Saving Public Simpsons: Michel Foucault Meets George Clooney
—In an essay about “Postmodernism and Television,” Jim Collins celebrates the self-reflexivity, what he calls hyperconsciousness, of the cartoon show, The Simpsons. In the first Thanksgiving episode, Homer and Bart sit on the couch watching TV coverage of the Macy’s Day Parade. When Bart observes that all of the represented cartoon characters—Underdog, Woody Woodpecker, and the like—are ancient, Homer responds that if the organizers reacted to “every flash in the pan cartoon character, they’d turn the parade into a farce.” At that moment, in the simulation of a long shot, The Simpsons provides one of the most aesthetically meaningful compositions ever televisually constructed: in the foreground, we see the backs of Homer and Bart’s heads sitting on their couch in Springfield, Oregon, while on the television screen in the background floats a cartoon balloon of Bart Simpson purportedly in New York City.
I begin with this image because it represents an apex in the housing of art values in the modern moving picture image. At the nadir must surely lie George Clooney’s most recent film, The Monuments Men. I don’t think I’ve ever been more disappointed in a film after watching a trailer with such promise. The ad promised a war comedy—with the likes of actors John Goodman, of The Big Lebowski; and Bill Murray, the irreverent one from Stripes—letting out the hot air of Saving Private Ryan by romping across Nazi-controlled Europe rescuing stolen objets d’art.
I can only imagine Clooney shot the comedy and then discovered what he had in the can was not at all marketable in the age of Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation. Where have the great, acerbic films about World War II, the Catch-22s and The Young Lions gone? Indeed, Sydney Pollack’s Castle Keep from 1969 is such a film, and also about the threatened European art culture about which The Monuments Men wrings its hands. If you want to have an elegant experience about art and World War II, track down the DVD of this grotesquely under-appreciated Burt Lancaster film.
The final edited version of The Monuments Men features an unendurably earnest voice-over by Clooney’s character, Frank Stokes. The voice-over commits the cardinal sin of screenwriting: instead of showing us cinematically why the art they are preserving matters, Clooney’s relentless narration tells us how important it is. If there’s anything visual culture doesn’t need, it is inane blathering about how great and important it is.
And thus, in a desperate attempt to keep my blathering away from the inane, I return to The Simpsons. The image with Bart in the foreground, and balloon float Bart on the television screen behind, replicates the composition of Diego Velazquez’s Las Meninas (“The Maids of Honour”), one of the great paintings of the Spanish Golden Age. Painted in 1656, now hanging in the Museo del Prado in Madrid, safe thanks to the brave soldiers who fought and defeated European Fascism, the image pretends to present a standard portrait of the Infanta Margaret Theresa, surrounded at court. However, to the left of the girl is Velazquez himself, facing his canvas, the back of which is to us. This gives the alluring impression that he is painting the boring portrait, which we can’t see, so that instead we can self-reflexively see the process of painting something much more significant.
At the vanishing point of the image, behind the child is a mirror in which two figures are barely visible. In his introduction to The Order of Things, historian-philosopher Michel Foucault argues that this mirror embodies the humanist Renaissance, in which the King and Queen of Spain are reflected in the mirror. What that implies is that we the viewer of the painting are standing where royalty must be in order to be present in the painting. In short, we show up as the center of all things in this ideological portrait of power.
Now consider the image in The Simpsons again. In almost every American sitcom—think of All in the Family or Roseanne—when characters watch the television in their living room, they are looking out at us in the audience. The television screen and the television cameras are those material objects that cannot show up in the representation, as they mediate between our real world in the audience and the fake world of the sitcom’s characters.
Because The Simpsons is a cartoon, it need not hew to the aesthetic norms of a live-action sitcom, and thus when convenient, the family’s television screen shows up as a represented object. In this case, we see Bart’s head in the foreground and an impossible Bart cartoon figure in the vanishing point that is the television screen. Bart cannot possibly be our Bart, a cartoon figure who can be celebrated at the Macy’s parade, and Homer’s Bart, a real boy sitting next to him. Similarly, we cannot be just us, viewers of Las Meninas, and the King and Queen of Spain. The flattery of ideology only makes us think that is possible, something both Velazquez and Foucault are keen to highlight.
Think about the backwardness of this: a show written by surly failed math and English majors from Harvard allows me to celebrate the mysteries of Western art while a movie by one of our most talented filmmakers leaves me with absolutely nothing of interest to say. The Simpsons provides a vehicle for exploring the vibrant legacy of Western art in our world of 2014. Las Meninas speaks to us today, as if painted just yesterday. If only George Clooney had shown why, and not merely told us that, the art saved in World War II was so important.
There’s a scene in The Monuments Men when one of the saviors of art returns a family portrait to a home long since evacuated, most likely exterminated by the Nazis. When one of the neighbors informs our hero that the inhabitants are gone, this does not deter him. He carefully hangs the portrait where the dusty impression on the wall indicates it belongs, meticulously straightening the image. The scene is a perfect emblem for what’s wrong with The Monuments Men. Art that hangs with no one left to see it does not have the potential to fulfill its radical purpose. Art needs to breathe, to live and to matter to those of us left behind. This is not to deny the emotional importance of the loss of much of Europe during World War II. There’s a great exhibit at the Jewish Museum Berlin of a towel. The card beside this seemingly random object describes the towel as having been given to a son by his mother such that he would always have a towel. Shortly thereafter she was shipped off to a concentration camp to die. The towel exhibit is indescribably moving. I stood there before this banal object sobbing, as if it were the Shroud of Turin. And yet, memorialization, however profound and moving, is not the same as art, which transforms consciousness. The images of Las Meninas and The Simpsons at Thanksgiving show us the complexity of our relationship to the world. If only I could say the same about The Monuments Men.
– Walter Metz