In “Marge Gets A Job” (Season 4 episode 7) one of the first jokes involves Homer daydreaming about retirement.
This image struck me, because of a vague connection to something from my Art School days that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Recently I decided to dig back into that memory, and rediscovered the work of Edward Kienholz, and America installation artist who made art intended to point out the social ills of his era. Kienholz produced work from the mid-1950s up to his death in the 1990s. He was better known in Europe and called The Forgotten Beat Artist by some–although I think Jay DeFoe would have something to say about that. I’m embarrassed I didn’t remember him more clearly myself, as I’m familiar with his projects, and consider myself a fan.
The piece that I was finally able to find and tie to Homer’s daydream is:
It’s a pretty disturbing image, and maybe it isn’t clear why I think the later is related to the former. If you look at Homer in the gif at the top of this essay, he’s blandly dreaming of the life he’s already living. For him, the pleasures of retirement aren’t going to be any more challenging, sublime, or different than anything else he’s ever done. In “State Hospital” the patient/inmate is similarly trapped in the only life he’s ever known. Note the thought balloon made out of neon containing the figure on the top bunk, that isn’t a second inmate, but the first’s own self image. The world has failed this person so spectacularly, that they can’t even dream of a better life. Writer Shelly Couvrette has a wonderful, detailed essay about this work I recommend reading.
The Simpsons is about a lot of things, one theme they regularly return to is the stability and stagnation of suburban life. Only Lisa dreams of a world beyond Evergreen Terrace and Springfield–she’s probably the only one who’d know who Edward Kienholz is, too. For the rest of the characters, the most they hope for is there’ll continue to be a roof overhead, a grade school to raise hell in, dinner on the table, and a couch to watch TV from. For some people, that sounds like heaven. In the show’s most sinister moments, life in Springfield has been as unvarnished and dire as “State Hospital,” particularly in Grandpa’s nursing home.
I may just be making this connection in my own head. I saw “Marge Gets A Job” before I ever knew about “State Hospital” but both stuck with me, and have had a stronger resonance because I think there is a hand reaching from one to the other. The episode Homer’s daydream comes from is a pretty good example of that idea of entrapment I’m talking about. In “Marge Gets A Job,” Mrs. Simpson has taken work outside the home, because her husband can’t afford to pay for the repairs that have literally and metaphorically destabilized their house. By the end of the story, the foundation has been fixed, and Marge is back to being solely a homemaker again. A standard TV plot where everything has to reset to default and the end of 23 minutes.
It’s hard to imagine a sitcom tackling horrible cultural ills with the hot critical knife of a pioneering installation artist, and staying on the air for over 25 years. Influences come from everywhere, though, and in its golden years The Simpsons had some of sharpest and smartest mass media creators in the country working on the show.
Further bolstering my appropriation theory is a season 10 episode “Mom and Pop Art” in which Homer becomes a melange of different Modern Art tropes, producing small scale assemblages, and finally a Springfield-wide installation involving a flood and snorkeled zoo animals. Notably, Pop Artist Jasper Johns, a peer of Kienholz, appears as himself, stealing whatever isn’t being watched, in an easy nod to his early works with appropriated subjects. Longtime Simpsons creator Al Jean wrote “Mom and Pop Art” and was showrunner on the earlier episode.
It isn’t a stretch to think The Simpsons writing team on “Marge Gets a Job” and “Mom and Pop Art” would know about Kienholz’ most famous work, or that by sneaking a little nod to him into the show, they’d push the subtext a little harder and make the more genteel jokes sting a little stronger.
Image detail of “State Hospital” from Shelly Couvrette’s blog cat-sidh.net