The Dream of Art in Batman

“Thou art a dreaming thing, / A fever of thyself” – Keats

Jack Nicholson’s the Joker is the Romantic Visionary artist in extreme. His version of the apocalypse emerges from his diabolical imagination and his scheme to poison Gotham’s commercialized vanity. This is, to recall a quote I used in a previous post, the Romantic Vision on steroids:

The desire beneath many romantic literary visions is for a terrifying awakening that would undo the West’s economic cultural order, whose origin was the Industrial Revolution and whose goal is global saturation, the obliteration of different. It is also the desire, of course, of what is called terrorism. Transgressive artistic desire – which wants to make art whose very originality constitutes a step across the beyond boundaries of the order in place – is desire not to violate within a regime of culture … but desire to stand somehow outside, so much the better to violate and subvert the regime itself. (See Crimes of Art and Terror by Frank Lentricchia and Jody McAuliffe)

The Joker, to be sure, wants to cleanse society.

That this “transgressive desire” is also an artistic desire becomes quite clear in the Joker’s famous destruction of the Gotham museum (apologizes for the lack of English):

What we have here is not just vandalism, but a figurative devastation of the Western Tradition, an overhaul of that tradition whereby all the victimized paintings are thrown onto Wallace Stevens’s dump. But what happens when this goes too far?  The following crucial clip reveals the Joker’s visionary terror:

“I now do what other people only dream. I make art… until someone dies… hehehe!!” On the one hand, the Joker wants his face on the one dollar bill. Visionary Genius for the 20th century, no? On the other, we see his twisted version of Pygmalion play out at the end of this scene when his deformed mistress Alicia reveals his “new aesthetic.” Bildung gone awry?

But maybe the “living work of art” is not actually Romantic, maybe what the Joker sees in himself, and thus forces upon Alicia, is Oscar Wilde’s discovery: “The Truth of metaphysics is the Truth of masks.” What then are we to make of the Joker’s indistinguishable mask face? Or, more importantly, the “true” disfigured face he covers with makeup in the name of a “real face.” (See the 1:30 mark from the clip below)

“I’ve taken off my makeup [of course he is wearing makeup!]; now lets see if you [Batman] can take off yours.” An ironic reversal! Recall Wilde once more: “A Truth of art is that whose contradictory is also true.” The Joker prevaricates with his “real” makeup, but acts with sincerity without. It is when he embraces his abnormality that he can act out the true passions in his depraved heart.

The Penguin, in Batman Returns, puts this all into perspective (see esp. the 30 second mark).

“Ah, the direct approach,” says the Penguin, “I admire that in a man with a mask.” He later remarks (in a clip I cannot find): “You’re just jealous, because I’m a genuine freak and you have to wear a mask!” to which Batman replies “You might be right.” Catwoman and Batman’s appearance at the masquerade party as Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle corroborates the Penguin’s assessment. (see especially the 1:55 minute mark of the clip below)

Batman and Catwoman are aesthetes for as Wilde tells us “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” In contrast, the Penguin and the Joker are dreamers. Dreamers who are, indeed, quite feverish. They are also clearly artists, allowing all the conotations of that word to blossom. What kind of artist and to what extent? Maybe this is what Henry James means when he writes: “We work in the dark – we do what we can – we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”  Translation:

How nuts is this madness? A topic for another post … same Bat-time, same Bat-blog.