Banksy Gets Bankrolled by “The Simpsons”
Banksy is recognized for his mostly black-and-white, stenciling technique resembling that of fellow American artist Shepard “Hope” Fairey and old Soviet propaganda posters. His painted scenes advocate the panoply of progressive causes, such as pushing for health care reform, climate change legislation, nature, and peace; bemoaning war, the police, corporate control, the commodification of art, poverty, the displacement of Native Americans, and Hurricane Katrina; and idolizing Charles Manson. A recent series of wall paintings on the Israel-Palestinian border protested security measures Israel took to protect itself against suicide bombers.
To commemorate the Copenhagen Climate Summit in November 2009, Banksy painted four murals along Regent’s Canal in London, one of which declared “I DON’T BELIEVE IN GLOBAL WARMING” in red letters, the last two words partly submerged below the water line. This was supposed to be a statement about man-made climate change, and while it likely had little impact, it arguably yielded more efficacious results than the summit itself.
Recently Banksy was invited to help storyboard the introductory “couch gag” for “The Simpsons,” which aired last Sunday.
The opening credit sequence begins with a few clues foreshadowing the Banksy material. The bird that flies across the screen in the opening shot is carrying a rat, one of Banksy’s favorite icons. “BANKSY” is spray painted over a billboard advertising Krusty the Klown’s funeral business. Bart is writing “I must not write all over the walls” all over the chalkboard and walls of the classroom. “BANKSY” is tagged on the wall outside the school.
After the Simpsons sit down in their living room, the familiar couch scene pans out and becomes a color image on the wall of a dreary, black-and-white factory. Rows of forlorn, sickly Chinese women slave away hand-painting animation cels, while guards stand by and a sorrowful Communist-sounding melody with a chorus of wailing voices serenades them. The completed frames are passed to a barefooted waif who carries them one-by-one to an oil drum, climbs to the top of the drum, and dips them in a bubbling, green, toxic substance to preserve them before hanging them on a clothesline to dry. On the ground are a pile of human skulls and bones; a rat pulls out one bone and drags it away.
The camera pans through a hole in the floor to an elaborate, multilevel, wooden walkway leading downward into the cave-like depths of the factory. Children push racks of brightly colored Simpsons T-shirts along the walkway, sparsely placed candles their only lighting.
In the basement, workers throw live caged kittens into a shredding machine that turns them into stuffing, which another worker uses to fill cloth Bart Simpson dolls. The worker tosses the dolls into a wheelbarrow attached to a decrepit-looking panda, which wearily hauls the boxes away.
A man uses a primitive sealing device, consisting of the jaw and tongue of a massacred porpoise, to close up boxes of merchandise for shipment. Finally, a child pokes holes through the centers of Simpsons DVDs using a sharp post that turns out to be the horn of a chained unicorn, which flops to the ground in exhaustion.
The view pans out to a dreary 20th Century Fox logo made of stained limestone instead of the traditional gold, and flanked by tall, barbed-wire-topped chain-link fences.
There’s so much to laugh at in this ludicrously over-the-top montage that it’s hard to know where to start. First of all, “The Simpsons” outsources most of its animation to free presidential republic South Korea, not communist state China. Executive producer Al Jean pointed out for the literal-minded, “I have to say, [Banksy’s opening is] very fanciful, far-fetched. None of the things he depicts are true. That statement should be self-evident, but I will emphatically state it.” (Meanwhile, The New York Times is covering up for its latest Jayson Blair protégé in the Foreign Affairs section, who saw the intro and wrote a story on sweatshops grounded in his “on location” reporting.)
In addition, there’s the hypocrisy inherent in the fact that Banksy, who once declared, “We can’t do anything to change the world until capitalism crumbles,” sells reproductions of hundreds of his works and uses various agents to represent his monetary interests. Banksy is reportedly 36 years old, but demonstrates all the maturity and consistency of an 18-year-old trust fund brat who joins the college socialism club his freshman year.
Banksy ignores other unexamined questions and assumptions implicit in his work. Who, for example, is responsible for working and living conditions being so awful in the China he depicts—the United States or the Communist Chinese government? What other horrific jobs would these workers be doing, and for how much less money, if they weren’t painting cartoons and dying images on Simpsons T-shirts for an American company?
Did these workers take these jobs voluntarily, or were they forced into them through slavery? Are they free to leave at any time, if factory conditions are so horrendous or if they think they can find better, higher paying work elsewhere? Doesn’t the fact that they take jobs with American companies suggest that these companies’ conditions and wages—though understandably lower than in Western countries—are superior to those available in Chinese companies?
Is Banksy’s intro supposed to be some kind of statement on the evils of outsourcing? The cultural imperialism of the West? The drudgery involved in hand-drawn animation?
Like the rest of Banksy’s work, and that of most other hopey-changey “political artists” these days, the message is unfocused, emotion-based, incoherent, and specious.