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Banksy ♥ Murdoch

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The essential moral of Hans Christian Andersen’s story ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ for people who live in a modern western democracy is that when the laughing stops, the emperor is still the emperor. Indeed, he is more powerful for having allowed himself to be laughed at. As for the small boy who pointed out his nakedness, he can deal with him later.

In his new title sequence for The Simpsons, already shown in the US and due to air in Britain on 21 October, the graffiti artist Banksy tracks away from the Simpson family on its suburban Springfield sofa to show a subterranean Asian sweatshop making Simpsons merchandise. A child dips images of Bart into a vat of acid, kittens are pulped to make stuffing for Bart dolls, the tongue of a beheaded dolphin licks envelopes, an enslaved panda hauls a cart, an exhausted, broken unicorn punches holes in DVDs.

Why would the producers of a TV show that rakes in billions of dollars for Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Entertainment Group allow a notoriously subversive artist to satirise so bitterly the exploitative underside of its own comedy? Because it knows that by doing so, by being big enough to contain and hence neutralise mockery of itself, it will make more billions.

Murdoch’s plan to take full control of BSkyB in Britain, with all the potential for Foxification of British TV that this entails (in the US, the English X-Factor producer Simon Cowell shares a network with the ranting, weeping American nationalist demagogue Glenn Beck, whose show he has hinted at emulating) has so given media rivals the heebie jeebies that papers as mutually hostile as the Guardian and the Daily Mail have made joint representations to the government to try to stop it.

It would be more comforting if Murdoch were an ideologue, but what the Banksy Simpsons sequence points to – rather like Beck himself, whose manner teeters between hate-mongering and comedy – is less the desire to promote an ideology than to contain all ideologies for the purpose of profit, with entertainment being the preferred container. What Murdoch seems to want to be is the context of all things, the ultimate Manichean media shell. Inside, left v. right, tree hugger v. petrol head, local v. transnational. Outside, profit, the void, and Murdoch, looking down.


  1. orangepekoe says:

    banksy isn’t satirizing so bitterly the exploitative underside of the simpsons. sounds like he’s suggesting that the idea of asian sweatshop workers is as funny and ridiculous as unicorns producing dvds. not really subversive. not treading on anyone’s toes there. banksy is irrelevant.

  2. outofdate says:

    No, Murdoch is an ideologue, one of the most interfering newspaper owners who ever lived. It’s just that the entertainment side of his business is more shrewdly run, because it’s just a business and he’s too old to understand how entertainment might be used to further his agenda. The strange thing is that his newspapers are very bad, sometime loss-makingly so. For all the sycophants’ drivel about how the Digger’s an archetypal newspaperman, he has no idea what makes a good one. The best Australian newspapers — and probably the best in the English-speaking world — are the two he doesn’t own. His own papers are just overblown hype and shrill editorialising, not a story between them. The main reason the Sun is bad is not that it’s a screaming tabloid but that there are no stories in it, it’s full of sound and fury signifying nothing. Whereas the Sidney Morning Herald, for example, has all the stories that should be in the Sun, scandals, murders, corruption, tales of derring-do, all basically vaudeville, all well researched and and nary a dull page. Or take Germany’s much-reviled Bild, often said to be the equivalent of the Sun. It’s a rightwing tabloid all right (which there means slightly to the left of the Labopur Party), but it has political stories on the front page, double-page spreads about colourful con-men of the sort you might get in Vanity Fair, and all the news that’s fit to print, just in short words and with big headlines — not at all the same thing. The main objection, really, to Murdoch taking over more news outlets is that he’s an idiot.

    • outofdate says:

      (but at least he employs subs who wouldn’t countenance ‘sometime’, ‘and and’ and ‘Labopur’ Party, so who’s the idiot now?)

    • Joe Morison says:

      “The main reason the Sun is bad is not that it’s a screaming tabloid but that there are no stories in it, it’s full of sound and fury signifying nothing.”

      I’d say that is why the Sun is such a brilliant and loathsome paper. It’s like something out of Orwell: it gives its readers the impression that they’re engaged with current affairs while keeping them from any thoughts that might threaten the status quo. It’s a work of hideous genius. Outofdate thinks that to be good a newspaper should have news in it (and i’m sure we all agree), what a quaint idea! Murdoch’s brilliance is to have ditched this in favour of a temazepam of the masses. (And judging by the world’s media being so obsessed with the Chilean miners -why worry about war, famine, corruption, and the economy when we can cheer those heroes home on every news outlet almost all the time?- his influence is becoming pandemic.)

      • outofdate says:

        You’re probably right. My one faint objection is that the Sun takes about 20 seconds to read word for word from cover to cover, so it doesn’t pass enough time, but even that probably has a sort of McDonald’s or Internet-porn effect, leaving you permanently dissatisfied and itching for more, or whatever Oscar Wilder said about cigarettes.

    • Geoff Roberts says:

      There’s a very competent corrective to the Bild Zeitung, called ‘Bildblog’ which effectively challenges every ‘story’ on the front page and provides the colateral to allow us to check out the facts. For my money, Bild is just as awful as Sun.

