'The Simpsons,' Ai Weiwei, and What Artists Want from Us

The other day, I wrote about Disorder, a Chinese documentary depicting, in its own hypnotic way, the baseline condition of "absurdity" on display daily in filmmaker Huang Weikai's hometown of Guangzhou. I've been thinking more about what it is Weikai (or any artist, really) wants from the viewer—we tend to associate some kind of educational function to the documentary form, and yet here was one that didn't offer any real data, that refused to identify a culprit. This wasn't a counter to official truths, the way we've grown used to documentaries refining or contradicting what we already know about the world. All one could do with the fragments of Disorder was to meditate on them, how we chose to narrate them, why we chose to laugh or recoil when we did, etc.

What is an artwork allowed to ask of us? "The town that once made porcelain for the imperial court has been saved from bankruptcy by making sunflower seeds," Adrian Searle writes in his moving five-star review of the current Ai Weiwei piece at the Tate Modern in London. "It is absurd." Ai's piece carpets the already-striking main exhibition hall with approximately 100 million hand-painted porcelain "sunflower seeds" he paid about 1,600 laborers in Jingdezhen, a town once famous for its crafts to fashion. It looks stunning, and it asks similar questions of its audience: what did it take for these seeds to get here, only to be trampled under your shoes or pocketed and cherished at home? How much work—somewhere far away—does it take to make but one of these 100 million seeds? At what threshold does this become absurd? Globalization, we are encouraged to believe, has wounded this town. And now it has saved it, if temporarily.

The effects of globalization—such a ubiquitous yet massive, mysterious term—are all around us, even if its mechanisms would prefer to go unnoticed. It's in the interest of everyone on this hemispherical side of the ledger to focus on the price-chopping and fairly traded coffee; the grist is elsewhere. Which is why Ai's piece is so startling. There's a suggestion of generosity here—an artist, world-famous, sharing his fee to prop up a small town. And there's something ridiculous about it, too—a single man is able to commission that much labor. These ideas and anxieties all converge in the sunflower exhibit, and to Ai's credit, the apparent majesty of it all allows us to draw conclusions that aren't quite so bleak.

In that light, I'm not sure what to make of Banksy's recent opening sequence for The Simpsons. In case you haven't yet seen it:

A similar logic powers this piece, as the familiar gives way to the pale nightmare of animation sweatshops (or, in this case, sweatcaves?), shackled unicorns, oppressed pandas and the like. It's funny and incisive and it ends with a vaguely damning image of a Fox logo surrounded by barbed wire, and yet, having watched it dozens of times, I haven't a clue what the point of it might be, beyond instilling a momentary sense of despondency. Banksy's brilliance at making a shell game of meanings notwithstanding, it's unclear what the comfortable Simpsons viewer is supposed to glean from this glimpse behind the scenes—is it that the conditions of labor in Asia are deplorable? Is it a sense of personal shame that Fox and, by association, The Simpsons and its viewers, cosign such realities? Is it a mockery of our resignation, our willingness to watch on, after this momentary pinch? Or perhaps the final shot of Fox, bemused sponsor of this light roasting, could care less what we think?

The Banksy open has come and gone, and nobody appears to have lost his or her job for it. How could they? Fox approved it. I'm curious what the Korean animators who sketched those scenes thought of them, as they slowly realized that they were being asked to represent themselves. Just as I wonder if the laborers who furnished the Tate Modern with those 100 million sunflower seeds could have predicted, upon hearing where their wares were going, what would end up happening: The piece has been roped off, for fear of causing respiratory problems. I doubt it's what Ai wanted—but what better illustration of the absurd, and of the unintended consequences of globalization? The most futile artwork ever, some say, and rather predictable. After all: That's porcelain you're crushing with your boots, bathing and writhing in, scrutinizing with your camera viewfinder.