Things You're Just Supposed to Know

Most of the time, Long-Forgotten assumes that readers are already familiar with basic facts
about the Haunted Mansion. If you wanna keep up with the big boys, I suggest you check out
first of all the website, Doombuggies.com. After that, the best place to go is Jason Surrell's book,
The Haunted Mansion: Imagineering a Disney Classic (NY: Disney Editions; 2015). That's the
re-named third edition of The Haunted Mansion: From the Magic Kingdom to the Movies (NY:
Disney Editions, 2003; 2nd ed. 2009). Also essential reading is Jeff Baham's The Unauthorized
Story of Walt Disney's Haunted Mansion (USA: Theme Park Press, 2014; 2nd ed. 2016).

This site is not affiliated in any way with any Walt Disney company. It is an independent
fan site dedicated to critical examination and historical review of the Haunted Mansions.
All images that are © Disney are posted under commonly understood guidelines of Fair Use.

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Sunday, April 25, 2010

But is it Art?


Nature is a haunted house; poetry is a house that tries to be haunted.   — Emily Dickenson


We had better tackle this issue right up front.  How can anyone take an amusement park ride so seriously that they end up writing reams of material about it, probing every nook and cranny and occasionally getting, you know, all philosophical and stuff?  Is this not evidence of arrested development, if not a disturbed personality?

Get.  A.  Grip.  It's.  A.  Ride.

...albeit a very good one.  Sure, it's a fine piece of entertainment that obviously took a lot of work and displays a lot of creative ingenuity, but c'mon, it's not art.  Or Art.  Or Awt.

The line between art and entertainment is, of course, a porous one.  Good art typically entertains, and good entertainment requires some sort of artistic skill.  In light of this overlap, it has been graciously decreed that if "mere" entertainment rises high enough, it may earn the designation, "popular" or "folk" art, but that's all the concession you rabble are going to get.  Now get the @#&*!! out of our museum, and next time wear a tie.

Unfortunately for the museum curator, the already porous line has become increasingly swisscheesified during the course of the last century, and the holes have been punched from both sides: you've got popular entertainers who expect to be respected as artists, and you've got "real" artists who see their role as essentially transgressive and so ridicule any received wisdom, even when that wisdom supposedly elevates their own work above common graphic design, or "commercial" art, or propaganda, or folk art, or entertainment.  Andy Warhol's Soup Cans make the point as well as anything.


Walt Disney was uncommonly shrewd about this issue.  I don't think he ever claimed that what his studio was producing was Art with a capital A.  No, what you got was a self-deprecating shrug and a claim to be nothing more than an entertainer.  Even his most blatant bid for artistic respect, Fantasia, bills itself only as "a new form of entertainment."  Of course he knew better.  It's not just the fact that his studio artists were capable of moonlighting as "real" artists, and did so from time to time; it's that they all knew darn well by the end of the 1920's that animation was a genuine art form, and that eventually the world would figure that out without them telling it so.  And of course, it did.  Same thing happened with jazz and with popular cinema.

So is the Haunted Mansion art?  If so, what would you call it?  Giant kinetic sculpture?  A form of puppetry?  Mechanical theater?  The genre does have a name:  dark ride.  That will have to do, and perhaps it's good enough.

Yes, it's art.  It passes the duck test.  It acts just like art.  It uses artistic media and was produced by people who were—many of them—accomplished artists by the most stringent definition, but it also passes a stricter test: the distinction between fine art and graphic design, or illustration.

This distinction was still in use when I was taking art courses, back in the middle ages.  Even if you don't buy it, it can still be articulated.  The difference between a painting of a tree that is Art and one that is merely Very Good Illustration, is that the wordless whammy, the wow factor that tells you that this is good stuff you're looking at, remains intact if it's Art even after you have come to fully understand the technique, but that quiet dazzle sorta evaporates if it's only Illustration.  Both of them have succeeded (at least a little) in their attempts to be a haunted house (like Nature is already, without even trying), but if we examine the painting closely and figure out what was in this painter's bag of tricks, the ghosts leave the "mere illustration" but not the "art," which continues to amaze us even more because the house somehow remains haunted even after you've seen the wires and trap doors.

