A Mouse of Many Different Faces

MICKEY Mouse is a lover of the arts, particularly music; of that there is no doubt. And he is also himself an art object - the subject not only of the adaptable and nimble fingers of Disney animators down the years since his initial formation by Ub Iwerks -

but also, since the Pop Art of the 1960s at least, the victim of a vast surge of ``interpretations'' by ``real artists.''

In his entertaining introduction to ``The Art of Mickey Mouse,'' which publishes an impressive selection of Mickey images parading as art, novelist John Updike points out that Mickey was ``iconic'' from the start, with a feel of the Chaplin little guy to him. ``His circular ears,'' writes Updike, ``like two minimal cents, bespeak the smallest economic unit, the overlookable democratic man.''

Updike reckons that as a star, Mickey Mouse was more or less through by 1940. He adds: ``But, as with Marilyn Monroe when her career was over, his life as an icon gathered strength. The America that is not symbolized by that imperial Yankee Uncle Sam is symbolized by Mickey Mouse. He is America as it feels to itself - plucky, put-on, inventive, resilient, good-natured, game.''

Two artists who early converted the Mouse into the stuff of their art are strangely absent from this otherwise extensive book -

Roy Lichtenstein and Claes Oldenburg - though Updike does pay tribute to the latter. But Andy Warhol is here, ubiquitous as ever, and Wayne Thiebaud, Eduardo Paolozzi, Keith Haring, and several other ``names.'' But the body of the illustrations are by comparatively lesser-known artists, and probably none the worse for that. Their images range from the amusement-provoking to the trite, with lots of fun and laughter in between. My own favorites include Shelley Browning's funny ``Noah's Ark,'' the animals approaching the safe boat two-by-two with Mickey and Minnie driving up in a pink cadillac. And William Stout and Jim Steinmeyer's very witty ``Evolution of a Mouse'' from ``single cell Mickey'' via ``Mickosaurus,'' ``Neandermick,'' and an infant ``Mickey Sapiens'' to today's man-mouse with his cellular phone. The whole thing amounts to a bright little celebration (with a parallel absence of iconoclasm) of the ``pretty nice fellow ... who always comes up grinning'' that Disney inspired and promoted. At no point do these pictures challenge Mickey's original status as one of the most extraordinary inventions that the film industry has so far spawned.

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