walt Disney, one of the most emblematic of Americans, is to understand much about the country in which he lived and which he so profoundly affected.” Some historians, in similar ways, see the rich and costly decoration of Sèvres porcelain as symptomatic of the path that led to the French Revolution. So, if at first the art of Walt Disney’s hand-drawn animation may appear something of a frivolous subject matter, his studios’ oeuvre affords insights into Western perception of the past. Indeed, there should be no doubting the unparalleled reach of Disney on global culture, or the way in which Disney films and theme parks have become one of the lenses through which history is seen by many. Every year, more than 1.5 million visitors flock to Schloss Neuschwanstein in Bavaria to experience the “original” Sleeping Beauty Castle. In prompting a conversation between the works of some of the Disney Studios’ most significant artists and a selection of historic sources from which they took inspiration, Inspiring Walt Disney—this catalog, and this exhibition—seek to improve our understanding of the “Disney lens.”

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An elaborately decorated music box with a dancing woman attended by two men
Peter J. Hall, Beauty and the Beast concept art, 1991. Walt Disney Animation Research Library © Disney

In 1946, Jean Cocteau opened his film adaptation of Beauty and the Beast with a preface encouraging his mature viewers to adopt some of the innocence that allows the young to believe truly in the magic of fairy tales: “Children believe what you tell them and they do not call it into question. They believe that a rose that one picks may bring drama to a family. … It is something of that naiveté that I ask of you.” The quiet yet enchanting allure with which he retold the story of a prince transformed into a hideous monster and seeking what appears to be unattainable love provided European audiences with a much-needed distraction following the dark hours of World War II. Walt Disney, whose animation studio revisited the story of Beauty and the Beast in 1991, expressed similar sentiments when asked to explain the cross-generational success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs:

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Over at our place, we’re sure of just one thing: everybody in the world was once a child. … So, when planning a new picture, we don’t think of grownups and we don’t think of children, but just of that fine, clean, unspoiled spot, down deep in every one of us that maybe the world has made us forget and that maybe our pictures can help recall.

That children, no matter their upbringing, perceive the world differently from adults was the subject of much discourse in mid–18th century Paris, when Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve wrote Beauty and the Beast and Sèvres produced some of its most fantastical creations. If the reader of the present book aims to take part in this conversation about one’s perception of the world and the lens Disney created through his films and theme parks, then it might help if they resurrect some of that juvenile naïveté to which Jean Cocteau referred, and which Walt Disney located in that “unspoiled spot, down deep in every one of us.”

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