What happens when we start thinking of art as an investment
About a month ago, Disney hosted an event they called “Investor Day.” The event consisted, basically, of a slideshow presentation during which they talked about financial estimates, statements, expected growth, profitability, losses, all the boring stuff. They also revealed the many projects that will be released on their streaming platform Disney+ over the next several years, including multiple television series based on Marvel and Star Wars characters. Perhaps because of pandemic-induced restrictions on holding a TED talk-like event, Disney streamed the presentation live to the world; and the world tuned in. As someone who cringes any time someone wants to show me a slideshow, I find the tuning it itself odd but not necessarily shocking given Disney’s dominance over our declining culture. It was the way a lot of people commented on the events that I found particularly dispiriting. I saw one person fearing that Disney releasing so many Star Wars shows would “dilute the brand.” I saw another wonder if it made financial sense to abandon the theatrical experience to focus so much on streaming. The most depressing comment came from a person who listed “investor day” itself as one of the best “Disney moments of the year.” “Investor Day”? Sounds about right.
In my humble opinion, thoughts and comments like the ones I mentioned above belong only in the mind of Disney’s disgustingly rich board members. Instead, they all came from “regular” people who, as far as I know, don’t own any Disney stock. That doesn’t matter, of course. Disney – more so than any other conglomerate, although they would all love to be in its position – has turned us all into “investors.” The only difference is we don’t stand to make any money. Our reward for being loyal to the Disney brand, supposedly, is that we get to enjoy all the wonderful content (a more commercially appealing word than “art”, don’t you think?) they’ve created for us. I say supposedly because based on the way people talk about them, the experience of watching all these tv shows and movies is only secondary. The primary entertainment comes from debating whether or not a new entry is a step in the right direction for the series, the character, the intellectual property. It’s not about what you have in front of you but what you may have next, depending on whether the thing you just watched is successful. What you think about the show’s artistic qualities is not important. What’s important is if everyone else approves. If there is a consensus that the latest Star Wars shows was, indeed, good for the brand. People who complain about Disney’s dominance are usually labelled as contrarians or retrogrades who simply won’t let people like what the like. Is there a possibility, however, that it’s not the critics but Disney itself who won’t let you like what you like?
I’m not immune when it comes to Disney. The reason I feel distressed enough to write this is because I’ve been in similar situations in the past, speculating about box office and the studio’s finances. I grew up with Disney. I have deep affection for many of their movies. I think Pinocchio is a masterpiece of animation. I’ve seen The Lion King more than any other movie. Every couple months I have a dream – fueled by childhood memories no doubt – where I find myself at Disneyland and go on all the rides (The Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is my favorite). One of the first things I did when I started this blog was write about all the animated Disney movies! This is, of course, because Disney (both man and company) were always extremely effective at marketing themselves as the top provider of children’s entertainment. To put it into perspective, when I was growing up not a single television channel showed Mickey Mouse cartoons. Not even the Disney Channel. And yet, every single kid knew who Mickey Mouse was. It’s a cunning strategy, getting there early, creating warm and fuzzy memories that can be exploited later. Here are a couple other things that I loved as a kid: the X-Men, Star Wars, Spider-Man, and the Muppets. They’re all owned by Disney now. Next time one of these characters is dangled in front of you it might be worth asking whether you’re experiencing your own thoughts or merely having a pavlovian reaction.
Disney is neither the beginning or the end of this conversation. They are simply the best at taking advantage of a larger problem. Something I find infuriating about the contemporary art world is that its existence is predicated on curators telling the people what art is and isn’t valuable. The aesthetic qualities of the object are beyond the point, all that matters is how much a painting costs, or how much someone would pay for it. As a result, contemporary visual art has become irrelevant to almost everyone who isn’t a rich collector. I’d wager that most people in the world couldn’t name a living painter, but most people would be able to name at least one painter from the past. Da Vinci, Van Gogh, Picasso. At least one. The same is happening with “film” (or whatever you wanna call the movies and t.v. installments that make up these franchises.) What happens If all that matters about movies is their role in a continuum of endless content? If all they are are cogs in machine designed to make money? If they become “investments”? It’s not surprising, since our system of government puts economics above everything else, that we’ve become unable to see art as anything but a product. It’s heartbreaking nonetheless.