“I kind of like this one, Bob. Leave it.”
“Barbed wire is the medium of the future, Mrs. Russelmeier… but that is no way to make a banana.” The Joker, 1966.
Two 1966 episodes of the Batman TV series– itself a masterpiece of Pop Art and camp– overtly call out to Pop Art and the (then) contemporary abstract expressionists with Pop Goes The Joker/Flop Goes The Joker, in which the eponymous lunatic vandalises an art gallery. When one of the artists whose works have been permanently wrecked with splashes of paint actually likes it and appreciates that their value’s been increased (“All I could ever draw was stupid looking farm boys”– a sly but spot-on dig at Norman Rockwell), the Joker wastes no time in getting himself into Gotham City’s art world. He starts by winning an art competition against the likes of Jackson Potluck, Pablo Pinkus, and a paint flinging monkey. After an all-too-accurate satirical exhibition of what would generally be referred to as their “practice”, the Joker paints the prizewinning artwork; a tiny mauve dot on a blank canvas. One of the judges, however, notes that “I kind of like what the monkey did…”
In fact both episodes are packed with great quips or mordant observations about the general perception of contemporary art and artists. Some of them still strike a nerve, especially the Joker’s fraudulent art school (Joker: “Sorry, millionaires only, please.” Millionaire Bruce Wayne, after being instantly accepted: “Aren’t you going to give me a test to see if I have any talent?”), the crit session where anything can be justified and Bruce is castigated for earnestly sculpting fruit, and the art dealer surreptitiously upping the price tag of a painting by $2500 when Alfred expresses an interest on behalf of the millionaire Bruce Wayne.
As a bonus, both episodes are also packed with people in smocks and berets, and they get beaten up by Batman and Robin. They’re generally just daft and fun to watch, as well. You remember fun, don’t you? It’s the thing that was completely forbidden and absent in Christopher Nolan’s pompous, pretentious iterations of Batman recently. “Why so serious?” indeed. Joker could be addressing Nolan and Christian Bale directly when he sums up the real appeal of Batman in Pop… “What can you expect from a man who appears in public in such a ridiculous outfit?” You can go dark with Batman and the Joker– Alan Moore, Frank Miller and Grant Morrison’s writing for these characters effectively if somewhat inadvertently provoked the whole dark and gritty superhero orthodoxy of the past twenty years, almost on their own– but the pair remain essentially daft fantasy figures and not realistic as human beings, despite or perhaps even because of their psychological and narrative potency.
Tim Burton’s brief recapitulation of Pop Goes The Joker, in the first of the 80s/90s cycle of Batman films, is clearly somewhat darker even though it still features comedy berets. And it’s inexplicably soundtracked by an incongruous, mediocre Prince song that has nothing to do with anything, but let’s ignore that for now. Joker and his cronies once again vandalise an art gallery. This time Degas and Rembrandt, among others, get a Joker détournement intervention. The Flugelheim Museum’s collection of Classical sculptures is smashed, or they get green hair and red lipstick. Only Francis Bacon is to Joker’s taste. The film’s an absolute bloody mess in almost every way except for its stunning techno-gothic-deco production design, but again there are a few sharply observed little details. Immediately following the destruction of the Flugelheim’s art works– and after gassing most of its patrons, possibly fatally– the Joker meets with photographer/journalist/Kim Basinger/eye candy/whatever Vicky Vale. I’ve always loved the way Jack Nicholson goes through her portfolio of trendy stuff, barely looking at any of it and dismissing every page with, “crap, crap, crap, crap…”; I’ve often been tempted to do the same with portfolios and in art galleries. Eventually he finds some photos of murder victims that he approves of. Fortunately I’ve never done that with somebody’s portfolio.
Nicholson’s Joker also has a bit where he portrays himself as a kind of outsider artist who’s just prepared to go that little bit further and mutilate or kill his public if necessary. “I make art until somebody dies.” This ties in nicely with the deranged intensity and strange obsessions of some real world artists, and with the Joker’s own fascinating imaginary psychology as a man who doesn’t think there’s any such thing as a joke that’s gone too far.
Under the break you can watch both episodes in full, and a clip of the Joker obviously having a profound influence upon the young Banksy at the Flugelheim: