Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Keep the Light On For Me

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.


Tony said...

Couldn't have said it better myself. As usual - you always post something interesting to read ... and that's why I keep coming back.

Zach said...

Excellent post! Since you bring up Benjamin, Disneyland seems to fit his definition of art quite well, especially his concept of "aura". Disneyland, and the other Disney parks have a definite awe inspiring aura of history, ritual, and beauty. I feel that a significant part of the magic of Disney today is through its cultural resonance, and if an identical park were constructed without being associated with Disney it would lose significant value. Disney fans thrive on authenticity.

This reminds me of Fjellman's theory of Disney as a modern day mecca, a holy place that society encourages a ritualistic pilgrimage to.

One final note, as I'm sure you're aware, one of the key factors in the "film as art" movement came from the concept of auteurism. This theory certainly has problems, giving ultimate credit to one person's vision in such a collaborative art form, but a key to defining art in some circles is to establish intent and meaning of an artist.

While I'm well aware of the styles and influence of Coates, Blair, Davis, and the other legendary imagineers on attractions and the park in general, I confess ignorance on an overall directoral role. Is there a master hand directing each project or is it more of a group/corporate decision? If it is a group decision without a clear author, is it still art? I would say yes though the point is certainly debatable.

Keep up the good work, it is always refreshing to have a place for critical discourse on the parks, an entity that is often studied yet rarely at the depths it deserves to be.

Biblioadonis aka George said...


When you hesitate to call Disney's theme parks art, what is holding you back?

Is it the common denominator theory?

Or, "It can't be art if this many people like it."

Is it that the notion of a Disney theme park is so adored, so worshiped and so well known that real artists would scoff?

I tend to agree with your theory that since it was first and no one knew what to expect, no one knows how to classify it. Other than theme park. And besides, only other Disney parks can be compared to it. As dainty and besotted with charm as Disneyland is, she still has incredibly amazing shoes to fill.

Those of us reading your blog religiously, have probably already consumed the Magic Kingdom kool-aid. You don't have to persuade us. It is the average family of 3.6 people that visit every 4 years and spend about $4,000 on a trip. They are not looking at the art. They are trying to have a great family vacation. They need to be persuaded. To slow down, stop making Disney force more and more plans on them and just enjoy what Disney is offering. Not just the architecture, but the feelings, the spirit and the desire to elevate our vacation.

Shouldn't Disney themselves be presenting the parks as art?

Insofar as judging the art--who am I to talk? I don't see what is so special about the Mona Lisa, but I can rhapsodize for hours about Pat Conroy's writings, the emotional rush of a great power pop song or why the Halo and Zelda video games constitute a true art form (different blog, eh?).

But I agree that the Disney theme parks constitute art. Do people simply not make the leap from paintings, sculpture, poetry, music, dance, acting, etc. to the whole concept of a theme park or ride?

Is it simply too massive. Or just too disregarded?

Jeff Pepper said...

Do theme parks, specifically Disney parks, require some sort of validation in regard to the term “art”?

I have to be honest and say that I’ve never really understood this particular use of the word. It always seems to be a very subjective way to somehow elevate a visual work (painting, photo film, etc) to some vaguely defined higher level of sophistication.

You mention the film “The Grapes of Wrath.” To me, one of the most amazing works of entertainment ever produced. I am literally hypnotized every time I see this film. Nearly every frame of film is so incredibly beautiful it is near impossible to look away for even a moment. But in all the many times I’ve watched this masterpiece, I don’t believe I ever really concerned myself with whether it is, or should be labeled as “art.” What transfixes me is the clear passion that went into the production, as provided by the many talents listed in its credits.

It is that same type of passion (in my opinion) that has been evident in Disney parks since 1955. You feel it when you are there, and when it is successful, it immerses you completely. Much in the way I felt completely immersed in the Great Depression-based events of “The Grapes of Wrath.” Much the same way when you stare at a beloved painting and feel yourself somehow falling into it. And it doesn’t matter to me personally if what I am presented with is the result of one individual or many, it is ultimately how I’m made to feel that defines the experience for me.

