Banksy and the Co-optation of Everything

james

Most readers have probably already seen and/or heard about the “controversial” Simpsons opening, which was (apparently) created by the British street artist Banksy.  If not, here it is:

Banksy, an internationally known artist whose vaguely anarchist, certainly anti-consumerist, and possibly pacifist politics are present in much of his art, seems in his Simpsons piece to be making a statement about the prevalence of capitalist exploitation of the 3rd world.   Since the animation for the Simpsons is indeed outsourced to South Korea, he seems to be chiding the Simpsons for participating in these crimes of oppression.  The irony of course is that his statement becomes a part of the Simpsons, presumably animated in the same South Korean sweatshop(???) as the rest of the show. Banksy, a celebrity artist of resistance becomes co-opted by the show (and really by Satan himself: FOX CORP.) for entertainment value (and publicity value for both the show and the artist), and thereby participates in the very oppression his piece decries.

This perfectly illustrates humanities’ inability to break out of paradigms of coercion, violence and oppression; or, in theological terms, humanities’ inability to break free of the bondage of sin.  But here, in contrast to pietistic concern for personal bondage and personal freedom, we are dealing with the bondage produced by systemic sin–the kingdoms of this world that hold us all in thrall collectively.  Those who try to subvert or resist these systems are always eventually co-opted by them.  This is the human condition, and the source of our deepest and most tragic irony.

This is why charity and humanitarian efforts fail, because the good work they do is co-opted, assimilated into the systems of evil that pervade the world.  The World Bank and World Food Organization perpetuate the economic misery they were created to eradicate.  The most well-intentioned and principled politician quickly becomes an instrument of corruption.  The fight against terrorism begins to look precisely like the very thing it meant to end.

The only thing that has ever truly broken this cycle, and successfully withstood becoming co-opted into the evil systems of this world is the Christ-event.  Christ effectively withstood and subverted all the evil systems of this world, including the ultimate and most powerful, death.  In following after Him, we might have moments of true resistance, true subversion of the kingdom of this world, moments when the Kingdom of God break in; but, Church History’s main lesson should be that we so often fail at the outcome we want desperately to achieve, and our message, like that of Banksy, makes that ironic turn toward saying the opposite of what it was intended to say.  The most insidious part of co-optation is that perceiving our own guilt, our own complicity,  may be harder than repentance itself.

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24 Comments

  1. Um, Seoul South Korea has more PhD. per capita than Boston. Its not ‘third world.’ And quit looking for perfection in resistance. We are flawed approximations living flawed approximations. Once we accept this, we don’t get hung up on hero complexes and strive to accomplish that which is in our grasp, or what we can move into our grasp. Lets pull together, friends.

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  2. James,

    I really appreciate this. I share a lot of your sentiments, but there is a part of me that has to recognize the fact that despite all our failings, there still is room for the Good to be performed.

    Not that you would necessarily deny this, but I wonder if by focusing too much on the “event” of the cross and resurrection, we loose sight of the new creation and hope. After all, don’t we now share in the life, death and resurrection of Christ as we move further into the Trinitarian life? I don’t think we can fix the world, but I do think we can trust that no good work will be lost.

    Again, not that you would deny this, but I’m wondering if by too much focus on the never-ending cycle of Original Sin we run the risk of glossing over the positive side of our labor, if not the inherent goodness of creation.

    Thanks for your thoughts.
    Robb

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  3. James,

    You seem to be saying something like ‘The good is impossible, except for Jesus’. But why not argue that the (impossible) good is possible precisely because of Jesus? ‘Charity and humanitarian efforts fail’ — but not love (1 Cor 13). Faith moves mountains. Remember the story of the boy with his loaves and fishes: his gift wasn’t co-opted. Nor was Joseph’s gift of his tomb to Jesus. As Christ promised, no one who gives even a cup of water is in danger of losing the reward. Whatever we do to the least, we do to him, so that it cannot in fact be lost or ultimately co-opted: ‘all things are Christ’s, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s’.

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  4. Brilliant post.

    Resistance is always negotiated and it is thus both subversive and often subverted. And yes, I agree completely that it does demonstrate our bondage to sin.

