This 1999 episode of The Simpsons rehashes three of television’s favorite themes about the art world: 1) contemporary art is usually made by cobbling together a bunch of garbage, 2) the most successful artists aren’t even trying and 3) the art world has the attention span of a stoned teenager.
When Marge (Julie Kavner) chastises Homer (Dan Castellaneta) into doing something besides lounging in a hammock and drinking beer out of coconuts, he decides to build a barbecue. After failing to follow the directions correctly, he ends up with an unsightly pile of bricks, concrete and a beach umbrella. Homer hitches the mess to his bumper and tries to illegally dump it, but instead it collides with the car of an art dealer named Astrid Weller (Isabella Rossellini). After tracking him down, she praises Homer’s creativity and describes the botched barbecue assemblage as an example of “outsider art” (she uses air quotes). Astrid explains that outsider art “could be made by a mental patient, or a hillbilly or a chimpanzee” and she then curates the junk pile into a museum exhibition.
In typical Simpsons style, Homer’s art is an overnight sensation. He even finds himself surrounded by a crew of pretentious hangers-on named Gunther, Kyoto and Cecil Hampstead-on-Cecil Cecil. Homer’s friend Moe (Hank Azaria) identifies the groupies as “Euro-trash,” but tries to butter them up so he can find out where the “sea of meaningless sex” is located. Meanwhile, Jasper Johns (played by Jasper Johns) shows up at random moments, stealing light bulbs, finger foods and finally a boat. Translation: artists are thieves.
It’s no surprise that Homer’s success is difficult for Marge, who confesses that being an artist was her dream. Without even trying, she says, Homer has accomplished more in a week than she has in her whole life. “I’ve always liked your art,” he consoles. “Your paintings look like the things they look like.” To be sure, the art world’s ubiquitous sexism is not lost on the show’s writers.
But when it’s time for Homer’s solo show at the local museum, entitled, “Homer’s Odyssey,” his art is already old news. Works such as “Botched Hibachi,” “Failed Shelving Unit with Stupid Stuck Chainsaw and Applesauce” and “Attempted Birdhouse #1” fail to impress his fickle audience. Homer’s subsequent, ham handed attempt to incite live bidding on his art only fetches an offer of $2.00 for the bird in the birdhouse (if it’s still alive). “What’s going on here?” Homer pleads. “You weirdos loved this stuff.” Astrid then explains that they only love what’s new and shocking.
Determined to turn his situation around, Homer takes an inspiring trip to the Springsonian Museum, where he reacts strongly to a Turner painting of Venetian canals. Later, he gets a pep talk from his daughter Lisa (Yeardly Smith) about Christo’s innovative environmental works, although she points out that a person was killed and several others were injured by one of his giant yellow umbrellas. Not to be outdone, Homer comes up with a very foolish, very illegal plan to do something “really big and daring.” Enlisting the help of his son, Bart (Nancy Cartwright), he sets out to flood the entire town of Springfield by loosening hundreds of fire hydrants. As a result, every house is submerged in water, surely causing millions of dollars in property damage and thousands to be left homeless. Fortunately, this is a cartoon and not, say, the greater New York area circa late 2012.
Homer’s artistic adventures put him in good company with other subjects of the brush-with-the-art-world storyline. Characters such as Julia Sugarbaker in Designing Women and Mary Jenkins in 227 also enjoyed instant stardom after leaving ordinary objects in the sight of an art world gatekeeper. While these ladies ultimately go back to their “normal” lives, Homer takes his vision to the limit. What we end up with is a critique of the art world’s decadence and excess, but also a darker commentary on the artist’s ego. Homer is ultimately so eager for fame and attention that he is willing to inflict widespread devastation upon his community. And like every bad boy art star portrayed in the media, he is rewarded for his brazen behavior. The people of Springfield embrace their altered surroundings by floating through the streets in gondolas and swan-shaped paddleboats. Nevermind the inevitable drownings or costly rebuilding sure to await in the aftermath. “I have to admit,” Marge tells him, “you’ve created something people really love. You truly are an artist.”
Perhaps it boils down to the difference between a cartoon and “real” people and what we, as an audience, are willing to accept from them. Only in a fantasy, it seems, can we whole-heartedly embrace contemporary art, and only in the most absurd and ironic way.