“I kind of like this one, Bob, leave it” : Iconoclasm and the homicidal artistry of the Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989).

rev., August 17, 2014.

At the end of his iconoclastic romp through the Flugelheim Museum in Gotham City in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), the Joker (Jack Nicholson), sticks out his cane and stops Bob from vandalizing the Francis Bacon. He says to him

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This is a joke about Bacon, of course, and his existential angst, which perhaps in 89 was considered somewhat passe, but also about what the tastes of a psycho in contemporary art might be as well. While most of the works of art that were vandalized were beautiful in conventional ways of art, this was an anti-beauty ugly work of art. The fact that the face of the screaming Pope or Figure with Meat

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is white, also would be in accordance with Joker’s new taste, and the innards of beef too would appeal to his bloodthirsty taste for death. In fact, the episode begins with death. The Flugelheim Museum is depicted in classic Anton Furst manner as something carved out of a factory, in a town of overgrown modernism, without a glass box in it to smooth things out. Inside, it is a highly atypical art museum, as much of the art is right in the lobby, which is not common, and, if it occurs, only would in a very small museum. But right away one sees that we are in fact in a movie version of an art museum, and not a real art museum. Like the art museum, perhaps, in a Wishmaster sequel, or another in, I think, the Hellraiser series, this is an art museum where only the blue chip masterpieces of art are shown, the icons of art history, and as such it is rather a representation of the concept of art itself, as a cultivating power in life, than a real art museum.

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One sees in the lobby, the Rembrandts, highly unlikely, less so behind an Egyptian sculpture on a pedestal, and even less so next to a Degas. Uptop is a Blue Boy by Gainsborough, a few more classics, and then we get back to the Bacons. The cafeteria where he is assignated to meet Vicky is upstairs in the back to the right. The only real museums in New York city that this set up reminds up even if only in profile is the Academy of Fine Arts on Fifth Avenue, where, back of the entrance and the coatroom, there was some sculpture, leading to the spiral stair; the old layout of the Morgan, where you could come into the lobby, there would be glass cases with art in them, and then the main gallery of the art off to the side; other than that, mainly art galleries. But this is quibbling, with these images on the walls, the place represents art per se. A special note about the Blue Boy, overlooked in the movie. The Blue Boy is one of the ur works of American art in our generation because it was held in the Huntington Library in California, and the work that not only inspired Robert Rauschenberg to become an artist, but Dave Hickey to become an art critic: and in both cases it was the movement of an image that they thought, because the Huntington reproduced it so often with Pinkie in playing card sets in the 50s, an image of popular art, made into real art. I have also explored the role of Blue Boy as an icon of first exposure to art, as an elevating force in life, as something that makes life worth living, in my life, for the same trajectory. That is, it advanced the meaning of life from everyday non-agentic paralysis and lack of meaning, to the level of art, and agency, and having meaning: the Blue Boy is not only an icon representing then the cult of art, a sacred image, then (and Rembrandt’s cigar box special would be another example), but also that original figure that stepped out of everyday life into the realm of art, that ascended from low down life to art. For this upward trajectory, and for identifying this force and trajectory, as the purpose of art, elevation to cultivated life, art as such is an enemy of the worldview of the Joker. And that is why he feels it necessary to not only do a little vandalism, but symbolically wipe out the concept of art. His first step is to gas the place, so that when he comes into the space, it is more in keeping with his world view. He has redone the space in gas, in the miasma of evil, and negated art, almost painting by painting, to a dead body lying on the floor of the gallery. By killing people looking for transcendence in art, he has cut art off from its old masters traditional goal, and turned the world back into the realm of death that he lives in.

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since this figure on the floor has a catalog and spilled glasses, he can be called a vignette of the death of the connoisseur as well, the negation of all that bullshit, that, in the popular imagination, art criticism is.

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As a result, this is Burton’s rendition of Rockwell’s sourly situated retort to high art and all the art critics who ignored him, his Conoisseur (1962)

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Closer to the time of the movie, Mark Tansey’s The Innocent Eye Test (1981) would make the same sort of joke,

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And if you do not believe that this culture war continues, conventionally seeing the art world as a place of hopeless pretense and elitist incomprehensible stupidity, the snobbishness of which deserves a regular put down, then consider that two weeks ago 60 Minutes, watched, for god’s sake, by an elite audience, but perhaps not one in tune with the arts (preferring illegal derivative financing formulas to the incomprehensibility of art writing), did a feature on the German forger Beltragie, and got special pleasure in reducing Pollock expert Francis X. O Connor to silence, refusing to vouch for the authenticity of a Pollock because of all the legal jeopardy involved, in effect recreating Rockwell’s middle brow rejoinder.

