Alyssa Onofreo, “Disney Watercolors”

The mouse ears are a simple shape, almost a scribble. But there might not be a symbol as simple, ubiquitous, and immediately recognized by all—save one.

It’s strange to watch kids at Disneyland treat Mickey Mouse with reverence, as if he really were the biggest star in the world. Many of them only know him through branding, through other Disney properties like the shows on Disney Channel. But Mickey as a character with a distinct personality? Like Bugs Bunny or Kermit the Frog? Kermit I would understand. There’s almost no way to watch the clip from Sesame Street where he tries to sing the alphabet and not want to be a better teacher or parent.

In “Steamboat Willie,” the third Mickey Mouse cartoon but the first with sound, Mickey features as a lovable rogue. The film is a work of art. It’s easy to see why it was a hit that put Disney on the path of becoming a corporate titan. The music in the cartoon, itself a technical innovation, is catchy and nonstop. Nearly everything Mickey does gets you into the music, keeping the beat with him, whether it is banging on pots and pans, using a goat as a music box, pulling a cat’s tail to get painful meows in rhythm, or using an animal’s large set of teeth as a xylophone.

I can’t help but feel the film is revealing of another age. An age where people worked all day or were desperate to work, where drowning in Netflix for days on end wasn’t an option. (I am not saying overindulgence of media makes us better or worse. Or that we work any less. We’re just different.) Mickey Mouse could be a useful worker, as he continually demonstrates his skill with the boat’s crane, but he pushes his luck too far. At the opening, he’s steering a steamboat as if he were the captain, dancing and whistling in time with the music. His love for the work seems natural, contrasted with his actual boss, who while steering can’t even spit tobacco without hitting himself.

Mickey gets punished for turning the steamboat deck into an orchestra, but he deals out punishment to those laughing at him. It’s more cute story than Marxist comment, but the fact it’s appealing speaks volumes. He’s a free spirit with especial competence who is brought into line by work. Humility is a challenge, and it’s who or what teaches humility that I find most telling.

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Disney commands our imagination like nothing else. It’s not just that they’re a 65 billion dollar company with enormous power over entertainment, whether we speak of the theme parks, Pixar movies, blockbuster animation classics, cable channels, kids’ cartoons, video games, ABC, ESPN, Star Wars, the Muppets–I mean, I’ve barely started this list. I need to be specific about how they command the imagination. I don’t go to sleep thinking about the film where Donald Duck made fun of Hitler.

It’s in the experience of the theme parks, that’s where you see it in full. If you wondered if Disney is a religion, it’s not quite one by our typical definition. It might be that way for a few people, but religion is real in America in other ways. Take the toxic Star Wars fans who want the scripts written exactly to their fantasies. It’s not hard to see the white/Christian supremacist movements at work there.

It’s the way people feel relief at the theme parks. How they genuinely feel relaxed there, how their individual workplaces are peppered with Disney merchandise and reminders of the parks. I can’t help but think of something discussed in Plato’s Laws. The ideal laws of this more realistic city than the Republic center around giving people festivals. Days of rest where one doesn’t have to go to a job. Days where, in theory, you could be yourself.

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Onofreo’s watercolors are bright and bold. The candy shapes melt. The sugar drips, becoming goo off the canvas.

Alyssa Onofreo, “Disney Watercolors” (2020). Courtesy of the artist.

The pastel backgrounds do calm. But a soft-serve ice cream in colors unmistakably reminiscent of McDonald’s–I find that to be a challenge. I don’t need “high art” or some nonsensical construct to relax. I wouldn’t go to Disney World with the poems of Keats memorized, reciting them to myself. That’s obviously insane. What does it mean, though, that our notion of “sweet” might be one size fits all? What does it mean when someone dates the guy who uses Axe body wash, Axe shampoo, Axe conditioner, Axe deodorant and Axe cologne all at once because that signals some sense of standards?

Alyssa Onofreo, “Disney Watercolors” (2020). Courtesy of the artist.

The problem isn’t only about work or relaxation. On a larger level, it’s about fulfillment and meaning. The exceptionally gooey and melted Mickey, with a messy pink background, challenges you to see anything other than the shape of a corporate icon. The catch is that you can’t. The seams of the publicly-traded Walt Disney Company are also visible–the shows on FX don’t target the same audience as Kim Possible–but there’s no real ability for us to find anything we can comprehend within those seams. If you know ESPN’s staff in Bristol gets paid by the same people who paid those responsible for an affecting animated short about a dumpling, good for you. But it doesn’t advance understanding in any serious way. More pertinently: think about how ridiculous the Kingdom Hearts games can be, where human characters experience, say, a tragic death while Goofy looks on intently.

It makes perfect sense why corporate control leans toward the meaningless. If you’re acquiring based on what makes money, you’re not unlike a hoarder. Trying to bury a pain or an insecurity so it is never felt.

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I don’t want to get into a rant that will get hit with “let people enjoy things.” Of course if I were at Disney World I’d want to get my photo taken with Kylo Ren. I know people who try to do things to their kids like read Shakespeare to them in the crib or buy only those educational toys which preach during playtime. That a kid might want a Barbie doll or a gun, and this isn’t the end of the world—this never occurs to them.

I want to be able to relax at Disney World knowing that I can at least appreciate a painting. And this much I can say for the playful critique of our temporary, corporate-granted relaxation in the park. Fine art, in this media-saturated landscape where everyone wants to rise to the top like Walt Disney did, is more important than ever. The media we’ve built has soaked through our consciousness. If we need that consciousness back, it has to start with things that speak with one voice, pay attention to one object.

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