Tim Burton Exhibit at MoMA: Publicity Ploy or Actual Art?

With over 700 works on display spanning his artistic life, MoMA's Tim Burton career retrospective is more than a commercial appeal, but an example of art for popular culture.

The entrance is a monster mouth -- a giant goblin face with kooky, off-kilter eyes that simultaneously look amused and hungry. Shocks of scraggly, carnival freak show hair sprout from the top of the mouth, and the long, unevenly spaced teeth hang down, beset on each side by swirly concentric circle pockmarks on its cheeks. A red carpet is a tongue, lolled out of the monster’s throat –- a long alternating hallway of black-and-white stripes -- that lead into a belly full of wondrous, beautiful, quirky and macabre items.

The monster mouth is the entrance to the Tim Burton career retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and I’ve never felt more welcomed into an art exhibit.

According to MoMA, the exhibit -- which opened last week and runs through 2 April 2010 -- combines more than 700 examples of the filmmaker, artist, illustrator and writer’s “sketchbooks, concept art, drawings, paintings, photographs and a selection of his amateur films.” Sponsored by the Syfy channel, the exhibit tracks Burton’s work not just through his movies, but by beginning with his childhood in Burbank, Calififornia, and following his creative development across medium. It is the museum’s largest exhibition devoted to a single filmmaker and also includes a film retrospective of Burton’s work and of the films that inspired him.

But most of Burton’s work has taken place within the realm of pop culture. When a cultural institution of such esteem as MoMA displays Batman cowl props, big-green brained Martian models or tuxedoed Disney claymation skeletons along with countless cocktail napkin doodles and oddball photos –- all backed by Danny Elfman’s scary circus soundtrack -- there will be grumbles that commercialism and publicity have supplanted actual art.

At only 51 years-old, Burton has had a prolific 27-year career where he has given life to many creatures that dwell in our mindscape, while also giving our brains new fodder to keep the imagination active. So does his work constitute “actual art”? That depends on the relationship we think the consumer should hope for with the producer.

Although I first encountered his work when he was toiling for Disney as an animator on The Fox and the Hound, it wasn’t until 1985’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure that I discovered the Burton aesthetic. Even at seven-years-old, I connected to the ridiculously gruesome, intentionally cheesy and over-the-top visuals. Perhaps primed by an early love for Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Addams, I was immediately entranced by the weird, macabre humor of his world. By the time Beetlejuice was released, Tim Burton joined Spielberg, Lucas and Hitchcock as the very few director names I knew.

I was an avid comic book reader when Burton got the Batman gig and it was one of the first film projects I followed from early on, and the first opening night movie event I attended. Before it was co-opted by goth kids and early emos, back when it was a pariah in the Mouse House, I knew every lyric to The Nightmare Before Christmas. I continue to defend Batman Returns as an excellent comic book camp flick, and my Burton fascination was so well known I received four copies of The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy & Other Stories the Christmas following the book’s release, of which I kept the one from a special girl and still return to it from time to time. It was a thankless task getting friends to see Mars Attacks in a practically empty theater in 1996, and the humor seemed to reach me alone.

After a 24-year connection to the work of Tim Burton, I don’t know if I’m a fan or an art enthusiast. Yet, to borrow a phrase from the Joker from Burton’s 1989 movie Batman, I don’t know if it’s art, but I like it.

Burton’s work is personal with a popular appeal. As is I’m sure is the case with others, it resonates with me and elicits a response in a similar way as other favorites of mine like Dali, Magritte and Ensor -– or even Addams, Gorey and Steadman for that matter. And that response represents my best hope for art.

So even if pop culture gets the museum more traffic, big deal. Hopefully people will go for the Burton, and stay for the Picasso at MoMA. But even if they’re just showing up to “ooh, aww” at a Pumpkin King scarecrow, giant sandworm head or even a caped crusader cowl, there will likely be a connection. I don’t know if that’s art, but I like it.

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