Joker: the Man Who Paints
The television series BATMAN, which aired on the ABC Network between 1966 and 1968, could not be more different in style and tone from Tim Burton’s 1989 film BATMAN. While the TV series was self-consciously campy, taking its cues from the more outlandish entries in the BATMAN comic-book series in the 1950s and 1960s, Burton’s film was serious, inspired by the late ’80s comic books like THE KILLING JOKE and YEAR ONE. At first glance, it seems remarkable that the TV series and film could share anything in common at all, but in fact both depict the supervillain Joker as an artist. They diverge, though, in how they depict the art world: while the foray of TV series’ Joker, played by Cesar Romero, into the art world is a cynical comment about art, the film’s Joker, played by Jack Nicholson, makes a more nuanced comment about the staleness of most art.
In the opening scene of “Pop Goes the Joker,” the fifty-seventh episode of the second season, Romero’s Joker and his thugs deface several paintings (or at least that’s what they set out to do) in Bernie Park’s Artistic Procurers gallery. The Joker is motivated to do this--or at least so he declares in this scene--because he finds them aesthetically offensive. The targeted paintings include an imitation of Grant Wood’s 1904 work “American Gothic,” a painting of a Colonial-era official, and various pastoral landscapes and scenes (see figure 1): “Hey, this an outrage--an outrage against art! An insult, I say! Ugliness, monstrosity, horribility! Look at that! You call that art? And this thing. Disgusting! And this--worse and worse. This ugliness must be destroyed! Down with ugliness! Away with dullness!”
The works that Joker sprays with green and red spatters were painted by an artist named Oliver Muzzie (“America’s most beloved artist,” according to the gallery owner), an older man who harumphs when introduced to prospective buyer Alfred Pennyworth. Muzzie brightens considerably, however, when he decides that Joker’s additions have improved his paintings: “I have been trying to paint this modern stuff for years. I could never get the hang of it. All I could ever draw is stupid-looking farm boys and puppy dogs. Now this--this is art. Mr. Joker, let me congratulate you. Your work is magnificent!” Joker is stunned by this revelation (see header image), but he regains his composure quickly when he realizes the potentially lucrative financial opportunity before him, and he agrees to split future profits with Muzzie. He adopts the position of a modern artist whom the masses simply can’t understand: “these uncultured boobs have no appreciation for fine art!” he remarks of Batman and Robin’s violent incursion into the gallery.
With the cultural capital amassed from Muzzie’s endorsement, Joker enters Gotham City’s International Art contest, along with Pablo Pincus, Jackson Potluck, Leonard Davinsky, and Vincent van Gauche. These are obvious caricatures of canonical artists Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Leonardo da Vinci, and Vincent van Gogh, and, somewhat surprisingly, these four create compositions for the contest, not in the styles that they’re so well known for, but in the Abstract Expressionist mode. Pincus splashes his canvas with paint cans, Potluck immerses himself in a bathtub of paint and rolls on his canvas, Davinsky instructs his monkey to throw tomato-shaped paint balls at the canvas, and van Gauche by dipping his feet into buckets of paint. Joker doesn’t paint anything on his canvas (see figure 2). None of these artists, aside perhaps from Potluck/Polluck, painted in this way, but the point is clear: modern art, particularly the Abstract Expressionism of Pincus, Potluck, van Gauche, and Davinsky and the Minimalist of Joker, is ridiculous, and even, as we learn later in the episode when Joker starts an art school with the express purpose of holding its wealthy students for ransom, a criminal scheme.
“Pop Goes the Joker” presents a jaundiced view of the art world. American contributions to the art history canon are satirized, as well as proponents of modern art, like wealthy socialite Baby Jane Tawser, who are taken in by Joker’s silly pronouncements about the sacredness of modern art. Even respected international artists like Picasso, van Gough, and da Vinci are ridiculed. It’s ironic that the series was closely associated with the contemporary in-vogue Pop Art movement, as I detailed in an entry I posted back in May (http://www.rebootthepast.net/home/2018/5/27/post-34-basquiats-batman), and Joker does express some true sentiments about the staleness of what’s in museums (see figure 3), but we are left with the overwhelming impression that all art is a criminal scheme.
