Homer Simpson as Outsider Artist, or How I Learned to Accept Ambivalence (Maybe)

Article excerpt

Homer Simpson purchases a build-it-yourself barbecue pit and, with the help of his daughter Lisa, starts to assemble it. Not surprisingly (for anyone who knows Homer), he makes a mess of the project. Unsuccessful in his attempt to return the now-mangled item to the store, he tries to get rid of it in other ways, in vain. As he then drives down the street with the object tethered to the back fender of his car, it dislodges and crashes into a car behind him. When the driver of this car later shows up at his house, he is certain she is there to sue. Instead, she explains that she owns an art gallery where she would like to exhibit his object.

These early scenes in a spring 1999 episode of the The Simpsons, entitled "Mom and Pop Art," written by Al Jean and directed by Steven Moore, introduce the twin questions that reverberate throughout the episode: What is art? Who is an artist?1 These old, seemingly worn-out questions go back to Marcel Duchamp's readymades of the 1910s but are infused with new energy and meaning on The Simpsons.The incisive wit we encounter here punctures our staid judgments about art and artists, thereby releasing the latent ambivalence and confusion that we ought to welcome, confront, and enjoy.

The ambivalence and confusion about the what and who of art first enter the picture when Homer responds to the gallery owner's enthusiastic labeling of his failed barbecue pit as art. "You mean this hunk o' junk?" he asks. "This isn't art; it's a barbecue pit that pushed me over the edge." His wife, Marge, agrees: "You? An artist?" For habitual viewers of The Simpsons, Marge's exclamation of disbelief is rich in association. We know Marge is perennially annoyed by Homer's aversion to any cultural activities that might be deemed "high art." We know, too, from the episode "Brush with Greatness" of exactly eight years earlier (to the day), that as a high school student Marge herself had aspired to be an artist, and had sent Ringo Starr a portrait she had painted of him.2 Marge's portraits stand for conventional artistic skill, while Homer's contraption represents an unintended alternative to convention. Yet Homer as a character does not fit the alternative bill. This incongruity, by disorienting us, contributes significantly to our confusion, since we are unable to fit the idea of "Homer the artist" neatly into our existing categories and stereotypes.

Homer's initial disagreement with the art dealer's determination that his ruined barbecue pit is art sets the stage for a scene toward the end of the episode, in which Homer and Marge pay a visit to the local art museum. I will reveal a bit later what occasions this museum visit. For the present, I will zoom in on Homer's discovery, at the museum, of the comic-strip characters Akbar and Jeff, drawn by none other than the creator of The Simpsons, Matt Groening. Homer, as an aficionado of popular culture, immediately recognizes the author of this drawing and is stunned. "Matt Groening!" he shouts, "What's he doing in a museum? He can barely draw!"This judgment parallels Homer's own gut response when the art dealer declares, on his doorstep, that Homer has made a work of art. An implication of this parallel is that neither Homer's nor Groening's productions qualify as art. (It is worth pointing out, at this juncture, that the M formed by Homer's hair, when viewed from the side, and the one formed by his open shirt collar are very likely synecdoches for "Matt"; Groening himself has said that he identifies with Homer.)3

Homer's judgment of Groening's work, however, is not merely an indirect reference to the cartoonist's identification with his character. This judgment also operates to convey the opinion that comic-strip drawings (and, by extension, cartoons) are not art (which happens to be Greening's own viewpoint).4 Homer's judgment is also consistent with his character. For example, in the 1991 episode "Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington," he tells Marge that "cartoons don't have any deep meaning. …