"All Your Subversion Are Belong to Culture Industry" (That Means You Too, Banksy!)

Curator's Note

 Not long ago, the Internet was ablaze with talk of guerrilla artist Banksy’s contribution of a particularly-biting intro to "The Simpsons." It was witty and dark and had enslaved unicorns poking holes in Simpsons DVD’s. In Media Res offered a great commentary on the show’s intro, demonstrating how a hyperbolic depiction of the exploitation of its own animators, while obviously fantastic, represents the mystification of the process of cultural production. Because if one thing has defined primetime animation it is its (often self-implicating) satire of contemporary society. However, the conversation I hope to start is less concerned with that satire and more with our reception of it. How are we to read both Banksy’s piece—and our reading of the piece—in the context of a society in which no expression is exempt from institutional appropriation? Is it true--as the ancient maxim suggests—that “all our subversion are belong to culture industry”?

Seemingly endless panels, publications and conversations dedicated to The Simpsons and South Park’s anarchic wit is evidence of the scholarly cache of such animated cultural critiques. (I’m finishing up this post while attending a conference in which arguments will be made, mine included, of the political significance of pop culture).

The catch, though—and the self-referentiality that Banksy employs in the couch gag draws attention to this—is that our spectatorship of the intro implicates us in this exploitive process of cultural production and only increases the exposure and therefore the wallets of those responsible for such exploitation. I understand that Simpsons producers have denied the reality of any such working conditions. But I don’t know that whether or not those specific outsourced laborers are being mistreated is the point. Rather, it's that such mistreatment—and even the most biting critiques of it—have become a spectacle for us to consume.

I acknowledge that this Marxian argument will be viewed by many as passé. The monolithic political-economic power of Big Brother/The Matrix/insert-your-preferred-dystopian-future-superpower-here may not seem to fit a contemporary society characterized by such radical change (and recent revolution). And it’s trendy (and easy) to celebrate the supposedly revolutionary potential of Twitter, fan-fiction and graffiti art. But I think there is some value in asking whether in our blogging, paneling, tweeting, presenting and publishing, we are complicit in the perpetuation of the very issues that we hope to address? Banksy’s trying to be self-aware in this respect. Are we?


 Banksy's couch gag was by far the grimmest, haunting sequence ever to open The Simpsons. Even so, I can't help but feel that it kind of made light of the harsh realities of exploitive working conditions (through no fault of Banksy). I feel that with a show that's so entrenched in satire and subtle humor as The Simpsons is, serious issues get lost in the punch lines.

Thoughtful post Benjamin. I like your meditation on how Banksy's "reveal" of the hidden abode is served up for our consumption. Especially given that Banksy's "Exit From the Gift Shop" was beat out for the Oscar by the more earnest "Inside Job" which lays a conspiracy at the feet of the morally bankrupt at the top of the financial system, presumably for manipulating the *passive* consumer at the bottom. In such a villain/victim scenario, the underlying system of capitalism (in which we are all participants) gets off scott-free. Not to mention that the top-down logic recalls the magic bullet theory of communication so vigourously apposed by many a cultural studies theorist.

In the end, all this opening sequence can really do is cause people to ask questions. Beginning with, “Why is this so long?”, the questions will begin to narrow in close analysis of the absolute ridiculousness happenings portrayed. One must begin to ask what the unicorn is doing at all (knowing that unicorns are up-and-coming as cultural icons) to end at the reasoning that though what we are seeing is grimly over-toned, the appropriation is real. Everything we like or are thought to like is eventually fed into the corporate machine and shot back at us until we are puking resentment. Pop culture begins in the cult/underground, but there are so many willing parties that love a greater community that eventually, we will have to relinquish the things we shelter to the mundane masses. They pay the tab, anyway.


It is important to remember that this is different from Banksy’s work in one critical way - he was working with the owner of what he was ‘defacing’. Most of his other works involve working on something in secret, without any kind of consent. But to pull off the couch opening, he would need sign off from head writers. So no matter how ‘anti-corporation’, or more specifically, how anti-fox his involvement on the couch gag was the executives he was ‘attacking’ were all too happy to allow the intro onto the show. The executives didn’t think that seeing this would motivate the viewing public to do anything. I hope that the viewing public proves them wrong.