In his 1989 film BATMAN, director Tim Burton also uses Joker to pokes fun at art. But whereas the TV series depicts all art, whether establishment or the Joker’s “naïve” defacements, as phony, Nicholson’s Joker is a self-declared artist with aesthetic principles--he dislikes some art and likes other pieces.
Whereas Romero’s Joker uses Oliver Muzzie’s appreciation of his vandalism to insert himself into the art world, Nicholson’s Joker already thinks of himself (and photographer Vicki Vale) as an artist: “We mustn't compare ourselves to regular people. We're artists. … You will photograph and record my work. You will join me in the avant-garde of the new aesthetic.” This aesthetic is far from harmless: in his words he’s “the world’s first fully-functioning homicidal artist” “who makes art until someone dies,” his work including a “sketch,” his girlfriend’s acid-scarred face (see one of my past entries: http://www.rebootthepast.net/home/2016/9/26/post-28-the-transformations-of-harley-quinn). Even Joker’s outfit in this scene is a parody of a stereotypical artists outfit, complete with a purple beret (see figure 4). So we’re inclined to agree with Vicki’s subsequent assessment of Joker (“You’re insane!”), but nevertheless we take Joker’s claim more seriously than the opportunistic transformation of Romero’s version.
Nicholson’s Joker’s aesthetic principles extend to Vicki’s photographs of the bodies of a civil war (“Now that's good work. The skulls, the bodies--you give it such a glow. I don't know if it's art, but I like it,” he declares as he leafs through the portfolio) and to a painting by the British artist Francis Bacon that he had earlier saved from destruction.
Francis’ Bacon is saved during a scene parallel to “Pop Goes the Joker” in which Nicholson’s Joker and his henchmen invade the Fluegelheim Museum. A barely-disguised copy of New York City’s Guggenheim Museum, the Fluegelheim is flooded with poison gas by Joker so that his gang’s vandalism of the art on display won’t be challenged. Surveying the bodies of patrons, who cling to their elite ideas about art even in death (see figure 5), Joker and his henchmen “improve” the Fluegelheim’s artworks by splashing them with red, green, blue, and yellow paint.
The targeted works span a wide chronological and stylistic range. Joker topples an ancient Egyptian statue from its pedestal and writes “Joker was here!” on an Edward Hopper painting, while his goons color a marble bust of a Roman emperor to look more like their leader (see figure 6), add red handprints to a Rembrandt painting, and spray-paint a dollar sign on a portrait of George Washington. In one way this parallels Joker’s incursion into the Bernie Park gallery in “Pop Goes the Joker,” but in another it’s satire is more targeted: artworks from a variety of times and places is vandalized, not just American art, and not a particular style.
Particularly striking, and a major departure from Romero’s Joker, comes when Nicholson’s Joker prevents one of his henchmen from destroying one of the paintings. His second-in-command Bob brandishes a knife, preparing to rip into “Figure with Meat,” a 1954 painting by the British artist Francis Bacon, but Joker intercedes (see figure 7) Bacon doesn’t fit the stereotypical definition of “modern art” as Abstract Expressionism and the stale examples of American art in the Park gallery do.
The director of BATMAN, Timothy Walter Burton, was born in 1958. He was 9 years old when “Pop Goes the Joker” and “Flop Goes the Joker” aired on ABC. He went to art school and worked in Walt Disney Company’s art department while he made shorts based on his own ideas. These included the short films “Hansel and Gretel” and “Frankenweenie,” before Disney executives fired Burton. In this way, Burton’s progressive ideas about art allowed him to understand, and perhaps even be especially interested in, the cynical attitude toward art that Romero’s Joker displays in “Pop Goes the Joker” without taking it on completely.
Today, we largely discount that the 1960s BATMAN TV series, which is frequently dismissed as campy and silly, light-weight fare, could have any relationship with the gritty version that has dominated images of the dark knight in the late 1980s and beyond. But as the episode “Pop Goes the Joker” and the film BATMAN demonstrate, the two are not completely separated from one another. Romero’s Joker slyly manipulates people’s understanding of art in order to leverage his own criminal schemes, whereas Nicholson’s Joker seems to be an artist because he genuinely sees himself that way. Both versions seek to overturn the elite’s outdated notions about art; the difference is that the TV series becomes suffused with cynicism towards all art, while the film’s Joker adopts different attitudes towards different art, spurning outdated modes and embracing works like Bacon’s that feature “skulls and bodies.”