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Redrawing Walt Disney

Those who pigeonhole him -- as everyman or kitschmeister -- are missing the big picture.

December 17, 2006|Neal Gabler | Neal Gabler is the author, most recently, of "Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination."

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?

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