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Should The Sistine Chapel, Art Museums, And Zoos Turn Themselves Into Disney World?

Disney World

The New York Times recently reported on “Rome’s first permanent theatrical production along the lines of Broadway in New York or the West End in London.” This Vatican-approved showpiece’s subject matter is — wait for it — the Sistine Chapel, complete with “high-definition digital reproductions of the frescoes,” projectors, fireworks, giant glow sticks, theatrical performers, ballet dancers, and colored lasers. It’s presented, appropriately enough, by Artainment Worldwide Shows.

Check out the teaser.

The show’s artistic director, Marco Balich, is a professional spectacle-maker. He summed up his artistic philosophy to the Times: “When [Italian art critics] say ‘Oh but we don’t want to make a Disney kind of thing,’ I say, ‘But Disney was a genius — what’s wrong with that?'”

The real question is not whether Disney was a genius, for he undoubtedly was. The question is what was he a genius at, and is that thing compatible with a deeply religious work of art? Consider that question by looking at some more of Balich’s work: the closing ceremony of the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

Prominent Italian culture critic Tomaso Montanari described Balich’s Michelangelo show as “visual Viagra”: “It’s based on the notion that Michelangelo no longer speaks to modern sensibilities.” There’s something to these comments, for sure, but I think at play here is something deeper, and much worse, than that.

Now, Balich’s work is certainly eye-catching, even spectacular. It may be worth the price of admission should you happen to be out for a good time in Rome on a Friday night, maybe especially after a drink or two (or a dose of chemical Ecstasy). Yet is this sort of silly glamfest appropriate treatment for themes such as the creation of the world, God’s interaction with man, eternal damnation, and eternal salvation? That Balich — and the Vatican! — apparently think so is telling. If we knew it was conscious kitsch instead of, say, shocking ignorance, it begins to veer into the blasphemous.

The Disneyland in Your Backyard

Sacred art may be the easiest to set off-limits from kitsch, but Disneyfication seems to be running rampant in all sorts of cultural spaces. I first picked up on this when our local zoo did some renovations. At the time we went to the zoo just about every week in the summer, so as familiar visitors we noticed every change.

First, it was the iPads in the aquarium. After they were installed, my kids stopped looking at the fish and started staring at screens, mindlessly and pointlessly (because they couldn’t read) poking at pixels of fake fish instead of gazing at the gorgeous live ones fluttering here and there a mere foot away. The screens were strategically placed at child’s eye level, and constantly blinked, so there was no distracting the kids from them.

I’d gesture at the fish and desperately try to engage my kids — “Ooh, look at that bright blue one with spots!” “This one is called an Angelfish. Why do you suppose that’s its name?” “Can you make a face like that?” — to no avail. Once the screens arrived, my kids stopped seeing the fish. So we stopped visiting the aquarium. The point of going to the zoo was to see animals, not pictures of animals. We can get those literally anywhere on our own screens, but we can’t look at tropical fish in person anywhere.

Next it was other attractions. One by one, the animal exhibits were glammed up with theme park-esque facades, overpainted plastic and concrete, and rides. This attracted a horde of patrons who came to the zoo not to see the animals but to ride the rides and buy their preschoolers oversugared, technicolored frozen desserts, then subsequently scream at and jump all over everyone within eye- and earshot. The combination of thematic and human frenzy motivated us to drop our zoo membership that year.

It was the same at our local libraries. They installed a bevy of computers at childrens’ eye level. Beforehand, my kids and I went to the library to browse dreamily and read together. Now, beeps and boops constantly interrupted those pursuits. My kids would no longer sit with me and read a book, nor did they browse and pull out their own books. They walked past the screen, sat down, and started pecking.

