Disney doesn’t make art

Art and popularity are at odds with each other.

Popularity rises when something is familiar. Disney movies are popular because they rehash familiar themes. Damsels in distress, a commoner winning a princess’ heart, a hero fighting monsters, monsters turning into heroes and interpretations of fairy tales. Sure, Disney is exceptional. However, it stands for exceptional celebration of the status-quo.

Art is not meant to celebrate the status-quo. It is meant to question the status-quo, tear it down and build something new. Once that new movement is the norm, art moves on to tear down something else. Art is the process of creative destruction. Artistic movements aren’t popular because they make most people feel uncomfortable. Once a movement is popular, it gradually stops becoming art.

Disney movies have never questioned traditional views on race, gender roles or sexual identity until recently, when those questions have turned mainstream. Artists have always raised those uncomforatable questions.

Accomplished artists have a hard time choosing between their art and mainstream popularity because that which is popular is usually not art, and thatwhich is art is usually not popular.

Hallelujah

The folk rock anthem ‘Hallelujah’ is among the most popular songs in the world.

It was ranked 259 on Rolling Stone’s list of ‘The 500 Greatest Songs of all time’. It featured among the top ten greatest tracks of all time in a poll of songwriters conducted by the British music magazine Q. Among street performers across the world, the song is ubiquitous.

And yet, it was so close to being lost to the world. When it was released back in 1984 as part of Leonard Cohen’s album ‘Various Positions’, it was largely ignored. John Cale heard the song and performed a version in 1991, which was moderately successful. Having heard Cale’s version, Jeff Buckley then performed the song in 1994 as part of his album ‘Grace’, whose sales were, once again, slow. Buckley accidentally drowned in 1997, after which his version of Hallelujah gained interest. The song finally became a popular hit when it was featured in the 2001 movie Shrek. And today, we cannot imagine a world without it.

That’s not all. Leonard Cohen, its original composer, wrote at least 150 draft versions of the song. The song is known to have at least 300 different versions which were performed in concerts and in recordings. Through all of this, nobody spotted its genius. Instead, they largely ignored it. Yet, Cohen stuck to it throughout.

It is a pitfall to set out to produce a hit. Instead, what we can do is to show up, do our work, and keep on iterating, falling in love with the work itself.