The Joker: The Art World’s Best Patron

Joaquin Phoenix is just the latest performance artist to take on the role.

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Sep 19 2018, 7:43pm

Arguably one of the best scenes in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) is when Jack Nicholson, as the Joker, and his henchmen romp through the Gotham City Museum, trashing a variety of eighteenth and nineteenth century masterworks and objects from classical antiquity. They deface Gainsborough’s Blue Boy (1779) and smash ancient Egyptian sculptures, all while Prince’s “Partyman” plays on a boombox. It’s only when one of his cronies approaches Figure with Meat (1954) by Francis Bacon with machete in hand that the Joker objects, reaching out his cane in protection as he says, "I kind of like this one, Bob. Leave it."

That the Joker would have such specific taste in art goes against the archetype of an evil villain as self-interested, brutal, and seemingly incapable of experiencing emotions, let alone having a favorite painting in a museum. But therein lies the gag. The Joker doesn’t hate art; he hates good taste. Of course he prefers the gruesome and psychologically disturbing paintings of Bacon, whose ghoulish depictions of individual anguish reviled the beauty-seeking midcentury public.

Francis Bacon, Figure with Meat, 1954.

Bacon’s paintings epitomize the pathos of the postwar era, and depict screaming popes and caged businessmen. In Figure with Meat, the gaping mouth and wild eyes of the figure are not unlike the Joker’s. After all, the face of evil wants to see itself in the visuals that surrounds it: smeared, monstrous, and malformed. It makes sense that the Joker would prefer the abjection of the Bacon painting to the romanticism of the Degas ballerina sculpture he so casually knocks to the floor. In art, equating standardized beauty with virtue is a falsity the Joker understands, and with his love of the debased and grotesque, he is merely making a critique.

A haunted role, the Joker’s other iterations have also been monstrous aesthetes with a look drawn from art, from Nicholson’s tailor-made grin to Heath Ledger’s caked-on stage makeup in The Dark Knight (2008), which director Christopher Nolan admits was inspired by Bacon’s paintings. (Don’t even get me started on Jared Leto’s method acting.) The Joker himself has also been a muse for the art world, particularly for Andy Warhol, who interpreted the Batman logo in several works, made the unauthorized 1964 film Batman Dracula, and even appeared on the ’60s TV show. In fact, the museum destruction scene in Burton’s Batman is an echo of a scene from the show: the Joker’s vandalism is embraced by the art world as great Pop art, and Batman must reveal the truth. (Clearly, this a comic at least mildly obsessed with the pomposities of the art world.)

Joaquin Phoenix, a noted performance artist who trolled America while filming the mockumentary I’m Still Here, is also in an upcoming Joker biopic. A far cry from the cartoonish Joker with his bright purple dinner jacket and a satin orange tie, Phoenix plays the titular villain dressed as a tailored "normie" named Arthur Fleck (though I hope he wears that nasty purple jacket at some point, or at least the slime green dye job). He lurks the streets in plain clothes with diabolical sociopathy lying just beneath the surface. That lack of outward evilness has disturbed lots of fans online; “it’s literally a fucking photo of Joaquin Phoenix with long hair,” as one person tweeted.

Arthur’s normie look has roots in another satirical villain of cinema, Patrick Bateman of American Psycho, who keeps a handful of 1980s artworks in his yuppie-tastic New York apartment, including Richard Prince’s Marlboro Man, which was appropriated from magazine ads, as well as Cindy Sherman’s self-portrait in Untitled Film Still #56 (1980), which shows the artist as a beautiful blonde losing herself in her own mirrored reflection. The artists represented in both Bateman’s and the Joker’s worlds share a similar critique of artifice. Historically, Bacon’s Figure with Meat is said to be a parody of the Pope Innocent X (1656) portrait by Diego Velázquez; it’s often noted that Bacon appropriated the hanging meat of Rembrandt's Slaughtered Ox (1655) to flank the gruesome Pope. We might have the wrong idea about this guy, Bacon suggests.

If Bacon’s paintings teach us anything, it’s that madness is always at hand, no matter how average the appearance. In Phoenix’s portrayal, the downplay of the Joker’s aesthetic brand of evil makes it all more insidious, more banal with the aesthetics of horror waiting to reveal themselves. Don’t get the wrong idea about this normie.