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The act of iconoclasm that follows can be seen as one large and coherent performance, with several acts in it, a romp, as I put it, or as individual acts of iconoclasm against famous art, for particular reasons. It starts when Joker, with his crew, puts on the boombox of Prince, and then he begins to gesture and dance and vandalize, and then, after his lead, he orchestrates the others in doing most of the dirty work. First, he does like a marching band, as maybe boom boxers did then (as, for example, in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing), to exert their social power, and, passing by, uses his cane to drop the Egyptian statue to the floor, smashing it

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He then heads to the famous American Scene urban scene on the left (Hopper? Shahn? At present my mind blocks), and in this act, his iconoclasm is represented by inserting his own addition to the space in the painting. There is a blank wall by a railroad yard in it, and he dips into the fictive space, to, with internal logic in the picture, put a large scale graffiti, 80s style, on the wall, even though on another whole level he is just vandalizing the surface of the material work of art.

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This double act of iconoclasm (on the surface, and inside the fictive space of it) was a bit more “creative” than the subsequent acts by his crew, because he actually enters into the picture, its fictive space, then makes a graffito, which could, momentarily, be mistaken as a graffito painted by the artist in the painting, altering it, if the wall in the railroad was up to date, as today it would inevitably be covered with large scale graffiti. By contrast, all the crew does is cross out, with x’s of red paint, a meaningless, blank act of desecration,

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Re paint or color (oddly the High Art Association did just this with busts of Nefertiti at the Acquavella Galleries last summer, 2013),

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and in the movie

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Makes handprints of I was here on a Rembrandt portrait (these reminding me of the red feet representing the presence of a ghost in the Ju on movies).

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a splash, mimicking that modus of contemporary painting (indulging then in some jokes at the expense of crazy contemporary art

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and others,

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And then Joker becomes more involved again in, in this act, mimicking the work of art, which is odd, as this is what people do who take pictures with it, or, in today’s terms, photobomb it, thus underming it by an intrusion of viewer mentality, or make jokes about the art

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And then upstairs is when his cane comes into play to stop Bob from vandalizing the one work he likes, and it is perhaps important that it is that interruption of iconoclasm, Bob seems ready to have slashed it, doing a Fontana on the Bacon, or cutting the Bacon, is as close as the Joker gets with his cane to mimicking the gesture of the artist with tam with brush (for he is parodying in a chip on shoulder fashion an old fashioned notion of being an artist), and being an artist. This suggests that as a kind of negating artist the Joker saw iconoclasm as one type of art he might do, just go around and toss paint on classics, descreating the classics, in the manner of a bad statement or radical contemporary artist with a serious chip on his shoulder

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But then it is also to be noted that with the exception of his altering of the text of the Hopper, and mimicking the Degas before knocking it down, the vocabulary of iconoclasm in the gang is pretty weak. It is not the strongest sequence, and it is so square in its formation, blunt acts of iconoclasm against works of art that represent art and are not real works of art, that it does not have in fact much real punch, it feels, in other words, comic booky, kitsch. One of the fun things about this sequence was that I watched it for the first time in a theater in Florida with two artists, so, in an art world context. It was the artist who shared with me the observation that “it is a bit disturbing that I was more upset about the destruction of the art than the killing of the people.” I would say the answer to this problem is that the destruction of the art was staged in such as to represent an attack on the concept of art per se, while the killing of the people was just a collateral damage event in a campaign of mayhem focused on larger things elsewhere in the movie (and, besides, killing of people is what you get in movies, not the destroying of art).

In any case, that is his iconoclasm. It will be part of his life as a new kind of artist, in his post-criminal, or transcended mad criminal stage. He had in fact come to the museum to meet with Vicky, so this is all part of his introduction and his entrance. His first entrance then is with Vicky coming early and finding her place, and she is looking quite good here, between the Blue Boy and the Bacon

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And we see in this shot that she was actually also standing in front of the George Washington, the response to that, and iconoclasm, was Money

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And then as she waits, something arrives at her table, a small gift, wrapped up in a comic booky way,

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She opens it, and it tells her what to do,

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And when the gassing starts, she knows what to do, and, again, nice contrast here of blonde hair and gas

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This box could be construed as just a box. But in fact he sends other gifts, and each time makes something of them, either in a prank or joke manner. Later, at her apartment, he sends Vicky another box, and then it hack in the boxes, to jump some dead flowers out at her, so it is kind of a gift turned into a threat, and she faints, movie style. These are evil votives, once they saved her, at other times they attack, this can be termed a genre of his counterreal art.

