ADDENDUM 4/19: For more on what I scribbled below be sure to read some the great, challenging responses to this one. For what it's worth I've also responded with my own usual critical blatherings and assorted nonsense.
On July 17, 1955 Walt Disney dedicated Disneyland, rolled the dice one last time, and got for his efforts a huge nightmare of an opening day and a creative renaissance ever since. The public got that eternally vibrant image of a castle at the end of every major American street, and Southern California got a new culture center.
What Disneyland was, was really a whole new kind of entertainment. Although the amusement parks of yesterday were indeed antecedents to Walt's dream of Disneyland, to say that the two are related by way of lineage is rather similar to saying that turning on a motion picture camera and making Casablanca is essentially the same act. Disneyland was such a colossal reinvention of what made an amusement park an amusement park that we must today remember that Disneyland built from scratch a totally new visual and intellectual vocabulary on which all subsequent three-dimensional entertainment venues would be judged.
In 1955 Disneyland was not a theme park. It was a Disneyland, and although it was known that it wasn't an amusement park, kiddie park, carnival, or state fair, nobody was so certain exactly what it was. The words "theme" and "park" had not yet been married.
So: what is Disneyland?
Disneyland totally changed the board, and as such we must then evaluate it carefully in regard for what exactly it is. Although now the cultural terminology has equipped us to label it a "theme park", it is most importantly that major work which establishes a genre which Walter Benjamin has famously spoken of.
We can, at least, safely say that it is some form of entertainment. Yet in the years since its' inception the public has grown to expect from the words "theme park" not the pre-Disneyland Fairs, Carnivals or even the glorious Coney Island, but increasingly the post-Disneyland hack jobs like Six Flags. In this regard, it can be safely assumed that Disneyland is not only entertainment, but a different kind of entertainment than can be found easily and elsewhere.
As the finest example of what it itself initiated, is it, to again notate Benjamin, not just the major work which establishes or abolishes the genre, but the perfect work which does both?
Or, to put it another way: is it art?
Can great entertainment be art?
This is the question which one must inevitably raise when speaking about any Disney product, as well as that of the many Hollywood moguls of the era. Like Disney, people like Jack L. Warner, Hal B. Wallis, Darryl F. Zanuck and David O. Selznick made great entertainment which was also, sometimes, great art. Like Disney, these men were not artists or businessmen but guaranteeors of quality and completion; like Disney, their personal touches are usually so ingrained into their product that it is usually easier to identify the trace of the producer than that of the actual filmmakers.
(Sidebar: there are notable exceptions to the above rule, but they are few and far between: John Ford, Orson Welles and Ernst Lubitsch inverted the question to be: can great art be entertainment?)
Can entertaining films be great art? They can be.
It would be remiss of me to say that Zanuck's Grapes of Wrath or Selznick's Rebecca or Warner's I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang are not great, great, American works of art. It's also silly to say that Disney's Pinocchio or Lady & the Tramp aren't also great art. But therein lies the rub, for one of the primary methods of evaluating art is to identify the authors, a process which the studio system (for example, the Disney studio system which produced both good and bad art, films, and theme parks) effectively cripples.
But just as it is impossible to have Zanuck's Grapes of Wrath without John Ford, remarkably enough in the theme parks enough identifying fingerprints remain to make the true sources of authorship discernible to the educated eye, and once one begins to learn to recognize the colors of Mary Blair, the dynamism of Rolly Crump, the stark spatiality of Claude Coates, the lush textures of Herb Ryman and the earthy intensity of Joe Rhode one can't help but start seeing them everywhere. There is, in effect, no more nor less authorship in Disneyland than in any other entertainment venture of the era.
So: is Disneyland art? And I respond: it can be.
So let us forever set aside the silly argument that entertainment items must, in order to be entertaining, by definition not be artistic, a division which continues to retard discourse between those who favor only entertainment or art. Disneyland is both, and lacks none of the qualities or modes or art which makes it meaningful, nor fun which makes it relevant.
The reason why it is so difficult to "read" the modes of discourse which Disneyland engages is is because there is no universally agreed way to decode these symbols, which often change from area to area and park to park. Indeed, attempting to read Disneyland as a cohesive meta-argument for anything is an ultimatley trivial pursuit, yet that is what makes the park evergreen in the eyes of the public. Disneyland is all things to all people, arguably its' reason for success and longevity, and it switches easily from a linear narrative space like Main Street to an abstraction like Tomorrowland. Yet it never loses power, meaning or intent, and as such it must be regarded as one of the most important and unique works of art of the 20th Century.
The devices Disneyland uses to paint a narrative are subtle and varied. Space, in particular, is deployed to create meanings and association which are paradoxically filmic. You will find no plain square rooms at Disneyland. Spaces you are meant to walk down funnel, with the entrance at the widest end and exit at the smallest. The spectator is drawn down the space almost subconsciously in an invariably straight line. Spaces which are meant to entice curve out of sight, so that the act of transversing the space is a totally artificially created act of discovery. Compare the enticing infinite of New Orleans Square to the menacing infinite of the Haunted Mansion's endless hallway. Straight lines offer destinations; curves offer an unknown both appealing and uncanny.
Disneyland's other major mode is that of signifiers, which generally fall into the categories of being either signifiers of danger, reassurance or exploration. Later Disney parks would add a number of new signifiers, but Disneyland still operates mostly on these three. The blinking lights and bright colors of Main Street reassure, Monstro's open mouth or the bends of the Jungle Cruise river offer danger, and the TWA Rocket or the Riverboat (both white) offer exploration. These are crude symbols, but they still work more often than not.
And that, finally, really, is Disneyland's greatest asset and curse: as the first of its' kind, it is eternally a product of an art which had not yet reached maturity. The spirit of exploration and of a certain naivety - the spirit of it's times - is sealed right into the mortar which makes up its' foundation. Later Disney parks are larger, slicker, but more hollow. It may be that Walt Disney, that least pretentious of the art factory managers, still walks Main Street at night to keep the irony in check. While we all float in a sea of irony, Disneyland is eternally unironic, unhip, unsure of itself, reassuringly great entertainment and great art together. Disneyland is that lamp in the firehouse window when the rest of America's Main Street has gone dark, and we have not yet exhausted all that we can learn from it.
I think that qualifies it as great art.
So tonight keep a light on in a window for Walt Disney and Disneyland and the birth of a new kind of art, 52 years young.
I had no intention of writing a piece on Disneyland for its' 52nd anniversary this week, but watching several old episodes of Disneyland and seeing Walt's enthusiasm for his playground and reflecting on the pure joy I feel in that place, I felt as though I ought to finally address that question I so often float around on this blog. I've tried to do it before and will probably try again, and as this piece really doesn't offer what I regard as any new insight I apologize for its' content. But it is intended as a preface to all that I'm attempting to do, minus perhaps the last fifty words, so please take it in that context as well as a reflection on why Disneyland will probably never be outdone in a certain sense.
I know that anybody who's been reading this blog for any period of time may be shocked by this piece given my insistence on the artistry of the Florida property parks, which I think are still horrendously neglected and underestimated, but respect is due.
At this point I've been posting these long essays for over a month now (starting with Waterways) so I've going to take some time off from pontificating and offer less cerebral insights until I actually have some material again.
And remember, folks, if you have an additional opinion or insight, please share it with me. Rome wasn't built in a day and I too often feel like I'm battering into a brick wall here. My criticism is bound by my own prejudices and preferences in art and culture and I love to be proved wrong.