Pin It
alex simpson
GIF illustration by Alex Simpson

Why are artists so drawn to Disney?

Banksy’s ‘Dismaland’ is set to open this month – what is it that attracts creatives to reference the cult theme park slash animation house?

Speculation is rife that British street artist Banksy will open "Dismaland" in Weston-Super-Mare this month, an attraction believed to be a dystopian rework of the world-famous theme park and all-American entertainment company. Throughout his career, Banksy has consistently used Disney for his art – once sneaking a dummy of a Guantanamo Bay prisoner into Disneyland, another time stencilling Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald holding hands with a Vietnamese napalm victim.

Banksy’s message isn’t all that subtle – it’s not hard to place Disney and McDonalds as beacons of Western consumerism and – if you’re an artist who consistently drives home an on-the-nose anti-capitalist message – places where we forget about the rest of the world and its problems to enjoy theme park rides, cartoons and cheap hamburgers. Disney is sedate, saccharine and safe, and for some that makes it the perfect enemy. No wonder then that its films and characters are the subject of conspiracy theories and criticism. And "It’s A Small World" is annoying. But Banksy is by no means the only artist to have referenced Disney.

Shock goth rocker Marilyn Manson collaborated with Austrian-Irish visual artist Gottfried Helnwein on artwork for his 2003 album The Golden Age Of Grotesque. Manson was photographed in dark body paints wearing the iconic Mickey Mouse ears, a nod to Fantasia, Disney’s first attempt to marry the worlds of high and low art: cartoons and classical music. Manson reportedly viewed the project with Helnwein the same way – a combination of "low art" (his rock music) with "high art" (painting).

He told NY Rock: "We grew up with the idea that entertainment is some lesser form of art, less valuable, less sincere, less worthy of our attention. I don't agree with it at all."

Helnwein is an artist long influenced by the works of Disney and talks passionately about the first time that he laid eyes on a Donald Duck book. "Opening my first Donald Duck comic book felt like seeing the daylight again for someone who had been trapped underground by a mine-disaster for many days," he said. "After all these years of cultural and aesthetic absence, a great culture had finally embraced me."

Helnwein regularly channelled Disney in his work as an adult, most famously in his painting Mouse I.

Disney has also proved a big pool of inspiration for fashion designers, most notably Bobby Abley and Jeremy Scott. UK designer Abley has long been obsessed with the company, who love his stuff too. He’s put Ursula from The Little Mermaid on sweaters, sent models down the runway wearing Mickey Mouse ears and used the classic Disney font to write words on his clothes such as "RIP" and "BRAINS".

In an interview with Oyster, Abley said: "I’m not out to get Disney, I love it. I think it’s a misinterpretation that many people have — that I’m rebelling against Disney or showing the true meaning. Everyone knows there’s hidden messages in their films, I don’t need to tell people that again. There is weird shit in the movies but I'm not capitalising on that." Even Abley, a longtime lover, is a conspiracy theorist too.

Jeremy Scott – who read Walt Disney’s biography and designed those Mickey Mouse-inspired shoes for Adidas – explained to Dazed why he loved the animation house so much. "He’s from Kansas City, like me. We share a lot in common, wanting to create a magical world for people to live in. Obviously I love cartoons and Mickey, and so many of the things that he created and perpetuated."

For some artists, the allure of playing with Disney is to subvert its wholesome image and "show it for what it really is" – a multi-billion pound corporation with sinister secrets tucked away in its locker, a symbol of Western comfort and the "dumbing down" of its people.

But others reference Disney because of a firmly embedded fandom, an appreciation of it as an entertainment powerhouse, a love for its light-hearted films and memories of growing up surrounded by the characters. Maybe using Disney is an artist’s method of eternalising that precious, often un-get-backable, wide-eyed childhood inspiration.

If you’re an artist with commercial aspirations then Walt Disney is the ultimate icon, a polymath with entrepeneurial spirt who controlled everything he worked on – the Kanye West of the mid-20th century (fuck, I said it). You may love, you may hate, but his legacy continues to live on in contemporary culture nearly fifty years after his death.

Banksy’s "Dismaland" opens on August 21, another "tribute" to the theme park and its offshoots. Until you do head down to Weston-Super-Mare, listen to this Disney "nightmare mix" by former Arab Strap member L.Pierre.

Disney Mix Track List:

1. When You Wish Upon A Star (L. Pierre Stretch) – Various Artists [Dialogue excerpt from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: Classic Movies on the Radio]

2. Curiosity Leads To Wings, Your Mother And A Small World (L. Pierre Mix) – Oliver Wallace, Frank Churchill, Kathryn Beaumont and The Disneyland Chorus

3. Pretty Melody / My Paree – George Bruns

4. The Song Of The Seeonee (Edit) – Robert B. Sherman [Sound effect excerpt from Chilling, Thrilling Sounds Of The Haunted House]

5. Clock Sequence – Various Artists

6. A Mouse! (L. Pierre Mix) – Frank Churchill & Oliver Wallace [Sound effect excerpt from Chilling, Thrilling Sounds Of The Haunted House]

7. Man Returns – Ed Plumb, Frank Churchill, Larry Morey

8. Scales And Arpeggios – Liz English, Gary Dubin & Dean Clark

9. Thatʼs What Friends Are For (The Vulture Song) (Edit) – Bruce Reitherman

10. Cruella Deville (Edit) – Bill Lee

11. Main Title (The Second Star to the Right)/All This Has Happened Before – The Jud Conlon Chorus [Sound effect excerpt from Chilling, Thrilling Sounds Of The Haunted House]

12. Wintry Winds – Ed Plumb/Frank Churchill/Larry Morey

13. Desolation (L. Pierre Stretch) – Leigh Harline

14. You Oughta Be Ashamed – Oliver Wallace [Sound effect excerpt from Chilling, Thrilling Sounds Of The Haunted House]

15. Oh Tink (L. Pierre Mix) – Bill Thompson, Hans Conried & The Jud Conlon Chorus

16. Iʼm Wishing (Loop) – Adriana Caselotti [Dialogue excerpt from Alice In Wonderland]

17. No Longer an Elephant / Dumbo's Sadness / A Visit In the Night / Baby Mine – Betty Noyes

18. Mickey Mouse Club, Alma Mater (Mickey Mouse Club) – Mouseketeers

Subscribe to the Dazed newsletterGet the day on Dazed straight to your inbox