Blogs > Cliopatria > Disney and Kermit, Picasso and Costco?

Feb 23, 2004 9:51 pm

Disney and Kermit, Picasso and Costco?

I just found out this morning that Disney has bought the Muppets. Not all of them: some of the signature Sesame Street characters are actually owned by CTW. But Kermit and Miss Piggy, and the"Bear in the Big Blue House" are now Mouseketeers. I could go on about media concentration and Frankfurt School writhings about capitalism and culture. But mostly I'm just saddened by the way in which creative and interesting culture is being dragged down by the decidedly uncreative bottom-liners at Disney. Kathi Maio, one of Fantasy and Science Fiction's film reviewers, has nominated Disney Studios for an environmental award, for their relentless recycling of material. Look at what's happened to the A.A.Milne characters under the Magic Mountain regime: patheticly written, poorly produced, and desperately overexposed because the Disney characters are so stale they may not be revivable.

OK, I'm something of a purist. But not really. I know that Jim Henson and his descendants are money-makers. Walt Disney was a businessman in addition to being a creative force. I was fine with that as long as they were making money off of substantial creativity. There comes a point, though, when marketing replaces quality: Mickey Mouse has been living on residual good will since Fantasia, while Henson's children and collaborators are still producing interesting and fun material. Now that the Henson characters are under Disney's control, I'm afraid that the same old tired formulas that Disney has used in every animated movie of the last decade-plus will now be applied to the barely-controlled comic mania of the muppets, that the cloying shallowness of"Pooh and Friends" will destroy the sometimes deeply satirical mirror the muppets held up to our world, and that the one-dimensionality of Disney's characterizations will smooth over the internal tensions which often drove Henson's characters to attempt the absurd and achieve entertainment.

And I just found out that the warehouse store CostCo is selling fine art in its stores and via its website. While there's something to be said for reducing markup costs, what is not being said is that those markups support the intellectual infrastructure of the art world, subsidizing the experts and exhibits that make art available, comprehensible and, therefore, valuable. I'd love to be able to buy, say Yoshitoshi and Hiroshige prints for a third less than current market prices, but I'd be undercutting the expertise and institutions that make them available and interesting. This is one of those cases where market forces alone will produce work that is popular (largely because of the lack of alternatives), but not necessarily interesting, and into which new artists will be unlikely to gain substantial notice. Imagine the music industry without thousands of small clubs and coffeehouses, open mikes and festivals. Worthless.

Don't get me wrong. I tell my students every semester that great works of art and literature are remembered mostly because they were popular, money-makers, and that the great artists and writers were doing it at least partly because it was a great way to earn a living. Opera was Fox, or maybe NBC; ballet was a night at the movies; the Mona Lisa was a commissioned portrait; Don Quixote sold tens of thousands of copies, and part II was written partially in response to all the other people making money off of unauthorized sequels. Art needs viewers and buyers; culture needs listerners, readers, viewers; success should bring some reward. But there comes a point (or perhaps a large gray zone) where the money is driving the production, not creative intellectual energy.

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David Lion Salmanson - 2/27/2004

Hey Danny,
How odd running into you hear instead of DDRR. Small world huh. I was wondering if some other DDRRers were going to check in on this - someone should alert the troops. (DDRR is short for Dadooronron, a closed music discussion group that convenes once a year. While easier to get into than Skull and Bones, it is a tightly limited membership. And that is all I can say about that or I'll get kicked out.)

Danny Loss - 2/25/2004

Err, Outkast has been around for ten years now. And they've continued to break new artistic ground. Speakerboxxx/The Love Below might be a bit too long, but there's a bunch of good reasons it won the Grammy for Album of the Year.

Oscar Chamberlain - 2/25/2004

I don't know that I buy this, but today's (25 Feb.) peek at journals by the online Chronicle seems apropos:

A glance at the winter issue of "The Lion and the Unicorn": The tyranny of Mickey Mouse

The Walt Disney Company makes a lot of people nervous, or so says a scholar of children's culture.

