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.