An ineffective truth

It is Sunday, and like so many other Sundays in America, Bart Simpson has written something irreverent on the chalkboard in his empty classroom.

It is Sunday, and like so many other Sundays in America, Bart Simpson has written something irreverent on the chalkboard in his empty classroom. Exiting the school with his signature skateboard, he makes his way through the town of Springfield and its many characters. Across town, his father is leaving work, two hours ahead of the nine-to-five traffic. Thirty-four seconds into our weekly time with the Simpson family they coalesce on the living room couch and, in front of their television, they become the very model of our consumer selves, rushing from reality to fantasy, constantly in peril throughout their journey, until at last safety is reached on the couch.

It is, of course, fantasy. However, on this particular Sunday, Bart Simpson isn’t the only make-believe character making attempts at irreverence. The anonymous and controversial English graffiti artist Banksy, whom some believe to be the alias of one Robin Gunningham, was invited by “The Simpsons” producers to direct this particular opening sequence. It is at this point, 35 seconds into the usual narrative, that the artist and social critic well and truly hijacks the traditional weekly couch gag for his own brand of cultural repurposing.

America’s most beloved animated family fades into the background of a decidedly Orwellian rendering of Korean animators slavishly creating cells for “The Simpsons.” The inhabitants of this cruel world toil and suffer in a literal boneyard of inequity, working amongst dangerous chemicals and even more dangerous hyperbole. If there is a Korean word for irony, one can assume that it was well used by the animators of Banksy’s opening sequence for “The Simpsons.”

The nightmare continues with children creating Simpsons merchandise, which is then carted away by sad, abused pandas. Devoid of sympathy as well as self-adhesive tape, cruel hands manipulate decapitated dolphin tongues to seal boxes of merchandise, clearly bound for western shores.

Next, we learn of the poor working conditions which unicorns are forced to endure in Asia. The unicorn dies a lonely death, not unlike that of the truly creative dissent, as we pan to the ominous 20th Century Fox logo, towering over a world that has been shackled and fenced in.

Regardless of how derivative in nature it is, this bit of cultural criticism which Banksy has given the world is important—because its critique raises the question of how effective social criticism can be against capitalism in our age.

“I’ve seen Banksy’s Simpson’s thing,” said media critic Naomi Klein, via Twitter. “It’s brilliant. Still, can’t help despair at capitalism’s ability to absorb all critiques.”

There are, however, some important distinctions to be made about the nature of Banksy’s criticism and capitalism’s ability to absorb them. The first is that Banksy is an anonymous figure. Though the New Yorker, The Times of London and other publications have made efforts to identify the artist known as Banksy, his agent continues to refuse to confirm the identity of his client. This means that Banksy occupies a space that has more in common with a brand than with a persona. His art, his subversive acts and even his name and graffiti tag are all elements of successful branding. Banksy is not a man. He is a business. He has several books in print, a film that premiered at Sundance Film Festival this year and his works of graffiti art have sold at auction for more than £100,000.

The second important distinction, which Naomi Klein does not take into account when assessing Banksy’s failure to effectively communicate his dissent, is that he has built into his brand the role of a subversive outsider. By conforming to the standards of traditional media and aligning himself with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, which owns 20th Century Fox, he has diluted the intensity with which viewers are capable of responding to his brand’s message.

To further complicate matters, he is communicating outside of his medium, in a cross-brand platform with the Simpson’s, where he is subject to the emotional relationship that Matt Groening’s cartoon has developed with its audience. In other words, the audience belongs to them, not to Banksy. His brand is merely a visitor in Mr. Murdoch’s neighborhood.

Banksy’s abortive criticism may or may not indicate an inability to effectively critique capitalism in our era. What it certainly does indicate is that Marshall Mcluhan was absolutely correct when he said, “The medium is the message” in 1964.

Banksy may have decided for himself what to write on the proverbial chalkboard, but it was Rupert Murdoch who allowed him to write it. Perhaps he knew that the classroom would be empty. ?