I guess Chris, that even though I believe I understand the intent of your essay, I still feel I have to challenge you to define “art” in context to this piece. Is it about validation, or is it about passion? Certainly Disneyland and other Disney parks are filled with elements that would satisfy an objective definition of “artistic” and a park can certainly be viewed overall as a cohesive presentation with definite artistic merit.

You ask “Is it art?” I don’t know. Does it matter?

FoxxFur said...

Yikes! Great and even contradictory responses!

First of all I must address my general unease about trying to label anything as "art" or "entertainment" down the line. As I've said I think Disneyland kind of staggers both lines. But to answer Jeff, I think the reason why it's important to hold up something like Disneyland and shout to the collective world "Look! ART over here!" is because the recognition factor simply doesn't exist. It isn't relevant that the average tourist to EPCOT want to pontificate on the paradox of space in World Showcase. Perhaps they do. Mostly I just see them bitching about dropping the funnel cake.

I do think that, outside of a few notable works (and as badly written as I think the central passage of The Architecture of Reassurance is, it is still one of those key books) that the method and function of the themed space is still, essentially, intellectually nonexistent in our culture. In this way I guess having a blog is doing me no favors since I'm literally kind of preaching to the converted. But I still find that today Disneyland must be, in all critical writing, either considered from the standpoint of a cultural phenomena or an assault on all that is organic.

So while I think that "is it art" is the silliest and oldest of all silly and old arguments, it is still an important first step in saying "Yes, it IS art, follow me!".

Or, to put it this way, what I posted is essentially just page one of a very long book. It's provides all of the functions of such and is otherwise I think rather graceless. But an argument must be built on a valid foundation, and that's what I was going for.

As for George's question as to why I hesitate, it's frankly because There is still no system in place as to how exactly to evaluate the apparent value of such a place. I'm working at it, but since I'm just about the only person trying to do such a thing I'm working through the material much slower than could be expected of something resembling a "movement". I have a working theory that it has something to do with spatial relationships vs. forward trajectory, but I'm frankly still rather barely out of the starting gate here. Once I can establish a unified criteria for consideration of ALL attractions, then we'll be somewhere and I can remove the qualifying "they can be".

I'll probably keep it on, however, for a long time since there is still an inherent artistry in something like Mr. Toad '71 which outshines both it's material and emotional weight which is simply absent elsewhere. I can't simply, morally, or philosophically, say that "ALL of Disneyland IS art" any more than I can say "EVERY film, EVERY painting IS GREAT art."

I do think the fact that it is a mass consumer product is what is keeping it from those hallowed halls of critical discourse however, and mostly because usually critics aren't artists themselves. I find uniformally, however, that artists find much that is good and fun and interesting and inspiring and brilliant about the place, so it's not as if the recognition factor exists.

I also frankly believe than WDI doesn't even know what it's doing anymore, because all that was great about the early attractions was partially instinctual on the part of the project leads. This is where I really hope I can contribute: once theories start bouncing around out there, practice can emerge either using them or going against them. It's never a bad thing to have a better idea of what is possible, a window which I think Disney is continually shrinking for itself on a formal level.

Personally I think Disney trying to present their parks as Art would be disastrous to the guest experience. I'd like to see it but there's lots of stuff I would love to see, like the return of the ticket books and a strictly enforced business casual dress code, that's simply an incredibly bad idea. So I say, let the pretentious jerks like me do their writing and pontificating and grandstanding and let the guests enjoy the parks for what they are and probably drop their funnel cake.

Zach... I've spent many long sleepless night pondering the possibility for an application of the auteur theory to Disney space (I'm dead serious about that one), since I am a very strict formalist when it comes to all that is cinematic. But it simply doesn't compute for me, because there are too many hands in the pot. That's why I brought up the old Studio System as perhaps the most relevant example, where a personal vision could still shine through as a component of an overall product. Although there were and still are isolated examples of an finished attraction being primarily the work of one person or persons, It's so hard to evaluate what that actually translates to in terms of value that it's best to just leave well enough alone.

