FRIDAY MARKED THE 40th anniversary of Walt Disney’s death from lung cancer, a long time by most measures and an eternity for figures in the popular culture, who usually evaporate quickly from our memories.
To a surprising degree, however, he has managed to survive in the national consciousness, and not just as a corporate logo but as a kind of cultural barometer. Ask just about anyone how he or she feels about Disney and you are likely to get either a beaming, misty-eyed tribute from those who recall him fondly and enjoy his animations and theme parks, or a scowling, brow-furrowed denunciation from those who see him as the great Satan of modern mass culture.
Disney doesn’t leave much room for anything in the middle. Even now he essentially cleaves the culture between the hoi polloi and elites, between those who willingly surrender to his wiles and those who seem hellbent on resisting them.
In fact, Disney seems to have always had that effect, though during his lifetime it was serial rather than simultaneous. When he first burst on the national scene as the creator of Mickey Mouse in the late 1920s, he was widely regarded as an artistic naif -- young (he was only 26 at Mickey’s inception), uneducated (he had only a year of high school), informal, plain-spoken and unpretentious. Though Mickey made his claim on the public’s heart as a winning rascal who seemed blithe to the anxieties of the Depression, intellectuals embraced him too, much as they had embraced Charlie Chaplin a decade earlier. Thornton Wilder went so far as to call Chaplin and Disney the only true geniuses the movies had produced.
Still, for all the hosannas, there was a bit of condescension in the intellectual approbation. It was Disney’s naivete the intellectuals loved, his lack of affectation. Disney, they thought, was too plebian to have ever regarded himself as an artist, which is what made him one in their eyes.
The problem with this interpretation was that the intellectuals were wrong. Disney wasn’t completely without affectation or pretense, and he certainly hoped that what he was making was art. By the time he released “Fantasia” late in 1940, combining the music of Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Beethoven and others with animation -- and some of it abstract animation at that -- the cat was out of the bag. The reviews were generally positive, but there was now for the first time some griping about Disney among the intelligentsia, not least from Igor Stravinsky, who would later insist that Disney had butchered his “Rite of Spring” because, he said, Disney’s sensibility was too coarse to appreciate the finer things.
Where Stravinsky led, many soon followed, and by the postwar period Disney was no longer viewed as a folk artist with an infallible instinct for touching the American heart and hitting Americans’ funny bone. He was seen instead as a mass artist and kitschmeister mechanically, even cynically, manufacturing products for public consumption. It didn’t help his reputation that the company’s creative stagnation, which was largely the result of belt-tightening at the studio, coincided with American hegemony after World War II, and with a backlash among intellectuals who were growing increasingly skeptical of the nation’s cultural imperialism. In some precincts, Disney became the poster boy for that imperialism: the great exporter of mindless American claptrap.
And yet even as Disney’s artistic reputation plummeted among the chattering classes in the 1950s, his popularity with the general public was, if anything, soaring -- not only because of hugely successful feature animations such as “Cinderella,” “Peter Pan” and “Lady and the Tramp,” or the Disneyland theme park or the new live-action films, but also because of Disney’s role as the avuncular host of the Sunday evening television broadcast and as the avatar of conservative, mainstream American values.
The television Disney was wholesome. He was genial. He was inoffensive. He was at once a nostalgist celebrating the past and a visionary pointing to the future, thus meshing American tradition with American innovation. He was in many ways the exemplary American -- a figure out of Norman Rockwell, an artist whom Disney very much admired.
But if these elements helped cement Disney’s popularity among the general public, in part because he was so self-consciously homespun and square, they only reinforced the intellectual contempt for him, thrusting Disney into the center of a raging debate about the direction of American culture in the postwar period. Were Americans to become automatons benumbed by the soothing felicities of popular culture, or were they to be tough-minded realists engaged by the things that raged around them?
What seemed most to repulse many intellectuals was the sense that Disney infantilized America by refusing to confront reality, and it was reality in all its complexity, agony and sordidness that the intellectuals seemed to revere as the very foundation of art and intelligence. The theme park was especially castigated for its neglect of American tensions. Disney encouraged Americans to inhabit an imaginative universe not unlike that of a child, where reality had been transformed into fantasy and its harm expunged. For this act of anti-art, he was to be eternally condemned.
There is, to be fair, some truth to the charge that Disney’s career was devoted to perfecting reality rather than grappling with it, though there is another substantial body of evidence to the contrary. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, for instance, Disney was inundated with letters from outraged parents who felt that Snow White’s flight through the woods or Pinocchio’s excursion on Pleasure Island or the devil in “Fantasia” or Bambi’s mother’s death were all too real and terrifying and hardly a gloss. Disney would typically respond that he didn’t make films for children and that, in any case, children had to learn to deal with the terrors of the world.
Despite this, “Disneyfication” became and remains a dirty word -- the primacy of false experiences over so-called real ones.
And though it is by no means self-evident that reality is any more artistic or complex than the fantasy in which Disney is purported to have traded, he would become, as the critic Richard Schickel called him in his seminal book “The Disney Version,” the “rallying point for the subliterates of our society” -- namely those who preferred the faux to the real. To his detractors, this made Disney not just an entrepreneur of junk but the progenitor of a certain mind-set that was dull and conformist and even dangerous.
Even 40 years later, neither side has budged much from this initial dichotomy of Disney as either the repository of American wholesomeness or as the man who degraded the popular culture, and he remains a convenient symbol for the ongoing debate between those who love and those who detest American popular culture.
But just as the earlier depiction of Disney as unpretentious was misleading, this too may be a false dichotomy, one that serves the warring factions but does some injustice to Disney himself by shoehorning him into categories into which he doesn’t really fit, and one that does some injustice to the variety and depth of American popular culture as well.
As University of Texas professor Douglas Brode has pointed out in his recent book, “From Walt to Woodstock,” Disney’s values, especially as evinced in his films, are much more complex and even contradictory than either his fans or his enemies admit. His values are not traditional conservative American. On the contrary, Disney’s films challenged authority, disdained the acquisition of money, abhorred hypocrisy (including religious hypocrisy), promoted tolerance and community and celebrated rebelliousness. (Just see how Davy Crockett challenges Andrew Jackson in the 1950s TV programs, or how Pollyanna scolds her own minister for his intolerance.)
In his own life, Disney denounced what he called “billboard patriotism,” and he looked askance at organized religion -- all of which means that both sides got him wrong.
This should have been perfectly evident to anyone who wanted to see it, but most people seem to have preferred refracting Disney through their own prism. And, to be frank, Disney invited this by purveying the now-familiar image of an everyman and even indulging in some anti-intellectualism himself by insisting that he made corny films because people liked corn.
Yet it is in Disney’s odd combination of libertarianism and liberalism, optimism and cynicism, nostalgia and futurism, faith and doubt that one may find not only the real man but the real America he represented.
After 40 years, Walt Disney is not either/or -- the best or the worst. He is both the best and the worst -- not the polarizing center of cultural warfare but a portent of the truce between high and low.