PRINT September 1989



FRANCIS BACON’S FIGURE WITH MEAT, 1954, is the only modern work in the Flugleheim Museum in Tim Burton’s Batman, as if Bacon’s image were the rough beast signaling the birth of the new barbarian age, the Cerberus in front of which the Joker pauses before entering the post-Modern Hades he will actually create: “I like this one, Bob. Let it go.” Bacon is an interesting choice as the father of a new artistic age—hardly considered “modern” at all, he’s nicely poised for filiation, and as the painter par excellence of violence, obsessed with the abattoir, he’s the logical ancestor for “the world’s first fully functioning homicidal artist.” The painter of the cry is acknowledged, but not appropriated, by the possessor of the rictus grin.

The Joker is the “modern” artist, at least one very visible version of him. His antics at the museum (which looks like a Lee Bontecou construction, as if another “marginal” artist had the last laugh of coralling a handful of wan “masterpieces”) provide the missing moments in the collection: action painting, Color Field painting, performance art, graffiti art, Pop art, appropriation art. He is also a hopelessly outmoded expressionist (a walking bereted cliché) misbehaving in a post-Modern museum where the chronology of Gainsborough-Stuart-Bacon makes perfect sense on a wall that segues into an “important” restaurant. As artist, the Joker is both hopelessly outdated and a vision of the future. Archaic and primal, he is willing to cross the next frontier: “I make art until someone dies.” The Joker reclaims seriousness for art, consistently rejecting fashion and mere sensual beauty. Moreover, the layers of his face—flesh-toned makeup covering a white mask (to disguise his disfiguration) made by a surgeon of limited means, a poor artist who blames his tools—reflects an awareness of the problem of originality. The Joker balls up all the tangled strings of the art world’s present image: money (“What do you want?” asks Vale; “My face on the one-dollar bill,” he replies); publicity (complaining about the kind of world where a guy in a bat costume steals all his press, the Joker perfectly captures many artists’ sense of righteous entitlement); a place in history (he wants Vale to document his work); murder; and art. As villain, the Joker shows in what low esteem artists are held; it is now as reprehensible to be an artist as it is to be a lawyer. In him, the public acknowledges their helplessness before the pact between art and male aggression.

Who then can put an end to this unholy alliance? That Batman is also an artist is clear from the symbiotic relationship between the two: “I made you . . . You made me first.” Both masked men, they mirror each other in their need to unmask others: the Joker’s compulsion to disfigure, undo, the masklike faces of professional beauties echoes Batman’s compulsion to unmask the Joker as Jack Napier, murderer of his parents. Not only are they both psychotic, but their psychoses match. From the opening spiraling movement of the camera as it moves around the contours of the carved Batsign to the advertising logo that reads as both bat and mouth, each image doubles back on itself.

There is a parade of parallel characters, among which Batman and Vale are voyeurs (by avocation and vocation, respectively) while the Joker and his model-moll, played by real-life model Jerry Hall, are exhibitionists in the same relationship. Clearly, Burton wishes to conflate his two main characters. As Jack Napier moves in to kill Boss Grissom, two Deco figures that strongly resemble the hooded hero loom large outside the window behind the victim. Immediately after the newly visaged Joker exits up the stairs from the surgery, Bruce Wayne goes up the stairs to his bedroom with Vicki Vale. Jack embraces his new love—his prosthetic nightmare of a face—in a defiant narcissism while Bruce embraces the flawless Vale, another kind of narcissism since she is the reflection of the “perfect world” he works at creating. (His general indifference to Vale is the complement of the Joker’s rage against women, and Keaton’s virtually immobile portrayal suggests suppressed rage. Indeed, the Joker seems to act out Batman’s repressed desires, for example kissing Vale’s shoe, whereas earlier Wayne had only dared remove it from her foot.) The way Batman keeps popping up after having been shot imitates the Jack-in-the-box pun of the Joker’s gifts to Vale. Playing possum, Batman becomes the trickster, that is, the Joker, the return of the repressed. The most obvious telescoping occurs when both suitors, visiting Vale’s apartment, make identical remarks: “Nice place you’ve got here. Lots of space.”

The only distinction between hero and villain seems to be in the kind of artists they represent. Joker is the id artist, proponent of kitsch, manipulator of the media, self-justifying, messianic, misogynistic. Batman is the enforcer artist, super-ego, who uses a show of power to reform, a high technician futurist whose home is pseudomedieval. Already, in the mere description, we are confused about which side to take. The Joker is a guerrilla leader of a racially eclectic phalanx; Batman is a lonely superpower maintaining a feudal system. When the Joker plays critic, we cannot help but agree with his assessment that Vale’s trendy fashion shots are “crap” compared to her Armageddon photos, but are implicated in the psychosexual perversion of his preference. And as collector, Bruce Wayne is unpalatable if only for his cold unfamiliarity with what he owns. Yet in the taste wars we may not be able to help preferring Wayne Manor to the Joker’s fringed lampshades, tacky kitchenette, and garish palette.

Except, of course, that we ricochet from one to the other in pure reaction. As an image of the artist, the Joker is compelling and appalling. As his only alternative, so is Batman. Between the two there is no choice. Ultimately, it is unclear whether the filmmakers, hip enough to understand the collusion between hero and antihero, are critical of the double bind of active-passive, black-white, reflection-absorption bequeathed us by Western civilization, though they illustrate it so well. When impossibilities are limited to a set of dichotomies, everyone turns schizoid. The only showcased black, Billy Dee Williams, is a mere notation, a complete Rorschach: his blackness can be read as sincerity in politics, his cigar as corruption, his boutonnière as both sensibility and ineffectiveness. That Vale shoots fashion layouts along with war photos makes utter sense in this world (although, as it turns out, Corto Maltese is Europe’s most popular comic book hero, not the site of a revolution, so in one sense Vale’s pursuits are consistent). In the office she wears glasses and pulls her hair back in a businesslike fashion; outside she often dresses in white like a Grimm heroine. She is by turns the natural beauty in no need of makeup—hence safe from the cosmetics scare—and the vermilion-lipped, shoulder-padded fashion plate. The perfect cipher, she searches for approval, constantly pushing her portfolio. (Her first invitation to Wayne after sleeping with him is to show him her work at her place; her life in jeopardy, she nonetheless registers disappointment at the Joker’s negative criticism of her art.) In the end, she abandons her story to become another item in the Wayne collection, closely linked to Alfred, the servant.

Heads, you lose; tails, you lose.

Jeanne Silverthorne is an artist who writes cultural criticism.