    While the comments here seem well-intentioned, I think they are missing your point. We cannot simply try to do good and trust that if we’re trying, what we accomplish will, in fact, be good. We must constantly examine the ways we fail, which is to say the ways in which we perpetuate the very things we are trying to subvert. It doesn’t follow that we cannot do any good, only that whatever good we do has every possibility of becoming distorted.

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    1. On the one hand, I am with the first few commentators; I hesitate to elevate ‘total depravity’ to the height implied by your general thrust. There has to be some room for the charismatic renewal of all things (which means also the ‘judgment’ of all things!) as ‘his own’ is restored to ‘him.’

      But I think it important as well to openly chastise the way in which even a critique of power can be taken and used ironically to pacify those bearing the yoke of injustice or to quell the voice of those who would speak or act.

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  5. Thanks you all for the comments. I by no means intended for this post and its negativity to be the last word. As I hinted, the Christ-event including His glorious Resurrection has had, and will have the last word over against all systems of evil in this world. Though not emphasized in this particular post (though I do emphasize it elsewhere) I believe very deeply that the Kingdom of God inaugurated by the Incarnation of Christ cannot truly be co-opted, and that the only way out of this ironic human cycle is by participation in this Kingdom through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, which is what our lives together in the Church should be all about. Nonetheless, I also believe we need to be open eyed about the ways that the Good or what we presume to be Good can be used for evil. To be honest and effective witnesses to Kingdom of GOd we cannot ignore this anymore than we can ignore the surprising ways that God himself brings good out of evil circumstances, which is a sort of co-optation as well, I suppose.

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  6. I like capitalism. It gives rise to enough wealth in society that artists like Bansky are able to live off the proceeds of their creativity. And without The Simpsons, one wonders what kind of hard manual labor all those Korean cartoonists would have to perform. It’s a strange kind of oppression, James, when the putative victims draw cartoons for a living.

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  7. James,
    You say that you believe the kingdom of god cannot be co-opted and yet we can both point to countless times when that is exactly what has happened. You do throw out the word “truly” which would seem to indicate that an even more subversive co-opting of the co-opt is happening. The problem is that the practical distinction does not exist between this two way co-opting of god’s kingdom and many arguments that can be made by resistance movements such as banksy’s. It seems we are left by both with an untenable mandate to try our best. I feel like your answer is to cite the assistance of the HS. The problem again lies in finding a practical distinction between this assistance and say that of chanting monks or mother earth. I am not sure I have an answer to the dilemma, and I understand the presuppositions you have laid out to your position. I just felt it prudent to point out the apparent contradiction in your critique from a differant perspective. That said, I could be completely misreading your intent. I apologize if that is the case.

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  8. Jeremy,

    Maybe a better word than “truly” would be “ultimately.” The Kingdom of God will never be co-opted in a eschatological sense, however much those who are supposed to be witnesses of It allow themselves to be co-opted. But, I’m afraid I’ve been sloppy and unclear with this post.

    George,

    The my-oppression-is-better-than-the-oppression-they-would-otherwise-receive argument is weak. Of course one murder is better than two, but all three are evil.

    Adam,

    I sense your sarcasm, but I need a bit more information to understand where you’re going with it.

    Reply

  9. Tony:

    Ssshhh! Don’t tell anyone, but I think James has a point.

    Markets–including free markets, or especially them–produce externalities that are worrisome. I even believe it’s possible for Christians to be co-opted by secular ideologies. (I’m still waiting, of course, for the Theophiliacs brain trust to write a series of articles on the Babylonian captivity of the evangelical Left, but whatever…).

    My problem is–and again, don’t tell James, I wouldn’t want to hurt is feelings–is that his Banksy example both distorts and trivializes the real problems. If you won’t to go after capitalism, go after the IMF (great song by Bruce Cockburn, by the way) and the World Bank directly. Don’t cite Banksy. Doing so makes the argument look, uh, cartoonish.

    Thanks for keeping this exchange confidential between just you and me.

    GPW

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  10. James,

    Frankly, I don’t really understand some of the “kickback” that you’re getting to this post. I mean, I get the point that everyone is making (and all of them are good). However, it seems like all of the points folks are making are designed to distract from the uncomfortable truth you are pointing out not to provide a “correct” or “better” solution or problem. With the exception of George, of course, who always fights hardest against points that he secretly (or not so secretly) agrees with, but may not want to agree with (shhh, don’t tell him we’re on to him).

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  11. Shawn:

    It’s no secret that I think Theophiliacs’ generally low opinions of capitalism are a bit tetched in the head.

    On balance, I think free markets are a better way of bringing prosperity to the masses than the alternatives, especially socialism–which is a dismal failure everywhere but in the minds of aged Mary Knoll nuns. See Matt Ridley’s “The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves” for mind-numbing details of how exchange and specialization produce increasing prosperity for increasing numbers.

    But saying that capitalism is better on balance is not saying that capitalism is an unalloyed good. One can make a profit exchanging porn videos that specialize in perverse fetishes, after all–all of which is legal, by the way–though society is no better off because of the freedom. The fact that that big, fat idiot Michael Moore makes money off his anti-capitalist rants proves both that capitalism’s externalities are not necessarily benign and that prominent socialists are hypocrites (at least the big, fat ones). Oh, and that there’s a sucker born every minute, but that’s a different topic.

    In other words, there’s an interesting debate to be had on capitalism. I’m just not sure that James has zeroed in on it.

    George

    P.S. Re-reading the original post, I wonder whether James has been co-opted by despair?

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  12. George,

    I’ll confess that my personal issues with economies have more to do with whether its ultimately a good thing to pursue the greatest possibly prosperity for everyone.

    However, your post script definitely nails my point on the head. Why does everyone think that James is preaching doom and gloom? I see a very Christo-centric notion that places humanities ultimate success and perpetual happiness in the person of Jesus (I’ll confess, though, that it may just be that I have a much closer understanding of James’ theology than all of you).

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  13. George,

    I would like to clarify something. The original post contains a series of parenthetical question marks after the word sweatshop, which probably need further explanation. I was taking for granted what I thought was common knowledge, that there have long been allegations that the Simpsons used sweatshop labor for the production of their show. I also thought that it was common knowledge that these allegations have never been decisively proven the way that it has been proven that, say, Gap, or JC Crew have used sweatshops.

    However, the way you trivialize sweatshop labor, George, is somewhat ludicrous (I am assuming here that you made your above comments taking for granted that the Simpsons had indeed used sweatshop labor). “Who cares if they’re getting paid $1 a day, they have the privilege of drawing hilarious cartoons!” I suppose children cocoa bean pickers in Sierra Leon–to site a well-documented situation–should just feel privileged that their slave labor contributes to the magic of Willy Wonka?

    Even so, the ironic fact that Banksy’s anti-consumerist message has been subsumed by one of the great mega-conglomerates does not ultimately hinge upon whether or not that particular program or any Simpsons program was in fact drawn by sweatshop labor.

    As for your evaluation that the Banksy example of the larger trend of co-optation is cartoonish. I leave you to it, as it is probably of use to you.

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  14. James:

    I’m not trivializing the problem of sweatshop labor. I’m problematizing the triviality of your example.

    To quote myself: “his Banksy example both distorts and trivializes the real problems. If you won’t to go after capitalism, go after the IMF (great song by Bruce Cockburn, by the way) and the World Bank directly.”

    Shawn:

    When you write, “my personal issues with economies have more to do with whether its ultimately a good thing to pursue the greatest possibly prosperity for everyone,” I scratch my head and wonder about the alternatives. To pursue the greatest possible prosperity for none, or only for some?

    My guess is that adding two key adverbs would be helpful to you. So try this on for size: It is a good thing to pursue the greatest possible prosperity, for everyone, if it is pursued justly and sustainably.

    Agreed?

    George

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  15. George,

    I do like the adverbs you add, I believe they create a framework for understanding the issue within a more Christian framework. Nonetheless, my real problem is with the modifiers “greatest possible.” What happens when all people everywhere are pursuing the “greatest possible” prosperity?

    Allow me to qualify it personally, because that is how I am viewing it (and that may not be “fair”). What does my life look like in light of the Gospel when I pursue the greatest possible prosperity? The answer, in my mind, is that for me to do so contradicts the very heart of the Gospel.

    Reply

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