Artistic Genius – Leonardo daVinci and Walt Disney

Artistic Genius – Leonardo daVinci and Walt Disney


Our society is moving toward a view of artistic genius that’s both new and old. It’s new in the sense that truly incredible tools and technologies are now available for creative work. It’s old because our present view of the artist’s place in society has much more in common with the Middle Ages or the Renaissance than with the 19th or early 20th centuries.

To make this clear, and to help you connect with the creative elements in your own character — which you may or may not have recognized in the past — our focus in this session is on two true geniuses who really exemplified the times in which they lived. One of these men is Leonardo daVinci who, along with Michelangelo, is generally recognized as the quintessential artist of the Renaissance. Our second artistic genius is Walt Disney — and he occupies more or less the same position in our time that Leonardo occupied in his. Disney was the Leonardo of the 20th century.

Here at the start of the 21st century, we’re getting rid of the idea that a creative person is someone who wears a beret and lives in a garret. The model of the isolated artist won’t work anymore — and neither will the model of the corporate person who wants to work forty years for one company and then collect a big pension. In this sense, both Leonardo and Disney are probably much more relevant to the circumstance of your life than you might think.

Leonardo was born in the small Italian town of Vinci, in the year 1452. He began life with certain obvious advantages, and also some disadvantages. His father was a rather wealthy country gentleman. His mother, however, was a servant girl whom his father had no intention of marrying. In later life he would describe himself as a “man with no education.”

When he was about 14 years old, Leonardo was sent to Florence to become an apprentice in the studio of a prominent artist. The artist’s name was Andrea del Verrocchio, and he was both a painter and a sculptor. Leonardo learned a lot from this first master. And around 1470, after being with Verrocchio for about four years, Leonardo got a big break. He was assigned to paint an angel in the corner of one of Verrocchio’s major commissioned works. According to legend, when Verrocchio saw the angel he realized it was infinitely better than the rest of the painting. In fact, it was so much better than anything Verrocchio had ever done that he gave up painting forever, right then and there. This legend may or may not be true, but the young artist from the countryside was definitely on his way.

In 1901, about 450 years after the birth of Leonardo, Walt Disney was born in Chicago, Illinois. His home life and childhood were far from the idealized turn of the century landscape he would later create at Disneyland. His father in particular was a difficult man emotionally, and an unsuccessful one financially. Walt found a couple of different ways to escape from this environment. First, he escaped into art, taking classes and drawing whenever he could. Second, he enlisted in the Red Cross ambulance service during the First World War, because at the age of 16 he was too young to join the regular army.

After the war, Disney went to Kansas City, and began a career as a commercial artist. There he discovered animation, and the all the possibilities it offered for creating an alternate world. At first, this world was constructed out of pure imagination. Later it would be projected onto movie screens and television — and ultimately it would become physical reality at Disneyland and Disney World. It would become the basis for a multi-billion dollar entertainment empire.

Right now, as the most basic element of modeling artistic genius, I’d like you to recognize exactly what artistic genius is. It’s simply taking a picture that’s in your heart and using some medium to move it into the hearts of other people. It doesn’t matter what that picture is, and — at least initially — it doesn’t matter how technically adept you are with the medium you’ve chosen.

Leonardo had incredible technical skill. His ability for drawing and sculpture was truly superhuman, and he was also extremely adept at the mechanical and engineering tasks demanded by large scale creative work.

Walt Disney had nothing like Leonardo’s gifts as an artist. There were thousands of people who could draw better than Walt Disney — and when he entered the new field of animation, there were lots of people who were better at that as well. When we look back on it today, it’s easy to think that Mickey Mouse was some sort of breakthrough creation that was destined to revolutionize the world. But there were other cartoon characters that were already very popular, and that were just as charming and creative as the Mouse. For example, what was wrong with Felix the Cat? Why is he forgotten today? Why wasn’t there a television show called the Felix the Cat Club instead of the Mickey Mouse Club?

One big difference, perhaps the big difference, was that behind Mickey Mouse there was a personality whose genius was to take this very little mouse and to make it extremely large. To take something that at first had no substance — no reality — and to give it material being on a scale that kept getting larger and larger.

For your own life, the example of Disney as artistic genius is especially relevant. While it’s possible that you may patent thousands of inventions or become president of the United States, the odds are against it, but on a smaller scale, the tools of artistic genius are always available to you.

What does it take to use those tools? It’s simply a matter of taking the vision that’s in your mind and moving it into the world in some tangible form. It’s taking your vision one step beyond just talking about how you’ll write it or record it or film it “when you get time.”  Taking that step is the essence of artistic genius. Don’t worry about whether your creation will be seen by one person, or a million people, or just by you alone.  Focusing on those things — like saying you “don’t have the time” — is just an unconscious way to avoid actually doing anything. The important thing is to separate yourself from the many, many people who tell me they’ve got something they want to say, but who never get around to saying it.

Thank you for joining me in this discussion of artistic genius, and of how it expressed itself in two very different personalities across the centuries.