This sort of analysis has fallen on hard times, not because it is incoherent but because it is so subjective.  We have been told that Toulouse-Lautrec's cabaret posters are fine art, while Norman Rockwell's magazine covers are merely good illustrations, and too many of us have begun to suspect that we are being snowed.



It doesn't really matter, because if the "Long-Forgotten" thread proves anything, it is that exhaustive attention to the techniques behind the Haunted Mansion does not seem to diminish the magic.  We've known since we were little kids that it's not really haunted, and we don't care, because...yes it is.

It's also art because if you pull on this particular thread, you find that the rest of the universe is attached to the other end.  It may be the oddest of oddball entry points, but this too can lead you into some pretty lively discussions with others (or with yourself, if you're prone to such things), the kind of pursuit that leaves you at the end of the day amazed once again at the puzzling wonder of being human.  No one is going to argue that the Haunted Mansion is on a par with King Lear or the Sistine Chapel, but in its own way it does what a good poem is supposed to do.

If you're still not convinced, then start making your way through the endless "Long-Forgotten" thread, or just hang around here for awhile.  The worst that can happen is that I prove to be a very foolish mortal indeed, but hey, there are a lot uglier ways to go about doing that than this.


15 comments:

  1. It is art, after all isn't the Haunted Mansion a reflection of a popular view of haunted houses at a certain time? As for what kind of art: I would say a hybrid of Interactive Theatre mixed with mechanical theatre. Well maybe not so much interactve.

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  2. Quite good observations indeed. And I agree with the determination that because the illusions don't become boring when you delve into the inspiration and mechanics, it is more artistically valid...very good point. As for what the mansion is, in artistic terms, I'd rather call it (purely myself) a kinetic, 3-dimensional representation of a horror story. It's both sculpture in some aspects, and theater, based on a literature type of basis.

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  3. In a nutshell (And what other shell would I have, really?), I'd call it "mixed media."

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  4. The fact that the Omnimover has been compared to a movie director, pointing you at what the show designer wants you to see, reminds us that these Imagineers were steeped in cinematic arts. The rides are like movies. That's probably why some of the Imagineers try to put stories into these rides, and why it takes willpower to resist that temptation (by recognizing that this is a medium in its own right, with its own integrity). And of course, an acted-out movie would be...theater. I like "mechanized theater" as a good all-purpose description.

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  5. Also, "horror story" is too specifically descriptive of this particular ride. It is part of a genre that includes POTC and IASW as well. The name for this art form would be or should be the name of that genre, IMO.

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  6. Pthhh. You know what? Screw it. The genre already has a name: dark ride. Just because that name conjures up images of cheesy carnival rattletraps doesn't disqualify the term. Gertie the Dinosaur was an animated film. They didn't go looking for a new term to use for Pinocchio, they just showed the world how good an animated film could be.

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  7. I have always used "dark ride" myself, and it can mean all manner of things. For example, the Mummy coaster at Universal Florida is a dark ride/coaster hybrid. Splash Mountain is practically part "dark ride."

    Plus, sometimes I like the old, cheesy, spookhouse rattletrap rides nearly as much.... ;)

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  8. "Dark ride" covers a lot of real estate, to be sure. Some consider the original "tunnels of love" as the first dark rides. But the term is certainly no more elastic than "sculpture" or "poetry."

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  9. At first I thought this was going to be about what Charles Dana Gibson's "Gibson Girl" has to do with ice cream....

    As you said earlier about the rides being like movies, Walt originally intended the audioanimatronics to be sort a form of 3D animation, and they even work similar to how cartoons do, displaying a certain number of frames per second and all that. The omnimover system helps a lot.

    Also, I think you really need to look up who Marcel Duchamp was. He liked to push the boundaries of what is an isn't art. He once entered a urinal into an art show under a pseudonym and tried to convince the judges that it's a sculpture, just a "ready-made" sculpture, and still art.

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  10. Cumoooon! You're not serious! Doesn't ART try to say something? What on earth is The Huanted Mansion saying?

