The Canonization of Warner Brothers Cartoons, or How Bugs Bunny Came to the Museum of Modern Art

By Mikulak, William A. | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

The Canonization of Warner Brothers Cartoons, or How Bugs Bunny Came to the Museum of Modern Art


Mikulak, William A., Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


In 1985, the Museum of Modern Art in New York was the first major art museum in the United States to launch an extended exhibition of art works from the cartoons produced by the Warner Brothers studio. Entitled "Warner Bros. Cartoons Golden Jubilee," it opened with a black tie invitation-only tribute to surviving animation directors Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng in September and continued into January 1986 with 17 programs of cartoons screened as weekend matinees. The physical installation, called "That's Not All, Folks," consisted of handsomely framed animation cels, background art, character sketches, and video monitors showing interviews with Warner Brothers artists. In addition, Jones drew on the walls such stars as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Porky Pig, giving running commentaries on the exhibit itself. Sharing sponsorship of the exhibit were Warner Brothers1 Licensing Corporation of America, and ABC Television, whose commercial tie-ins included videocassettes, character merchandise, and television shows (Putzer 22).

The Warner Brothers exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art typifies how popular and elite art worlds negotiate profitability and cultural authority in selecting certain items of popular culture for aesthetic and economic appreciation. The key negotiators for this exhibit were the curators, the corporate representatives, and the arts journalists who provided news coverage and critical reviews. In contrast, the role of the artists in the negotiations was quite limited and peripheral; their cooperation was beneficial but unnecessary to the proceedings.

In order to examine the roles of the above art world participants in the exhibit, I turn to Howard Becker's Art Worlds, which provides a framework drawn from occupational sociology. He distinguishes among art world members on the basis of their commitments to the activities necessary to sustain cycles of artistic production and consumption, e.g. commitments of time, labor, money, professional reputation, and artistic training (2-5). Becker states that competition for limited resources requires individuals to cooperate in forming social organizations to better claim those resources and to deny legitimacy to other claimants (134-5). When such organizations as art schools, galleries, museums, journals, and arts patrons make demands on those with whom they share their resources, they also offer an opportunity to invest in their traditions and reputations (93-130). These investments may cause some members to identify with the organization of which they are a part, even if theirs is only a temporary alliance (81-2).

Pierre Bourdieu argues that these investments are exposed in expressions of taste, which "classify the classifier" (6). Critics perform this role professionally, stating openly what connoisseurs merely need imply through consumption, namely, the evaluative criteria by which they judge. Ideally, the critics' orientations to the reader, the artist, and the art world in which they work reveal the institutional investments they have made; however, they are likely to be reticent about those investments made in them by organizations seeking favorable reviews because that would call into question the independence of their judgments (English 99-107).

In order to examine the role of critics in this particular exhibit, it is helpful first to look at some reviews of Warner Brothers animation compilation features that were released in the preceding years. The first compilation, Bugs Bunny Superstar (1975), garnered the most positive press among newspaper writers, who often mentioned the chance it offered for adults to enjoy these classic cartoons on the big screen (Dyer; Gross; Hartl). Reviewers noted the brashness of the characters, the pointed parodies of the Oscar ceremonies and Disney's Fantasia, the quality of the full animation, and the wide ranging sources of humor (Canby; Nachman; McCollum). They also bemoaned the bland assembly line of Saturday morning limited animation in contrast to the vividness of the old Warner Brothers cartoons ("Bugs Bunny"; Hammen; "Reviving Warners' Wacky Wabbit"). …

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