From the Inside-Out: Banksy and The Simpsons
Animated TV series The Simpsons is an anomaly within the contemporary media world. Presenting a satirical view on American life, its longevity and continued relevance to popular culture is perhaps the most unique thing about it. It’s the longest running American sitcom in history (1989-present) and to a large extent, has shaped and nurtured audiences’s skills in decoding and understanding self- and meta-reference (Keazor, 2011). Its popularity and self-reflexivity alone is an outstanding contribution to the Creative Industries.
Before we delve deeper it is important to first clarify the term Popular Culture and understand why The Simpsons could be considered a classic postmodern example. In his book, Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction, Storey (2014) identifies six areas of conversation that help us decipher this concept. I say “conversation”, because in no terms can we completely rely on one, absolute definition of such a broad ideology.
The first and obvious definition is through data and numbers. Through popularity- a large amount of people, documented through TV ratings of millions of viewers, have been proven to watch the show. Storey adds that popular culture is not high culture, in that it is not difficult for the broader public to source or obtain. He also identifies popular culture as being postmodern. Given that art of the 20th century has redefined visual art forms, The Simpsons is postmodern art because it rejects the traditional values and politically conservative assumptions of its predecessors and utilizes postmodernist techniques such as intertextuality and metafiction (Padiernos, 2018).
Popular culture can also be seen to “belong to the people”, often described as folk culture, or perhaps be a site of Hegemonic Struggle, which is the way in which dominate groups in society seek to win the consent of subordinate groups. I would add that popular culture is not just a group of texts or media objects such as novels, movies and music. It is a process that takes place between the audience and the Culture Industry, a term first coined by Theodor Adorno that refers to the set of organisations, businesses and institutions that produce popular culture as an industry, with the sole purpose of mass reproduction and making money. In part- Capitalism.
Adorno and Horkheimer (1993), both key theorists from The Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, argue that power is an absolute, all encompassing force, driven by capitalism. Culture is an important site where power in society is demonstrated and the goal is no longer to evoke truth with art, but rather become a vehicle to entertain and control society. Art is standardised, predictable and propagated by the Culture Industry.
In its nearly 27 year run, The Simpsons has not only evolved in tandem with the changes in the television industry, it has also led the way for blockbuster film strategies, a result that emerged from the Fox network and Rupert Murdoch era. The series provides a blueprint for how a contemporary franchise can expand into new media arenas, from CD recordings to the DVD explosion in the late 1990s, comic books, streaming platforms, and iPhone mobile apps. The Simpsons is a corporate product that exemplifies the time period from which it emerged. (Tait, 2016).
German art critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin argues that as art becomes more reproductive, it becomes less dependent on ritual and more dependent on politics (2008). Politics points to the future, persuasion and deliberation which differs from the singular cultish past, where art exists on its own with authenticity and “Aura”. Mass reproduction of art is made for exhibition in mind, to be seen by the masses. This very much ties into our definitions of popular culture and indeed the whole Simpsons franchise.
In 2010, Executive Producer Al Jean reached out to infamous street artist Banksy to direct what would be the first of many collaborative and iconic opening sequences for the The Simpsons.
“Bansky has achieved international notoriety for his work, largely satirical stencils that have appeared on walls and monuments across the world, critiquing everything from war and capitalism to global warming and cultural imperialism” (Lamb, 2011).
Armed with a spray can and stencil, Banksy has staged a series of increasingly audacious and subversive works that have attracted international media attention.
The Simpsons sequence created by Bansky, critiques the globalization of the series with stereotypical Asian workers doing cel animation by hand, surrounded by hazardous chemicals and cheap child labour stuffing Bart Simpson dolls with with rabbit fur. In a nod to our Marxist theorists from the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, we are then faced with a demoralised unicorn punching holes in DVDs and a dismembered dolphin sealing boxes with a wet tongue. The sad truth of mass reproduction is revealed and the standardisation propagated by our art for the masses to consume is complete.
Here Banksy has questioned the very ethics by which the show was created. He demonstrates the fine line the franchise threads in engaging audiences and delivering profits to its corporate parents.
“The sequence works precisely because it doesn’t offer its own answers, instead posing a whole slew of questions” (Tait, 2016). Moreover, the sequence’s use of peppy music provides the occasion for viewers to pause and ask important questions about the state of corporate global capital and The Simpsons role with in that.
I see a very fine line here between high and low culture. In some ways this is an intelligent, self reflecting piece making a critical inquiry on its own powers that be. It’s almost humiliating for the very audience that has made the show successful. In another sense this statement is packaged for the masses, of which most would not recognise or understand the intended criticism and reflection Banksy is trying to make. A classic postmodern example of popular culture with no regard for either the high or low.
The same can be said for Banksy himself. The transition of street artists to galleries and the art market has been a point of contention (Williams, 2015). Street artists now face the challenge of trying to maintain their integrity when they challenge consumerism on the streets because they are actively partaking in and benefiting from the art market. However, street artists must grasp the opportunity to infiltrate the social structure and critique this consumerism from the inside-out.
Banksy (2002). Girl with Balloon [Image]. (n.d). Retrieved from: https://publicdelivery.org/banksy-girl-with-red-balloon/
Benjamin, W. (2008). The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction (J. A. Underwood, Trans.). Penguin Books.
Horkheimer, M., & Adorno, T. W. (1993). The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception. In Dialectic of enlightenment, (pp. 120–167). New York: Continuum.
Keazor, H. (2011). “ “The Stuff You May Have Missed” Art, Film and Metareference in The Simpsons”. In The Metareferential Turn in Contemporary Arts and Media. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill. doi: https://doi.org/10.1163/9789401200691_019
Lamb, B. (2011). Spray-painting the town gold: Art vs. commerce in exit through the gift shop. Screen Education, (62), 86–91. Retrieved from https://www-proquest-com.saeezproxy.idm.oclc.org/scholarly-journals/spray-painting-town-gold-art-vs-commerce-exit/docview/1267117016/se-2?accountid=145504
Padiernos, P. (2018). The Simpsons: A Postmodernist Masterpiece. Retrieved from:https://padiernospatrick.medium.com/the-simpsons-a-postmodernist-masterpiece-e8c639326425
Storey, J. (2014). What is popular culture? In Cultural theory and popular culture: An introduction, (pp. 1–15). Harlow, England: Pearson Longman.
Tait, R. C. (2016). The simpsons as a blockbuster transmedia franchise. The Projector, 16(1), 39–55. Retrieved from https://www-proquest-com.saeezproxy.idm.oclc.org/scholarly-journals/simpsons-as-blockbuster-transmedia-franchise/docview/2042700884/se-2?accountid=145504
The Simpsons. (2015, November 8). The Simpsons — Banksy [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sSU1IJk70i4
Williams, M. A. (2015). Methodologies of the creatively maladjusted (dissertation). Washington University.