How to transfigure Mickey in order to assassinate him in combat

When Wally Wood’s poster “The Disneyland Memorial Orgy” (1967) was published as an illustration in the historical magazine The Realist, edited by yippie Paul Krasner, it was so successful that the Magic Kingdom did not sue the artist. A legal suit would bring attention to what could turn out to be a lost war against Wood’s provocation. After all, Disneyland had been transformed into a land of orgy, and maybe that was precisely what American counterculture was most expecting to see: an Bacchanal where Snow White is fingered by the Seven Dwarfs, where Minnie fucks Goofy, where the characters from the Neverland witness an erection of Pinocchio’s nose as the fairy Tinker Bell performs a strip-tease and where Pluto finally takes revenge over his owner’s image. Yes, Pluto pisses on the official portrait of the Magic Kingdom’s very ambassador: Mickey Mouse![1]

By then, Mickey himself should already dead in the water, or, at least, the moral, benevolent or untouchable values that he champions should already have been destroyed, though still loved and admired by the traditional American family. The Marxist reading of Disney’s characters carried out by Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart in the book “How to Read Donald Duck” (1971) identifies in Mickey the figure of a “prophet devoid of brute force”, someone endowed with divine powers, disinterested and messianic, ready to “fight evil”.[2] His image is still printed on clothing, toys, dishes or nappies, almost a compulsive feeling of false permanence by the Disney corporation as it disseminates the trademark that best represents it in all corners of the Earth.

American artist Ron English, known for his culture jamming[3] practices, revisits the image of America’s most famous mouse in his paintings and interventions in outdoor advertising. In one of his works, Mousetrap (2000), features Mickey crucified on such a contraption. But, instead of portraying the character’s pain, English draws him as “with the certainty that he is always smiling”.[4] It is a provocation to the pet’s omnipresent status in our lives. “I can imagine what may have been for humankind in its beginnings to contemplate the most powerful beasts that ruled the world”, says English. “In order to conquer the most powerful animal, the ancients drew its dead figure on the wall of the caves. This was the artist’s first job. And, for me, this continues to be the artist’s job.”[5]

Monica Rizzolli’s drawings for this exhibition take seriously the double commitment of the artist’s work, because besides killing the official image of the most powerful animal in capitalist culture, they also do so in a mythical form over Mickey Mouse. As Roland Barthes proposes: “since the myth steals from language, why not steal from language too?”[6] Thus, well beyond simply reproducing the character’s figure or evidence it as a pop image, Monica transfigures Mickey in battle. And this battle, today, carries on dissembling cultural, economic or political hegemonic narratives that compose mass culture icons and corporate interests.

The situations created in Monica’s drawings, where people donning Mickey’s ears appear in different situations, invite us to consider up to what point images or symbols can be considered in the public domain, freely reproducible or convertible. Indeed, what is the entertainment industry’s strategy to transform the vernacular culture of popular tales into private property? Don’t be fooled, Mickey Mouse is not Walt Disney’s exclusive creation. His empire was built on the appropriation of other people’s creativity. Steamboat Willie, the animation film starred by the mouse in 1928 had its plot openly copied from Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Will (1928). Decades later, when an entrepreneur published a pirate version of Wally Wood’s poster for sale, reaching a wider public and achieving commercial success, Disney tried to sue him.  The case was settled out of court.

What was a work in the public domain becomes an image and a product fenced out by absurd laws regulating property rights.[7] Interestingly, one of Monica’s drawings brings our attention to this subject, as one of Velazquez’ Meninas is featured donning Mickey’s ears and a brief visual legend shows this icon in the context of the clash between copyright and copyleft’s free reproduction. Its title refers to the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, aka Mickey Mouse Protection Act. In brief, every time Mickey Mouse is threatened to become an image in public domain, the act of extension saves him from appropriation by “freezing”. In 2003, the American Supreme Court prolonged Mickey Mouse’s copyrights for further 20 years.[8] Disney was able to appropriate, for instance, classic authors such as the Grimm brothers, stealing their tales… but you cannot “take advantage” of Disney.