      • outofdate says:

        Nothing in the papers is ‘true’ in any way you or I would recognize: in that respect the New York Times is probably worse than either, with its unnamed officials and interminable bogus analysis, like the York Harding character in The Quiet American, and its Clouseau-esque self-importance. I’m really talking about news in the sense of interesting, more or less based-on-real-life tales from here, there and everywhere, which is all I want from a newspaper, and on that score Bild wins hands down.

        • Geoff Roberts says:

          “I’m really talking about news in the sense of interesting, more or less based-on-real-life tales from here, there and everywhere, which is all I want from a newspaper, and on that score Bild wins hands down.” It’s rather like reading a very poor kids’ comic. Most of the stories are false, loaded with bias and full of right-wing blather. That’s what you get in the New York Times? I don’t know because I never read it, but to reveal your liking for stories of the “Teenage priest in sexchange mercy dash to Palace” would indicate that you prefer fantasy to real life.

          • outofdate says:

            Yes, that’s exactly what you get in the NYT.

            As for preferring fantasy to reality: I’ll take whatever passes the time till lights out. Your headline for example, there’s a story I’d definitely read, whereas (I quote at random from today’s Guardian) ‘Caribbean governor questioned deal with firm allegedly linked to Ashcroft’ I definitely wouldn’t, because it’s all there, isn’t it: the bias, the desperate attempt to hype a non-story, and the sheer howling irrelevance of hackwork the world over, plus I know it’s going to be dull to boot.

  3. An interesting post.

    It’s an event that contains internal conflicts.

    The reaction among my peer group has been to proclaim it as ‘genius’ on the part of Banksy and to talk in terms of ‘subversion’ and so on.
    This is despite the fact that, clearly, Banksy was commissioned to produce this work by a client. It’s not subversion, but collaboration.

    So here is one conflict, the finished work bears the appearance of a guerilla act, but it takes place inside the usual parameters of a commercial relationship. I think there is a will to ignore this unwelcome fact and focus on a kind of “Banksy’s on our side” narrative.

    What the self-mocking on the part of Fox reminds me of is Bush joking about looking for WMD behind a curtain, or Obama at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner, delivering a stand-up routine that included jokes about unmanned Predator drones killing the Jonas Brothers. In some ways, even worse, even more complete, is the power so sure of itself that it begins to open itself up to mockery in this way.

  4. Joe Morison says:

    I’m not sure Banksy has failed as much as everyone thinks. It sounds absolutely right that Murdoch allows the Simpsons to mock him in order to detoxify the brand but before it’s always been very gentle. I thought the Banksy piece hit hard and will hurt Fox.

    The hurt, tho’, will be no more than a momentary twinge. Still, what more could Banksy have done? I salute him.

    • Joe Morison says:

      And i think i probably salute the producers who commissioned him. I don’t know, but my guess is that they are Simpsons people before they are Fox people and like to push at their masters. I don’t know much about Al Jean, but when he said “I haven’t been fired yet, that’s a good sign” was he just lying, safe in the knowledge that he was obeying orders from above? Maybe i’m too naive (is that a faint ‘Yes, you are!” i hear echoing from overseas, pinhut?), but i’d like to think not.

  5. A.J.P. Crown says:

    what the Banksy Simpsons sequence points to is less the desire to promote an ideology than to contain all ideologies for the purpose of profit, with entertainment being the preferred container.

    Banksy contains all ideologies for the purpose of ridicule, that’s his job. You haven’t asked the important question “What is the Role Of Banksy?”. As a satirist Banksy’s role is commentary; it’s not legislation, revolution or initiating lawsuits. You can’t expect Banksy to rid the world of multinational capitalism, or of Rupert Murdoch himself, only to draw people’s attention to him by commenting on what he does.

    And anyway, I’m skeptical to the Simpsons. My 16-year-old daughter loves it, and I think it’s funny sometimes too, but I hate their super-famous guest celebrities doing things they aren’t really cut out to do, OMG, that’s Madonna! — the very concept of it makes me cringe.

    • Joe Morison says:

      Total agreement with your first point AJ (if i may be so familiar). As for the Simpsons, i think it started as, and for a long time was, sublime comedy; but it became too big, too successful, hence the (i agree) usually cringeworthy celebrity guests.

    • outofdate says:

      Aye, they’re all being good sports, thus helping the show perpetuate the very things it ostensibly satirises, without which there would after all be no show, etc. Also, frankly, it’s only a cartoon, so maybe I was rash to say Murdoch’s too stupid to understand the value of light entertainment as a propaganda vehicle — which is really an old-fashioned concept. He understands that it doesn’t matter what it seems to be saying so long as it entertains. Just the games part of bread and games, even less of a mystery there.

      • AJP is right about Banksy. It’s done in the mode of the guerilla, and the guerilla can’t function without something to oppose, the state, the armed forces, the police, mainstream society, consumer culture, etc, to oppose themselves to. And Banksy keeps this pose of the interventionist going, while having large exhibitions, selling his work for thousands on the art market, etc. I see it all as part of the giant entertainment complex, and the only marginal thing on offer (to me, marginal is the highest praise) is the persistent (though increasingly tenuous, in terms of his location within mass culture) roots that Banksy’s work can trace back to particular urban spaces where he left his early works, grafitti culture, etc. Along with the anonymity, of course.

