Monday, October 11, 2010

Banksy stacks The Simpsons with different levels of messaging

Banksy's recent opening sequence for The Simpsons is striking and discomforting, which is a small triumph right from the get-go, as far as I'm concerned. However, more brilliant is the way Banksy has used this forum to navigate a gauntlet of corporate pressure and open critique. He's done this by subverting his own message with sarcasm, which provides just enough of a hook for FOX to let the ad run; it may make the sequence more diffuse in its targeting, but it also makes it much more effective, if only by giving FOX a reason to put it on the air.

WTF am I talking about? Check out the sequence:

Well, let's start with the most obvious reading of the intro: that it's an exposé and a direct, open attack on FOX and The Simpsons' overseas outsourcing policies. I'll call this the CRITICAL READING -- the interpretation that Banksy has used this forum to make a direct comment on FOX's corporate immorality.

This raises an obvious first question: how did this get past the FOX executives? It doesn't matter how powerful Matt Groening is in the FOX heirarchy... the network would never PAY a video artist to create a direct attack on its own policies, and then air it on a high-visibility network show. They also wouldn't give such a dangerous artist completely free license; they would only hire him on particular conditions of review and approval. So how'd Banksy make this work?

Presumably, if this sequence was too literally on-target, it wouldn't have run. If FOX was actually perpetrating human rights abuses for the purposes of creating FOX animation and merchandise, and it wasn't a public issue, and the network was trying to keep quiet about it, then they wouldn't have touched this bit of subversive commentary by Banksy. So there must be something else going on here, something that subverts the CRITICAL READING that's initially evident.

Well, guess what? There IS another reading out there. After all, this information about FOX outsourcing from Korea... this is already public, and the public has already had a chance to chew on it and gripe about it. So the suggestion that The Simpsons outsources its labor isn't so dangerous. People who realize this are seeing this opening sequence as being a satire of media hype, a wry hyperbole of critics' misinformed ideas of foreign labor. This reading, seeing the segment as more tongue-in-cheek and humorous, is what I'd call the SARCASTIC READING.

And it's an adept turn of message that the SARCASTIC READING subverts the CRITICAL READING. Certainly, this was enough of a selling point for Banksy to get the network to agree to air this segment. They know The Simpsons has always been edgy and self-critical, so when Banksy tells them that his opening sequence is actually making fun of the critics for being so sensitive about this "sweatshop labor" outsourcing thing, they buy it. They understand that the segment is controversial, but not outright dangerous to them, so they agree to run it. It's good for all parties.

It's important to note that even with the specific FOX-focused criticism slightly declawed, this intro sequence still makes a statement. For one thing, many people won't notice the sarcastic reading and will just come away with the critical reading. For another, there is a higher-level critical reading that isn't preemptively invalidated: the reading that this intro is a general critique of American consumerism and lack of global awareness. People may follow this insight to a dead end with regards to FOX, but at least they will have taken a moment to consider where their products come from. And there will be lots of people -- the smartest of them -- saying, "Well, maybe FOX isn't the worst offender in terms of exploitive labor, but there are definitely American companies out there who are actually just this bad." ... "And honestly, we don't know about FOX, either. Maybe this is closer to the mark than we realize."

Banksy is walking a deeply ambivalent line between co-opting the instruments of mass culture, and selling out to them. His ability to simultaneously skewer FOX and its critics shows just how complex his messages can be. As much as this attests to his skill at working with the information apparatus, it still begs the question: for whose benefit is this media artifact created? You're sending a valuable message, but is it enabling the offender? Which is more important: what you say? Or on whose behalf you say it?

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