Brinky’s overall work in itself is an example of how “no expression is exempt from institutional appropriation.” His work defies and questions authority, but it has also created a following and has “become a spectacle for us to consume”. As much as his art expresses a counter culture stance, its growing fan base has given it the exposure that has turned his counter-culture art into a “cultural commodity.” 

His awareness of this appropriation is evident in his willingness to work with the show and Fox. The “couch gag” doesn’t only reflect the how The Simpsons have come to be part of the assembly-line, but it also shows how his own work and “name” has become a sought after brand. Although the show’s large following directs Brinky’s radical commentary into becoming more of a spectacle, it also leaves room for him to throw American consumerism back into the faces of the consumers.

As far as Fox goes, they will not censor anything that will further enlarge their ratings.Allowing an animated series (amongst others) to take stabs at their own network allows them to target and gain viewership form a more radically inclined audience, but the use of animation as a space for social commentary often undermines the possible impact on the audience.

I agree with the last posting in that animation provides a space for the undermining of social tropes. The Simpsons is a tremendous figure in Prime Time Television for its comedic legacy and social commentary. The communal response to Banksys intro for this episode in my opinion is derived from the value felt in the comedic integrity of the show itself. I myself felt relieved that after so many years on the air The Simpsons still considers comedy to be the highest priority. Further, for the show to publicly make fun of itself in such away giving itself to the publics most secretive and urban figure presents its flexibility with satire. The Simpsons is a social brand and has been sold as such. It is refreshing and more intellectually gratifying when such a statement is made through media content. The blending of urban art form and televisual media addresses the viewers on a more stimulating level than most television programs.

 When I saw this intro, I thought to myself that the conditions of these workers are probably exaggerated.  Not just in a fantastical sense, but by the very conditions of the intro’s meanings.  As a graffiti and cultural artist, Banksy is not simply expressing his concerns for the Korean animators of the show (or even at all), but he is showing a self-awareness of his own power.  Whether or not the animators actually suffer, the beliefs and endless discussions the video brings will drive the point home.

            Banksy’s Simpsons intro is full of satire in every brief “scene”.  Irony is expressed from Bart writing on the walls while telling himself not to, to Homer’s uranium falling into his own protective suit.  In watching the laborers, I found it interesting how these Asian “yellow” people were colored grey while working to produce these literally “yellow” American figures sitting on a couch…viewing their creators.  This kind of rhetorical imagery hints at the magic of cultural author-audience communication.  We see this exploitative piece (about exploitation) grabbing our attention, and then we re-Tweet it, write about it, blog it, and even blast others on the youtube comments.

            In doing this, we satirize ourselves.  The cultural works that are put up by artists such as Banksy have a subversive message about the world/media at large.  The more powerful and naturalized media is often rejected or exposed by independent cultural works (such as the music video “Read a Book” by D’Mite).  However, these independent cultural works, with popularity, take up this power and become the very imagery their content critiques.  We viewers, in agreement or disagreement, post this material, complete with our thoughts, to our own audiences (twitter followers, friends, etc.).  In thinking of our own commentary as newsworthy and “to be shown”, we renew the cycle of spectacle and subversion without even thinking about it.  It is this irony that is traced back to the content shown in Banksy’s Simpsons intro.   

I think the timing and placement of Banksy's guest contribution lend credence to Benajmin's idea that these kind of subversive moments are sort of meaningless in that they work to capitalize off of the spectacle of subjects like slave labor and poor working conditions. Had this intro been played 12 years ago it would have been different. Before South Park and Family Guy and American Dad, there was much less of a tradition for prime-time cartoon programming to venture into dark thematic territory. After South Park has crossed topics like incest, genocide, molestation, and stark anti-semitism with their trade-mark cavalier sense of humor, The Simpsons began to seem less and less like a fresh satirical voice. After The Simpsons movie, the intro credits  and general production value received makeovers. At this point it seems to me like a marketing plow to pull eyes. And regardless of the subject matter, Banksy's persona was the pull for audiences who tuned in after hearing about his contribution. The stark (for The Simpsons) images in the Banksy sequence are much like the more painful moments in Southpark, and to me its always felt like a marketing ploy rather than any kind of counterpublic moment.


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