"Achieving and maintaining great commercial success via an Orwellian-style management, while selling utopian dreams of agrarian, monarchical kingdoms in its films, has impressed, entertained, and subliminally frightened audiences for nearly 70 years," writes Kevin Shortsleeve, a doctoral candidate in literature at the University of Oxford's Keble College, an author of children's books, and a public-radio commentator on children's culture.

Disney has never stopped fighting the Depression, Mr.
Shortsleeve says, and the "political and social thought of the 1930s -- the same ideologies that led to World War II -- has remained integral to Disney's corporate structure and artistic sensibilities," he writes.

However, "in an attempt to divert attention away from its
totalitarian tendencies, Disney has overcompensated with maudlin and insincere 'freedom' and 'democracy' attractions," he writes. Audiences pick up on that discrepancy, at least subconsciously, he says, and it makes them feel uneasy and even paranoid.

"The world of Disney would be more cohesive, less deceitful, and less suspicious if democracy and liberty were not so highlighted," he writes.

The article, "The Wonderful World of the Depression: Disney, Despotism, and the 1930s. Or, Why Disney Scares Us," is online for subscribers to Project Muse.

Information about the journal is available at

David Lion Salmanson - 2/24/2004


I do not want to get into the merits of particular genres, my point, and I could have been clearer on this, is that just as radio/major labels have little to do with whole sections of the music world, Costco art is no threat to the gallery world. Just as some folks write off artists as soon as they have a top ten hit as a sell out, any artist selling work in Costco is doomed in the gallery world forever. And the art-snob buyers will keep that gallery world afloat just fine. Thomas Kincaid "painter of light" sells his stuff over the internet, in malls, in the Sunday paper and hasn't hurt the sale prices at Sotheby's auctions or Damien Hirst's values.

You should really listen to the Outkast. One of the signs that it is an album for the ages is how many different influences different listeners pick up in it. Folks have told me they hear the Beatles, P-Funk/George Clinton, and Prince among others.

Ophelia Benson - 2/24/2004

Well, I don't know - that 'most' has to cover a lot of ground. Keats, the poetry of John Donne, Shakespeare's Sonnets, just to name three things off the top of my head, didn't make money, and the last two weren't even intended to. Wuthering Heights was a flop at first. Emily Dickinson was a loser.

And then, consider Dickens. What a mixed bag he is - how brilliant in places, how cloying in others. Might he have been better if he'd been less popular and keen to be popular? Maybe not, maybe not. But maybe.

There's a whole slew of books I read in childhood either before or after seeing the Disney take - he butchered all of them. Bambi and Mary Poppins stand out in my mind.

(In short, I'm a purist too, but I think that's a good thing.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/24/2004

Mr. Salamanson,

There is (probably, I'll just grant the point because I don't want to have to listen to the stuff to refute it) good music on those albums, probably written by artists who have been honing their trade in clubs and sessions for years, and back-up musicians who've been honing their craft for years in small ensembles, at weddings, whatever.

But if the music business were just about those top ten, it would be pretty empty. There are thousands of jazz musicians, singer-songwriters, traditional folk performers, rock and rollers, country fiddlers and classical violinists, some of whom are going to be famous someday; more to the point, their work is going to be copied or borrowed by Disney/Sony/Nashville/GM/MBNA....

Is Britney going to mature as an artist? Is Outkast going to break new ground and be interesting to listen to in ten years?

But I could name a half dozen musicians without even breaking a sweat that do more interesting work and whose music is going to be listened to and performed long after these folks are trivia question answers.

David Lion Salmanson - 2/23/2004

I don't want to depress you but how many of the current top 10 artists came up the way you describe? Outkast nope, urban nightclubs. Sheryl Crow nope, session singer with famous boyfriend, Evanescence, maybe; that guy from American Idol, nuff said; Toby Keith, nope Nashville produced. Now 14? nah; Josh Groban, classical crossover; Alicia Keys, urban club scene, Britney Spears, Disney; No Doubt, yes. Pretty pathetic. And yet there is some really good music on many of those albums, particularly the Outkast, Sheryl Crow, and No Doubt albums. Go figure.

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