I could say that Mickey is the antithesis of what he apparently represents, calling the mouse the “demon” himself, but reality is a lot more complicated than that. Someone intent on carrying out the cognitive mapping of the enormous network of big corporations would find relations between those at the head of Disney’s magic kingdom and the industrial-military complex. Monica metaphorically comes close to such links when she has Mickey’s ears grow on the heads of American soldiers, in a drawing titled Army Mickey. Following my empirical inclination of mapping such networks, seeking strong and weak links, I have found out that executives of Lockheed Martin, the world greatest weapons manufacturer and great supplier to the military might employed in the Iraq War, are connected to ConocoPhillips, a powerful American oil company, which, in its turn, is linked to Boeing, that links up with Disney’s boardroom.

Our investigation on the weaves that builds up Mickey’s death and its representations, inspired by Monica’s work, goes further. The deeper aspects of the affair crop up in two other pieces in the drawing series: Roundup não mata ratos, somente indianos [Roundup does not kill rats, only Indians] and Mickeysanto: OGM’s [Mickeysanto: GMOs]. Both pieces make reference to Monsanto, the agricultural company that, alongside Novartis, Du Pont, AstraZeneca and Aventis, control around 70% of the global agricultural trade. Monsanto is the owner of Roundup herbicide and of the Roundup Ready seeds, genetically modified, patented and sold exclusively by the corporation. In the USA, 40% of the soy crops resorts to Roundup Ready seeds, benefiting only corporations, large farms and the intensive practice of monoculture. Consumers are left with the uncertainty of the risks associated with transgenic products intake for health and the environment. The false passion and justified death of Mickey’s in Monica’s work bring about two insights. The first is that the biotechnological destruction carried out by Monsanto and other industries in India has led to the imprisonment, assassination and suicide of hundreds of agriculturists for political and economical reasons (which is patent but categorically denied by Monsanto in their site)[9], but it also brought forth several activists to resistance, such as the movement of Navdanya network agriculturists against the use of transgenic seeds.[10] The second insight is that Monsanto and Disney are two sides of the same coin. Both impose dark market  interests over creativity and biological diversity, be it by means of the control of images, tales, tribal cultures, human genes or seeds, securing monopolies over an invention or knowledge for decades.

It was Indian activist Vandana Shiva who said that true ecological action in the era of biotechnology needs to protect diversity and organize movements for intellectual and collective rights.[11] If we are able to realize this now, as we take in what Monica’s drawings have just told us in the exhibition, then we will have a positive sign that we need to question the facts that are found diluted and completely dispersed in life, in visible or invisible form. It is in moments of imagination and intense social creativity that art manages to obtain the means to transform thoughts and organize action. When silence becomes  “a dangerous sound”, as sung by Fugazi in “KYEO” (1991), this is the time we “must keep our eyes open”.

Translated by Gavin Adams.

NOTES

[1] The reproduction of “The Disneyland Memorial Orgy” in the pages of The Realist can be found at the address: http://www.ep.tc/realist/74/12.html.

[2] DORFMAN, Ariel and MATTELART , Armand. Para Ler o Pato Donald. Comunicação de massa e colonialismo. Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra, 1977. pp. 119 and 120.

[3] In brief, culture jamming is the subversion, manipulation or symbolic rupture of advertising messages in media and urban spaces. For further discussion in the subject, see the text  “Ativismo semiótico contra o poder da marca” [Semiotic Activism against the power of the trademark], in the second chapter of my book, Insurgências Poéticas: Arte Ativista e Ação Coletiva [Poetic Insurgencies: Activist Art and Collective Action]. São Paulo: Annablume/FAPESP, 2011. pp. 176-203.

[4] Interview with Ron English to André Mesquita in 7/12/2005.

[5] ENGLISH, Ron. POPaganda: The Art & Subversion of Ron English. Nova York: Soft Skull Press, 2001. p. 66.

[6] BARTHES, Roland. Mitologias. São Paulo: Difel, 1982. p. 156.

[7] This debate on authorship also permeates the fields of the arts and of countless other manifestations involving the creation of collaborative objects and projects, the production and reproduction of images in collages, paintings and drawings, in performances, in video art and in tactical media pieces, in the culture of plagiarism, of remix and mash up, and in the use of the Creative Commons and copyleft licenses.

[8] HAROLD, Christine. OurspaceResisting the Corporate Control of Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007. p. 116.

[11] SHIVA, Vandana. Biopirataria. A pilhagem da natureza e do conhecimento. Rio de Janeiro: Vozes, 2001. pp. 64 and 65.

André Mesquita | January 2010.
Image: Monica Rizzolli. Copyright “The Mickey Mouse Protection Act”, 2009.
Gouache, ink and pencil on paper and sticker, 30×27 cm.
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