The other problem with applying auteuristic theories to a Disney theme park is because there has never and will never be a truly avant-garde attraction, ie, a line which loops back into itself or a ride vehicle which goes nowhere. There have been glimmerings of examples of such, but only by accident (Stitch's Great Escape?). Since we'll never get a Jean-Luc Godard or a Stan Brakhage or a Kenneth Anger of themed design, people who made intensely personal projects with no compromises, auteuristic practices are severely undercut in our current understanding of them.

At this point I must apologize for grossly misrepresenting the theory itself since our modern understanding of it today is more applicable to the independent, uncompromising artist like Dreyer and is less centered on the compromised, businesslike artist it was meant to elevate, ie Hitchcock or latter Lang.

So perhaps it is and perhaps it isn't. If you want to take an auteur-centric approach to understanding the parks them I applaud and support you and will even publish your writings on my blog should they ever materialize. As always, the argument can and should be made.

Furthermore, I really wish to emphasize here that I can, have been, will be and probably am wrong about a lot of stuff. I will defend my instincts to the death but that doesn't make me any less wrong. So if you're reading this thinking "this girl's off her rocker, I know that the parks really ought to be evaluated based on color theory", then I say that the effort has been worth it.

I'd really like to have people have very different opinions and insights than me because, as much as holding up a map of Disneyland and shouting "You can't spell ART without DISNEYLAND!!", that's how we'll finally crack that wall that separates theme parks from the critical establishment, which is my ultimate goal. Having a lot of different schools of thought on it is a signifier than the object in consideration is indeed a multifaceted work with many possibilities and approaches. So don't take this response as a big fat "No, it's THIS way..." And if you still think that I'm totally wrong, then I've achieved everything I feel I need to because I'm encouraging serious thought.

Yikes, that's enough for me for today! ~ <3 Christine

2Dave said...

I don't think Disneyland is a work of art. At best, it would be a collection of artworks, like an art gallery or an anthology.

In order to qualify as a work of art in itself, the various attractions would have to illuminate each other in some way. They don't really do that. You don't gain a better understanding of Pirates of the Carribean by riding Space Mountain or even "it's a small world." The relationship is limited to arrangement by theme -- stories of the American west here, traditional fairy-tales there, science fiction in the other corner. This is what you would find in a well-ordered anthology.

I do think that Main Street, where you look down a carefully re-created small town street of a hundred years ago and see a beautiful fairy-tale castle, qualifies as art. The juxtaposition is both beautiful and meaningful. But once you've passed under the castle, or into one of the other lands, nothing like that really happens again. Instead, the primary ordering principle is simply to keep things from looking out of place.

Brad said...

I know this is a very late reply, but I've only recently discovered this blog (where have you been all my life) and I think about the nature of art, entertainment and culture a lot. I hope my ideas contribute to the discussion well.

If I may be so bold, I think the best way to think about this is backwards. I can't look at a work and call it art or not based on its own merits. I believe that the artist is essential to art, that the stronger the sense of auteur, the closer the work is to art. That said, I think that the fact that you can see Coates' and and Blair's hand in their work goes a long way to elevating theme park design to an art form. However, the influence that their personalities have is almost strictly technical and stylistic - it seems to me that an imagineer's personal opinions and philosophies and worldview and feelings don't make it into the theme park. That mitigates, to put it broadly, the other half of the art equation. The imagineers aren't fully expressing themselves.

I think of art in terms of information. The work is a very deep and complex channel of communication between the artist and the audience. In the studio system, I think this frees up artists to focus on different parts of the art. In this context, Walt laid out the message, the ideas and the philosphies behind his parks; he was the auteur here. The famed imagineers worked more on the mechanics of the art, the way Walt's ideas were communicated to the guests, the audience.

As a coda, I don't think the state of being art is a binary one. Some segments of culture are more artistic than others, and there likely isn't an ideal work that can be called 100% art. Just splittin' hairs.

Anyway, fantastic blog, Foxx. So many other Disney blogs and podcasts dwell on the spirit and ideals of the parks, heady with nostalgia (present company excluded, of course, George and Jeff). I love the very technical nature of your articles, and your writing style makes them easy to digest. I've subscribed and I hope you post more often :)