On Sunday, October 10, the latest episode of the “The Simpsons” began with an unusual title sequence created by the infamous London-based graffiti artist, Banksy. Although the creators of “The Simpsons” often alter the opening credits, this re-imagining was far more drastic than any that preceded it. (Click here to watch the episode.) The scenes are at first moderately infiltrated by Banksy’s name, his signature rats, and a playful nod to graffiti in Bart’s chalkboard scene. But then, in a sharp drop in tone accompanied by plaintive music, the title sequence turns dismal as the animation goes underground, dipping into a seething underworld of “Simpsons” mass production. The sequence begs the question: What do we sacrifice for our increasingly commodified entertainment? The happiness of children, the environment, our imaginations…Kittens???
Banksy is once again having fun with us, the masses that he communicates with through his contrarian artwork. In years past, Banksy (who remains successfully anonymous) was most known in the graffiti community for his prolific work in the streets. His work soon gained a wider appeal, mostly because his work purposefully addresses larger social issues, as is apparent in his “Simpsons” sequence. Never one to fall in step with the crowd, Banksy has nonetheless made increasingly blatant forays into the mainstream culture.
Earlier this year, Banksy released an explosive film, “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” that both documented the graffiti world and critiqued the gullibility of the gallery scene in unexpected ways. The film’s premiere party was well attended by Hollywood’s A List and seemed to be yet another satirical display of excess. One of Banksy’s first tastes of international fame came in 2006 when he illegally installed a replica of a Guantanamo Bay detainee in the middle of a Disneyland ride. Now, Banksy has become so well-recognized that even his illegal stencils are being protected. In post-Katrina New Orleans, a Banksy image of a girl under an umbrella was recently covered with Plexiglas to protect it from the elements and dissuade potential vandals. Isn’t that ironic, to say the least. Even 30 Seconds to Mars jumped on the Banksy band wagon, creating live-action clips that referenced some of Banksy’s famous stencils in their 2010 video for “Kings and Queens.”
Always looking to bring attention to cultural issues we may otherwise ignore, Banksy has become important to a diverse crowd of people. But it’s hard to determine whether Banksy is really creating change or just encouraging the elitist cynicism of a new generation of hipsters. Street art itself straddles this fine line as more college-educated artists are painting the streets in an effort to “inform the masses” while creating a name for themselves. These attempts are often seen not as honest, artistic communications, but instead as condescending diatribes or insincere marketing strategies. Those who suspect street art’s motives are not unfounded. Big companies, such as Sony, have adopted graffiti aesthetics to varying levels in the past few years, piggy-backing off of the art form’s supposed cache among urban youth. Ultimately, as Banksy turns into less of a man and more of a brand, we must consider his own “Simpsons”-esque mass-marketing. Is something lost in Bansky-as-commodity? Or is all of this commercialism another attempt to force us to re-evaluate our commodity-based culture? If so, can Banksy (and his artwork) emerge from this cultural experiment unscathed?
Though the imaginings of Banksy may not be perfect, and the exact dimensions of the impression he leaves on our culture unclear, one thing is certain: I will never look at the donut-hole of a DVD the same way again.Tags: 30 Seconds to Mars, animation, Banksy, Disneyland, Exit Through the Gift Shop, graffiti, Kings and Queens, premiere, Sony, street art, The Simpsons, TV show