Artist Banksy infiltrates the regime.
Feminism during it’s second movement failed to dismantle the patriarchy and actually did quite the opposite for equality (hooks, 2014, p.37-43). Not only did the gap between men and women widen, but it could be suggested that this further widening was primarily due to the gap being made between white middle to upper class women and groups of female minorities (hooks, 2014, p.37-43). These women and possibly those around them naively thought that a seat at the table meant a seat for all, but it only enforced and made the patriarchy stronger (hooks, 2014, p.37-43). I’ll conclude the feminist history lesson there, but let it serve as an example of the dangers of ‘working from the inside’/’befriending the enemy’, a strategy that activists commonly use to dismanlte power dynamics. Think of Andy Dwyer from The Office (Grandy & Sohn, 2011) ‘supporting’ the women in his workplace by getting close to the misogynistic boss, or the relationship between Walt and Gus in Breaking Bad (Gilligan, Johnson & MacLaren, 2008-2013).
Feminism's struggle to dismantle the patriarchy while unavoidably living within it can be paralleled to the anti-capitalist ideology of the artist trying to work in a capitalist environment. The failure of the second movement of feminism serves to question/challenge the ethics, morals and values of this artist. How can the artist support themselves financially, make meaningful, purposeful art, etc? Ultimately, how do they maintain their anti-capitalist values?
The culture industry as written by Adorno and Horkhemier (1993) proposes that the popular culture its producers make serves to undermine autonomy and imagination in the individual that consumes it. Through mechanical reproduction artworks lose their “aura”, a term that can be generally described as an artworks uniqueness of which can be stripped from the artwork through replication to make it possible for a lot of hands, eyes, and ears “to get hold of” (Benjamin, 1936). Producers of pop culture and the reproductions they subscribe to making in mass are the result of “the absolute power of capitalism” (Adorno & Horkhemier, 1993, p. 1).
Artist Banksy has been known for depicting the harsh realities of a capitalist society predominantly through his illegal and free-to-view street art, to a short film Dismaland (2015) that he published to Youtube. Utilising the work of critical theorists Adorno, Horkhiemer, (1993) and Benjamin (1936) it could be argued that these artworks were distributed outside of the “artificial framework” of the culture industry. However, in 2010 a Simpsons episode (Long & Banksy, 2010) aired that featured Banksy’s artistry as a writer for the show's opening sequence and couch gag. According to Storey (2014) due to its numerical popularity The Simpsons is considered a piece of popular culture, and in addition to this defining quality it is a show that is run by the “culture industry” as defined by Adorno and Horkheimer (1993). Here comes into question the authenticity of Banksy’s work as a commonly known anti-capitalist artist. Can Banksy work from the inside to ‘change from within’?
A Brief Analysis
Before we take into consideration the implications of being involved and working within the culture industry, it would be useful to analyse the title sequence and couch gag.
The Title Sequence
The title sequence includes graffiti tags of Banksy over billboards, school walls, and we see Bart in detention writing “I must not write all over the walls”. This draws attention to the role of graffiti as a tool for “aesthetic protest and critical social commentary” in the public space that is often undermined by legal authorities and as such washed away (Hansen & Danny, 2015). In one instance the political intermixed with the free-market spirit as one of Bansky’s street art was not just removed, but sold for private auction, which brought up a discussion around the value of graffiti/street art as “a gift to the community” (Hansen, 2015).
Figure 1. Screenshot of a part in the Title sequence (banksyfilms, 2010).
The Couch Gag
During the couch gag there is a depiction of slave labourers working tirelessly to make Simpsons merchandise. According to various news outlets, Banksy was inspired by reports of The Simpsons outsourcing animation in Seoul, South Korea (Halliday, 2010; BBC News; 2010; Broadcast, 2010). However, it is interesting to note that the workers are predominately manufacturing The Simpsons merchandise. Merchandise is a perfect example of the mechanical reproduction that Walter Benjamin (1936) defined and Adorno and Horkheimer recognised as the commodities that art became as it gave up “its own autonomy” and became “consumption goods” (1993, p.19). If ``The Simpsons “was originally conceived in opposition to the cultural mainstream and “outside” of the capitalist system of which the show itself is a part” (Fink, 2017), what is to be said of its influence and contribution to challenging the status quo? Especially considering that The Simpsons is “the most successful television brand of all time with global DVD and merchandising sales of more than $8bn” (Conlan, 2010).
Banksy’s works have often been reproduced as merchandise by what seems to be separate entities (Just Banksy, 2022; the banksy shop, 2022), and false exhibitions (Banksy, n.d.) that have often popped up for the sole purpose of profit. To prove how much Banksy is anti-capitalist, the official online shop of Banksy required customers to answer the question “why art matters”, only stocked a few items with little quantities for each, and priced them well below their value (Youngs, 2019). On the official shop under legal it states:
“This site asserts the trademark to Banksy’s name and images is held by the artist, and is not transferable to any third party.
The artist would like to make it clear that he continues to encourage the copying, borrowing and uncredited use of his imagery for amusement, activism and education purposes. Feel free to make merch for your own personal entertainment and non-profit activism for good causes.
However, selling reproductions, creating your own line of merchandise and fraudulently misrepresenting knock off Banksy products as ‘official’ is illegal, obviously a bit wrong and may result in legal action. In the event of prosecution all funds will be donated to charity.”
This statement makes clear Banky’s values when it comes to the capitalist inclination to commodify art, which is probably why the manufacturing of merchandise was depicted so grotesquely in the gag. The various tools used in the gag such as the kittens to make stuffed toys and the panda used to transport goods can be considered to illuminate two facts; that not only are animals abused and taken advantage of in various manufacturing processes, but that you cannot commodify art. Judging by the information I have found so far about Banksy, it is my opinion that Banksy believes that art should be free and it is the culture industry’s various branches such as the high art world that are undermining art’s ‘aura’. This is evident in Banksy’s artistic demonstration at a high art auction where he shredded one of his most famous pieces just after it was sold for 860,000 euros (banksyfilm, 2018).
Of particular interest is the scene of a chained up unicorn poking holes into The Simpsons DVDs. There is a text in Latin literature of a unicorn that was being hunted for its “miraculous horn of eternity” (Dureau, p.39). However, the unicorn was always “too cunning and always escaped the hunters”, and it wasn’t “until they grasped that only a virgin could attract the unicorn..” that they then “asked a virgin to join their hunt, and once the unicorn came close to the virgin, they killed it” (Dureau, p.39). This allegory reveals possible points of discussion regarding the monopolies of the culture industry's ability to take a unique piece of art, and completely devalue it through reproduction, and in doing so metaphorically drain the life out of it.
Does infiltrating work?
Moving away from old fart Adorno
Banksy has often been critiqued as “the ultimate creative entrepreneur[s] in a neoliberal postcapitalist apocalypse world” (Mcdonnell, p.195). This may be true but as various examples of Banksy’s work reveal, the ethics of Banksy’s entrepreneurialism can secure their place as an artist out to dismantle the culture industries capitalist doctrine. Banksy subscribes to reproduction but only if it for the purpose of “amusement, activism and education purposes” (GrossDomesticProduct, 2022). Banksy’s main method of reworking images in the public space by adapting “the language of advertising to promote a critical reception of those images” acts as a “mode of reception that questions their intended meanings” (Feiten, p. 219-220). As for where Banksy places their art;
“Any advertisement in public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours. It belongs to you. It’s yours to take, re- arrange and re- use. Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head”
(Banksy 2005, p. 196).
Banksy is an aggressor of the culture industry and the capitalist ideology it endorses. The second wave of feminism failed, but it was a lesson nonetheless that taught the value of critical thinking. Banksy’s use of critical thinking in their art proposes new methods to slowly disseminate the inequalities of a capitalist system. Through Banksy’s postmodernist approach to their artistry, there lies a possible method to contribute to the production of meaning in a soulless, money fuelled world.
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Benjamin, W. (1936). The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Transcribed by Blunden, A. Sourced from UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television. Schocken/Random House. https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm
Dureau, Y. (2000). The metamorphosis of a signifier vs. an iconic signified: The unicorn — A case study. Semiotica, 128(1-2), 35–68. https://doi.org/10.1515/semi.2000.128.1-2.35
Feiten, B.. (2017). Answering back! Banksy’s street art and the power relations of public space. In M. Fink, M, DeLaure, & M. Dery (Eds.), Culture jamming: Activism and the art of cultural resistance (pp. 218-236). New York University Press.
Fink, M. (2017). Culture jamming in prime time: The Simpsons and the tradition of corporate satire. In M. Fink, M, DeLaure, & M. Dery (Eds.), Culture jamming: Activism and the art of cultural resistance (pp. 254-279). New York University Press.
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Hooks, Bell. (2014). Feminism is for everybody: passionate politics (2nd ed.). Routledge.
Horkheimer, M., & Adorno, T. W. (1993). The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception. In Dialectic of Enlightenment, (pp. 120-167). New York: Continuum.
McDonnell, E. (2017). Never mind the bollocks shepard fairey’s fight for appropriation, fair use, and free culture. In M. Fink, M, DeLaure, & M. Dery (Eds.), Culture jamming: Activism and the art of cultural resistance (pp. 179-200). New York University Press.
Banksy. (n.d.). Product Recall - Art of Banksy. https://www.banksy.co.uk/shows.html
BBC News. (2010, October 11). Banksy creates new Simpsons title sequence. BBC. https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-11510513
Broadcast. (2010, October 11). Banksy defaces The Simpsons. Media Business Insight. https://login.wwwproxy1.library.unsw.edu.au/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.wwwproxy1.library.unsw.edu.au/trade-journals/banksy-defaces-simpsons/docview/757378530/se-2?accountid=12763
GrossDomesticProduct. (2022). Legal. https://shop.grossdomesticproduct.com/pages/legal
Halliday, J. (2010, October 11). Banksy takes Simpsons into sweatshop. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/media/2010/oct/11/banksy-the-simpsons-bart
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Youngs, I. (2019, October 17). Why is Banksy vetting the customers of his online store?. BBC. https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-50080766
Banksyfilm. (2010, October 10). Simpsons [online video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DX1iplQQJTo
Banksyfilm. (2015, August 25). Dismaland [online video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V2NG-MgHqEk
Banksyfilm. (2018, October 18). Shredding the Girl and Balloon - The Director’s half cut [Video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vxkwRNIZgdY
Banksy., Long, T. (Writers), & Kruse, N. (Director). (2010, October 10). MoneyBart (Season 22, Episode 3) [Television series episode]. In A. Jean (Executive Producer), The Simpsons. Gracie Films; 20th Television.
Conlan, T. (2010, September 23). The Simpsons is top TV brand of all time, says survey. The Guardian. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/media/2010/sep/22/the-simpsons-merchandising
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