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  11. That one is too easy. First of all, what the HM says takes the form of a jest, a joke, and every joke says something about life. It usually sounds rather bland and unfunny when stated in bald terms. In the case of the HM, the message is: Fear of death is overblown. How do you know it isn't all fun and games on the other side? You don't. Maybe all the ghostly scares and graveyard horrors are nothing more than the actions of otherworldly practical jokesters. Since you don't know, you might as well choose to be cheerful.

    How's that?

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  12. While a "dark ride" is what The Haunted Mansion is, I still say that the attraction's presentation is accomplished via mixed media — animatronics, sculpture, architecture, costuming, set decoration, landscaping, projection...

    What DOESN'T it include? Of course, it's art!

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  13. Great way to open your blog. I've read through most of your posts and thoroughly enjoyed it!

    I know I'm a little late to the party, but in any case, I think there are some simple reasons why we may be hesitant to accept "dark rides" as a genre of art.

    First, when we look back at a genre that has been around for centuries, we see that overwhelmingly beautiful examples typify that genre in the history books.

    When the examples of "dark rides" around us are overwhelmingly associated with the circus and carnival, its difficult to imagine a respectible genre arising from this context.

    It is difficult, but I think the Haunted Mansion shows us it is possible... In a world with a hundred examples of "dark rides" on par with the Haunted Mansion, I think we'd be more comfortable designating dark rides as a valid genre of art.

    Another reason may be that many new genres arise from technologies with typically commercial functions. I think you mentioned this distinction between commercial graphic design/illustration and pure "Art". I think your distinction is right on - we do continue to wonder at the Haunted Mansion even after contemplating the finer points of its execution.

    Lastly, and I know I'm not introducing a novel idea, but I do think we would more readily accept new genres if they weren't so instantly and widely commercialized. I think the relationship between artist and society is an important one, one that is obstructed by the injection of profit. Something beautifies the work itself when it is freely given to the audience as a gift.

    Because Disney is not free and the Haunted Mansion is surrounded by high, tightly secured walls (Disneyland itself), it feels further from our humanity, our human relationsips, and the culture that enriches us.

    When I am purchasing an experience for myself and the producers of that experience are profitting from my money rather than from the implicit enjoyment of my experience, it reduces the experience to one of consumption. Notice I don't claim that commercial profit eliminates the experience; merely that it tarnishes it.

    Perhaps we would more readily destroy the distinction between art and entertainment if entertainment were offered as a free gift more often.

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  14. Welcome aboard, and thanks for the kind words. You make a number of good points about the difficulty in recognizing the dark ride as an art form, but I think the most important one is the first one you mention: the scarcity of serious candidates. Disney seems to have a corner on this market (or almost), and even there you can count the "art dark rides" on one of Mickey Mouse's hands. Other than the HM, I'd say the clearest example would be It's a Small World. As for the commercial aspect, I'm not too concerned about its tarnishing effects. I think of those huge, theatrical, melodramatic, 19th c. canvases that would go on tour and rake in the bucks for painters like Francis Danby and John Martin at ticketed exhibits, and yet they are still recognized today as respectable artwork, despite the blatant commercialism behind them.

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  15. "It's a Small World" is a masterpiece in dark rides, indeed! Haha.

    About the tarnishing effect of the commercial aspect, I feel the same. It doesn't worry me too much either. I was merely trying to articulate that concern (descriptively, rather than critically) as one possibly cause (rational or not) behind the public & art community's hesistance to accept new genres, like rides, as art.

    In one of your posts you mentioned that certain artists or other members of the HM production team hinted that the project had too many chiefs, which from their perspective, tarnished the finished product to some extent. If not the HM per se, possbily the user experience of the HM.

    Because of my experience in music and web design production, I can still enjoy the art and feel a connection to the work. I understand the difference between the artists and the meddlers (who tend to be financial stakeholders). But the general Disney public probably aren't able to make that distinction.

    But I don't mean to suggest that the artists themselves should be stripped of the title of artists on account of this situation. Francis Danby and John Martin, as you mentioned, certainly deserve the title.

    Thanks for the response!

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