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A second kind of ‘art’ that he does is to remake people over to look like him, after he was remade from his accident, and the failed plastic surgery. He was left without pigment, stained white, and with an evil rictus, from a paralysis of muscles. And so he gets hold of a model and does her over that way too

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This is partly psychotic agency, imprinting an evil outcome on the world, for it to share in one’s agony. It s a form of revenge, but also reverse envy, to take everyone down to his level. It is more about revenge when he directly acts against his girlfriend who double crossed him, a bit part by then Jagger wife Jerry Hall, and she is represented both in mask form, as a work in progress,

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And as a done deal, scared by his evil facial experimentation: these then literal examples of iconoclasm gone evil. In all cases, he matured in a world of hers, where the art was large black and white fashion photos. We can see this at the beginning, and now, as a psycho, he has his revenge for a world that he now sees as false, full of hypocrisy and deceit, by literalizing it, by making the world over into a palliative zone nearer death where everything is like those photos, black and white.

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But there is also a sense that this image is partly made by his own graphic art, which entails cutting out pictures, and affixing them as jess like ironic and sarcastic collages onto the images of the tv, and, as such, part and parcele of his efforts to jam tv signals, and to take over the airwaves.

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These images are drawn from the core work of his new life as an artist of evil, a homicidal artist, he sits in his studio loft, and spends hours and hours cutting out images from pictures, stills, crime shots, etc etc, to make art for his broadcasts, in effect, acting as a kind of cable tv or youtube personality making a channel with its own graphic character of collage,

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He has a few desks in his art loft complex, this one seems to a desk that focuses entirely on his own photographic history in police files, all the pictures now cut out and done something with.

For me, the fun part of this shot is that, in addition to vamping off of the photos that Batman peruses, and existing in a world where the ‘art’ of that world is police photos and fashion photos, it also is a genre set piece in horror, where in a state of psychosis a person will engage in a psychotic act of iconoclasm against their own collection of photos and their photo books. Just off the top of my head, I have already written on this picture voodoo in the Ju On or Grudge movies, and the similarity of those devices to those created in a work of tabloid art by Curtis Mitchell in 1991, but the image of Joker sitting there at his table and cutting photos and altering them madly directly corresponds with Mimsy Farmer doing likewise, when her psychosis gets deeper, in The Perfume of the Lady in Black. And I could link this as well to actual picture voodoo in a number of other horror movies, including Virgin Witch.

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As part of this life, he lives a life that is an inversion of Batman’s. But when he does not like something he sees on the TV, he has one of his happening devices rigged up to, in comic manner, on par with vaudeville imagery of flowers pulled from sleeves, boxing glove smash the screen,

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Here’s the iconoclasm against tv,

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On the same level as fun and joke shop materials, he uses a buzz handshake prank to electrify a boss who opposes him, allowing him to light up

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And then be cartoonly, as this only happens in the cartoon universe , charred (on par with seeing the skeleton when someone laughs horribly or is electrocuted, as in the movie Planes, Trains, and Home Alone 2, he ends up a charred skeleton

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In most of these “works of art” or dada works of art, by the homicidal artist, he makes art til someone dies, and that means that he uses a prank device with a shock effect to make someone either faint or drop dead. This quick, one two punch format he introduced when he first said hello to hall in his new guise

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And she fainted away

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Finally, his more advanced art is to develop a formula to pollute cosmetics, to poison and kill, and so by refusing announcers their usual makeup, he performs another level of iconoclasm, in the context of which his deformation may not seem that terrible. This was taken at the time as an arch comment on coiffed news announcers, but the 80s knew nothing about what was to come once cable tv showed up

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His final act of art, per se, is that he appropriates the 200th anniversary parade and does it over his style. This means that he makes, or has made, his own versions of Macys dad parade balloons, Jeff Koons style, but evil, as they all emit lethal gas. He also throws money: in the 80s this was taken as symbolic as the worst sort of evil patronizing by the rich of the poor, ignobly reducing the poor to poor souls scrambling for cast off crumbs from the rich. Today, however, this is too common, and has become a repeated part of the new paternalism. Finally, the killing and the gas. So, again, art that leads to death, a work of homicidal art.

