Was Walt Disney a conceptual innovator who kept his creative spark alive as he aged by shifting into new types of endeavors?
David Galenson suggests that he was. After all, Disney showed signs of young genius, with 1928’s “Steamboat Willie” the first popular animated film with sound, at age 22. Later, Disney repeatedly entered new fields – film, TV, marketing, Disneyland, Disney World.
An Anthony Lane article in the New Yorker sheds light on the suggestion, with several references to typical traits of conceptual innovators.
For example, because the idea of the work is of prime importance for conceptually inclined artists, the artwork itself can be executed by someone other than the artist, whether that’s Walt Disney or conceptual innovator Andy Warhol:
“It is true that Disney cartoons were not physically sketched by Disney, but you might as well complain that Henry Ford was not to be found underneath a Model T, tightening nuts. Disney, in fact, was a tightener from the first, incessantly churning out gags, pulling apart and fixing the gags of others, and pained by the sloppy and the slack,” Lane writes.
For many conceptual innovators, such as T.S. Eliot, inspiration drawn from previous art can be more important that inspiration drawn from the real world.
In the current Disney exhibit in Paris, Lane writes: “sequences from early Disney are projected next to matching clips from masterpieces of live-action cinema. ‘The Mad Doctor’ (1933), in which Mickey is strapped to a table beneath a descending circular saw, is juxtaposed with the laboratory scene from ‘Frankenstein’ (1931) which suggested it. Charlie Chaplin is force-fed by machine, in ‘Modern Times’ (1936), and in ‘Modern Inventions,’ made the next year, Donald Duck is duly force-painted with shoe polish. As for ‘Fantasia,’ what plunderings it required! First, there is the bewitching, sky-high devil who towers over the town in Murnau’s ‘Faust’ (1926), and his no less lofty descendant in the ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ section of the Disney film. And, yes, there is Mickey and that staircase, and here is its source: the flickering shadow steps of ‘The Golem,’ directed by Paul Wegener way back in 1914.”
Further, Lane notes “the intense cross-referencing of the Paris show. Only when you study the artists who were lured to work for Disney does the story click into place. Not only were they encouraged to watch, and steal from, as many new releases as possible, in every genre; their own tastes, which ran to the great illustrative artists of Europe (Honoré Daumier, Gustave Doré, and Arthur Rackham), also seemed to equip and armor them for the parade of fairy tales and children’s classics on which Disney had his eye.”
Even the surprising praise for Disney from film director Sergei Eisenstein makes him sound quite conceptual, as the person who accomplished a “literalization of metaphor”:
“It is no surprise, then, to learn that the director of ‘Battleship Potemkin’ and ‘Ivan the Terrible’ was a Disneyphile. ‘The work of this master,’ Eisenstein claimed, ‘is the greatest contribution of the American people to art.’ His comments on the subject, part of a book begun in 1941 and never finished, are available in a French edition of 1991; within three pages, the Russian has lauded the ‘absolute perfection’ of the American’s achievement and linked his name to those of Fra Angelico, Hans Christian Andersen, and St. Francis of Assisi. Disney the anthropomorphist is conjoined with La Fontaine as someone who grasps, and dramatizes, the relentless way in which animals ‘hold up to their older brother—man—a deforming mirror.’ It is the moral and social upheaval that is promised by such deformation which galvanizes Eisenstein, who worships the elasticity of cartoon characters, ascribing to it what he calls a ‘literalization of metaphor.’ ”
One reference sounds a bit like a description of typical experimental innovators who are unsatisfied with their artwork in its final form:
” ‘Snow White’ was finished in a panic, and years later Disney was still fretting over the shortcomings of his heroine—not her ethical decision to hang out with a large group of small men, but the wobbles in her construction. ‘The bridge on her nose floats all over her face,’ he said. He became an industry, but the one thing that links the industrialist, whatever the product, with the auteur, whatever the form, is obsessive pedantry—the will to get things right, whatever the cost may be. ”
But being a demanding boss with a perfectionist streak isn’t incompatible with being a conceptual innovator.