        • A.J.P. Crown says:

          Well, that’s true, and it’s some kind of paradox that the more people are interested in his subversion the more he becomes part of the giant entertainment complex. Maybe he’ll end up like Andy Warhol.

          (to me, marginal is the highest praise)
          I like that.

          • On the above:

            “Whoever lacks the courage to allow himself and his work to be found boring is certainly not a spirit of the first rank, whether in the arts or the sciences.”

            I probably don’t need to say who said that.

            Sadly, I feel I am living at the wrong time. Has anybody read the first page of Jacobson’s Booker winner? (viewable on Amazon) From the very first word, the entire project is an exercise in being ingratiating, a complete exorcism of every form of courage. So, naturally it merits a special prize. I call it “Like Me” literature, just like we had the O’Donnell Tea Party woman with her video last week, the slogan – “I’m you”…

            Ok, time for therapy – an hour languishing on the Taipei Metro reading Thomas Bernhard.

          • fzatkins says:

            hi…Banksys oneliners are public schoolboys style and appropriation of working class imagery. not subversion. PS check how many public school artists have won the Turner prize. check how many public schoolboys are on the Tate trustees. say for the last fifteen years.

      • A.J.P. Crown says:

        “Aye, they’re all being good sports,”

        What part of the empire are you from, Out Of?

        • outofdate says:

          No idea why I put it like that. Maybe I meant ‘aye’ in the parliamentary sense of booming agreement.

          • Have you seen this quirk related to parliamentary proceedings, where people signalling agreement on comment threads write – “Here, here!”

            It really does bamboozle me to think that this is what they have spent their whole lives thinking parliamentarians are yelling.

            • outofdate says:

              Yes, and your fingers itch, but then you think what’s the point. Give it a couple more years and it’ll be in the OED as an acceptable alternative.

              • A.J.P. Crown says:

                Far from being judgmental (perhaps because there’s no language police to enforce a judgment), lexicographers & other linguists love finding this kind of change in the language. English is full of such quirks & mistakes; the last thing the OED is going to do is try and suppress them. My guess is that this one’s been around for some time.

  6. Joe Morison says:

    Every time i watch it, it gets better.

    • I haven’t watched it. I can’t bring myself to.

      • outofdate says:

        It’s kind of sweet and harmlessly over the top, a parody of agitprop really — the mournful unicorn is very funny — so whatever James Meek was on when he thought it ‘bitterly’ satirizes something or other, just say no.

        Which is only to say that maybe you’re being too hard on poor Banksy: he’s a loveable comedian is all. Not his fault that foolsies wish to be parted from their money (monesy?).

  7. MrJayBee says:

    This rings true about Murdoch, but the thread is missing out on a great bit of Simpsons lore. When the show was bought up by Fox, producer James L Brooks negotiated something like “creative control”, freedom from Fox’s interference. Hence the relentless stream of subtle and obvious anti-Fox jokes which have been present in the Simpsons all along (and, more lately, jokes about their Korean sweatshop animators). It is true that Fox is big enough to “contain and neutralise the mockery”, generating more profit, and this is probably why they were comfortable negotiating the contract terms as they did.
    I am reminded of a quotation from character Troy McClure rounding out the 138th Episode Spectacular: “Who knows what adventures the Simpsons will get up to between now and the time the show becomes unprofitable?”

    • And that anecdote just recapitulates the thing again, “James L Brooks negotiated something like “creative control”, freedom from Fox’s interference” – are Fox really negotiating away anything there, isn’t it more that they let Brooks recast his sale as containing elements that constitute resistance. A spot of face-saving. It sounds like something you’d find going on behind the Iron curtain in one of Zizek’s charming essays:

      “Officials were forced to sign an agreement that confirmed their autonomy.”

      That sort of thing.

  8. Geoff Roberts says:

    All about fool’s licence, isn’t it? The role played by court jesters, or the fool in King Lear, telling him what harridans two of his daughters are. Lightning conductor for criticism of the fearless leader. “Look how tolerant I am – I even allow jokes about me in my own newspaper.” Well, up to a point, Lord Copper.

  9. echothx says:

    Most people will recognise the self-parody that is typical of the Simpsons and think little more of it. Banksy, ever the self-publicist, and the Simpsons will both gain, especially if they have lines of dolphin friendly and ‘unfriendly’ toys ready for the Christmas consumer fair. (I’m betting the dolls sold in boxes glued with genuine dolphin spit sell fastest) When brewdog stuffed beer bottles into squirrels they sold for £500 each. Humour may dull or sharpen the appropriate moral response, in this case I suspect for most viewers it will render it silent.
    I think this is misjudged and has backfired; when the last unicorn is on the barbecue the queue for burgers will be bigger then the crowd of protesters.

    • Phil says:

      When brewdog stuffed beer bottles into squirrels they sold for £500 each.

      Although, to be fair, they only ever made 12 of them and kept one of those, so the chance of failing to sell out was pretty low.

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