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And that is it, we have seen the acid-emitting lapel flower before, by which he causes the Quasimodo bell to fall, blocking police from the tower

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Now, he has declared, I am the world’s first homicidal artist. What does that mean, it means to him

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Early on, in real life, in a life without art, he was a straight up criminal. He was the agent, but an evil agent, using violence to illegitimately get his way. Violence, it is tough to determine what it is, in agency theory. At present, I will say that when an agent makes use of the emitted power of his position and posture vis a vis others in a way designed to influence and change and alter the agentic relations, that is agency. It is action resulting from persuasion in various forms, being overpowered, being made emotional, having an image transfix or hypnotize you, etc etc etc., and the catholics thought of lots of other ways images could acts as agents, then too modern art devised ways by which the artist acts as agents in numerous ways vis a vis life. But violence is antiagency: violence is the violation of agency. It declares the space and value between human beings, their capacity to influence each other, by persuasion or other emitted power, bankrupt, and, besides, too difficult, so it takes a gun, an illegitimate solution, and shoots through it, cancels it out, and gets their way by force alone, whether or not anyone is persuaded in the least. Agency works upon a viewer or “patient” as Gell termed the recipient of the equation. But if the act results in the patient being dead, there is no agency anymore. At present, that is as good as I can do on this difficult issue, it serves me enough to proceed with this movie and its agency.

When, then, he was just Jack, the criminal, he could kill, and commit crime. But then, when he was doublecrossed, he found himself in a new posture of bitterness and desire for revenge vis a vis his comrades and even his lover. He could have just killed them, but they did something that resulted in an absurd outcome in his life that was deemed by him to be such a ridiculous thing that it made him go mad and as mad he wanted to retreat to an impulse to imprint his image on all things, in an act of revenge, and then, after having had his fun, enabled by that persona, to kill. It was kind of a sidestep in agency, a counteragency: an act of iconoclasm was committed against him, he therefore used that to act to be his own golem against those who did this to him. To make his point, to, one, make his comrades fear him by having them think and see that he is absolutely psycho, and two, then to kill a seemingly terrorizing way, because it was devised in an artistic manner that, not like a mad scientist devising science by sporting with nature¸ seems out of his mind, he established a new kind of agency, or a reverse agency (in the sense of reverse engineering), or, in fact, for the first time as a criminal counteragency, established an indirect means of killing, and in that in- or misdirection, perceived as mad, was something akin to art, in the mind of Burton or the writers, and, passing it through art, reverse agency-engineered an apparent actual but fake agency. And that art consisted of one, imprinting others with his image, to kill them; two, making graphics for his iconoclasm against tv; three, make gag gifts that shock or kill, or squirt acid or punch out tvs; four, appropriate balloons and floats; and five, engage in straight out destructive iconoclasm. And, then, after being the “artist” part of the homicidal, comes the homicidal. The part of his mad zig zag that is akin to art is the mad feint, the effect that causes his subject to think him mad, and then he kills. The odd thing about this is that in my day I knew some artists who assumed this kind of persona in the art world, oddly, to counteract the world, and to seem psycho, or set apart, from that persona to act in art. Weird. I suppose Burton was thinking most of all of Andy Warhol, but others like Liz and Val, Jamie Lee Byars, others, all adopted this idea, maybe even Joseph Beuys, the notion of an intervening counterreality persona, through which one works against the world. .

So, the strange course of crime picked up by the Joker in Batman (1989) was the least of all about iconoclasm, it was about creating an evil agency in crime, to become a homicidal artist, to make art until someone died. In that, Jack Nicholson’s comic performance as Joker is in full and entirely a parody of the conceptual artist 1980s style. In all its forms, it is an intriguing formulation of character, and a “practice” of a kind of art. And, finally, this may answer why the iconoclasm against art was considered more upsetting than the killing of people to my movie partner at the time: killing is a direct result of antiagency, a crime, it is criminal activity, but it is not considered mad, in many, many cases; but an act of iconoclasm in the context of a kind of mad art making an evil game of killing before the killing, to make the killing seem wanton and in disregard of the humanity of the victim, that signals madness, and insanity, and an insanity beyond not being responsible for it, but “madness” in the sense of the mad artist, a conventional figure in modern horror. For that, then, the Joker represents Tim Burton’s take on one of the most enduring of clichés in modern horror movies, the mad artist, going way back to the House of Wax, and even further back, to the Phantom of the Opera: he has wanted to tell a story, and dig deep into the tropes of urban Euro-sourced horror, Anton Furst helped him get there, and for it he made a Joker as artist that may in fact be filed in alongside of the Phantom and the presider of the house of wax. It’s quite an accomplishment, and the sharp, startling characterization of this strange comic book criminal is largely responsible for why Batman (1989) remains a quite good movie, in my view, a four star movie.


This note feels partly related to a model of the avant garde artist that I devised at the time and which exists in full statement in the catalog I wrote for Cheryl Donegan for Basilico gallery in 1994.

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