I’m sure the library justified it internally as “helping” the poorer families who use libraries as free community centers “access technology” and pretended that the computer games were “literacy based.” But research shows increased tech access reduces poor kids’ academic achievement and positive social interactions, which are key to language development; that books beat screens and games hands down for literacy development; and that basically every low-income American already owns at least one screen. That means this is really libraries sacrificing patrons’ literary birthright for a mess of pottage. (And if you don’t get that reference, maybe close this article and start reading the bestselling book of all history.)

Disney, Disney Everywhere

This sort of thing is everywhere. A few months ago, science writer Brian Switek wrote for Aeon about his visit to the Denver Museum of Nature, where:

Tired-looking parents slouched in chairs around the out-of-place stomping ground, staring off or checking their phones as their kids went nuts. Museums were originally meant to be places of inspiration, literally the ‘seat of the Muses’. In our 21st-century interpretation, however, we expect them to function as providers of kid-oriented entertainment more than anything else.

…Whenever I visit a natural history museum, especially if I’m intent on seeing the dinosaurs, I try to arrive early and race over to the exhibits before the school groups and strollers are set loose upon the floor. And I’m not alone in my concerns. As I’ve chatted with other museum-goers, the same lament has come up over and over again: as a culture, we’ve been steadily nudging natural history museums to become more like theme parks or the cartoonish restaurant chain Chuck E Cheese’s. (As Tiffany Jenkins has pointed out, the same problems plague today’s anthropology and art institutions as well, not to mention aquariums and zoos.)

Now, while I think most denizens of the developed world could use a little less entertainment time, I have nothing against a little entertainment now and then. Disney World is explicitly an amusement park. Fine. But does the entire world need to become one also?

Each cultural institution should in appearance, function, and mission perform what each is uniquely well-suited for and that which it develops organically in person, through relationships, over time. No matter how hard it tries, my library is never going to be an especially good school, social welfare office, or video gaming nexus. Nor should it try. A library is about developing the intellectual culture of local citizens specifically through print-based literacy. It should do that thing very well.

No matter how hard it tries, our zoo is never going to be Disney World, nor should it be. A zoo is about — wait for it — animals. Animals are endlessly fascinating in their own right, as any scientist (or curious person) could tell you. They do not need to be painted up into cartoon creatures in order to generate the interest of any truly human being of any age. Zoo keepers, of all people, should know this, and celebrate it. They should teach people to learn about animals on their own terms.

No matter how hard it tries, our zoo is never going to be Disney World, nor should it be.

Another thing about all this glam: it’s extremely expensive. The Sistine Chapel burlesque cost $11 million and “years of planning,” says The New York Times. Rows and rows of computers and software licenses, and the constant replacements and updates for them, cost our library a pretty penny. Our zoo spent millions of donor dollars doing “upgrades” that turned out to degrade their environment and mission.

What if, instead, these institutions spent a little more on people and a little less on stuff? Instead of wigging out on psychedelic environments, perhaps they could spend some more money hiring and training staff to engage visitors more deeply, to develop relationships between them, other visitors, and the material at hand. Education philosopher and teacher Charlotte Mason wrote incisively more than a hundred years ago that education is “the science of relations.” She meant that human beings grow precisely as a result of learning to place every bit of the world in proper relation to every other bit, including ourselves. This is a lot of deeply interpersonal work, and it takes a long time.

In fact, developing our mental, spiritual, and physical ecosystems is the substance of a well-lived life. Discovering and communicating what we discover about the good life is the substance of culture itself, and thus should be the pursuit of institutions that claim dedication to it. This is what it means to be, and become, human: to relate ourselves to the world, and its creator, to deepen, strengthen, develop those relations. Now, of course physical objects like waterslides, pretend fairylands, and cartoons are part of this world, and so is a bit of silly fun now and then.

But that’s not all it is. A Disney-like environment is indeed part of human invention, and therefore humanity itself, but it needs to remain in its place. It is not all of creation. There is so much more. By expanding the Disney aspect of life far beyond the space it ought to fill, we diminish the other aspects of life. We cut into their proper domains. And diminishing and distorting them ultimately diminishes and distorts ourselves.