Although there are many highlights in what is consistently an entertaining show, the season two’s “Pop Goes The Joker” is without a doubt my favorite moment in Adam West-era Batman. As a kid, anything about art interested me… and in the post-Batman Returns fever of the early nineties, anything involving Batman was even better.
Perhaps my favorite thing about the show, however little I realized it at the time, was the lighthearted glimpse it offered us into the 1960s. For all of its camp and saccharine dialogue, the series has always existed for me as an artifact of a time and place that I have only ever known through books or television.
Although one should really watch the episode to fully understand its brilliance (and I’m not using that word sarcastically), the basic plot involves the Joker’s seemingly accidental infiltration of Gotham’s high stakes gallery scene after vandalizing the work of another artist. While the Joker launches cartoonish paint from a spray gun across a room full of canvases (only to receive praise and accolades as a new, fresh voice in contemporary art moments later), we’ve already had the pleasure of meeting an avaricious gallery owner and the established artist who’s about to bear the fruit of the Joker’s iconoclasm.
Complete with accents and attitudes appropriate to those completely removed from every day life, both the artist and dealer are beautiful caricatures of high brow aristocrats. I can imagine what 1960s middle class America might have thought of these two hucksters, and doubt we’re not supposed to feel any empathy for them either. And who doesn’t love watching the entitled get screwed? In fact this entire episode is characterized by a general lack of empathy for the Joker’s victims, with the level of awesome seeming to vary inversely with the amount of respect these wealthy chumps are afforded.
I mention these seemingly inconsequential inflections only to express how biting the details really are. For a show that can appear naive in many ways, its scathing parody of the art world feels surprisingly nuanced and well-informed—which isn’t to say that any of the particulars are even remotely accurate, but they do taste of attitudes and truths that belie a desire on behalf of the writers to play along a little at being jesters themselves. Although the Joker certainly helps direct the plot, he seems as dedicated to thrilling the audience as antagonizing Batman.
The Joker’s debut culminates in an art contest (naturally), where we’re provided with another precious glimpse through the looking glass into Gotham City’s art establishment. Paint is sloshed around in that rather unrestrained way typical to any parody of abstract painting. Complete with a monkey hurling pigment and a sufficiently incomprehensible collection of methods and media, the Joker’s opponents are inevitably outdone by his own blank canvas, which he fawns and philosophizes over in a manner sufficient to drive home the point that this is indeed a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes—and we the audience have once again been invited along to laugh at the joke.
Like the simpering gallery owner from earlier, Gotham City’s elite art patrons are introduced with such abject contempt that we can’t help but applaud the Joker for taking advantage of their decadence and stupidity. And if that isn’t enough, he promptly opens an art school for them, a scheme arguably more lucrative (and arguably less criminal) than the complex dastardly plots that are a trademark of the series.
Although the Joker’s motives are undoubtedly irrational, there’s a strange sincerity in the way he talks about his “work” that forces me to wonder whether the Joker hasn’t swallowed a little of his own kool-aid at some point in this fiction within a fiction. “I couldn’t help myself—I’m an artist!” he exclaims with just a tad too much conviction, taking genuine pleasure in the applause this morsel of genius elicits from his victims.
As an art instructor he praises with mock sincerity the monstrosities of his worst students, while denouncing Bruce Wayne’s unsurprisingly adept efforts at classical sculpture. This is perhaps the villain at his most villainous, promising a freedom from hard work and practice that is utterly at odds with the generally white bread atmosphere of the series. But even at his worst, the Joker is unusually sympathetic. The underlying message of “Pop Goes the Joker” is as critical of the privileged and lazy as it is of the philosophy behind the art they covet, and although the Joker makes a mockery of craft and tradition, he hasn’t spared Gotham’s decadent and aloof upper classes, either.
As the drama escalates, the Joker cultivates a strange codependent relationship with his sycophant patron and the city’s upper class, manipulating and debasing them in what can only be interpreted as evidence of the sadism inherent in a subculture where artists are not required to be nice, only talented. Able to justify even the most irrational behavior as an act in the name of art, the Joker misleads weak, tired minds, too fatigued from their struggle up the social ladder to resist his predation. His victims, rapt with paradoxical adulation for their abuser, seem hungry for his derision.
With all that said, I think it’s important to take any message buried in this episode with a grain of salt, as nuanced and astute as its execution may be. For all its seeming criticism of conceptual or non-objective art and those who consume it, there is a fabulous and surreal quality to the lavish visuals and absurd narrative that would make even Andy Warhol smile. Although the writers were without a doubt mirroring a pervasive and time-honored consternation with abstract art prevalent both now and then, the lavish set pieces, brilliant color, and biting parody are more reminiscent of a trip through the Museum of Modern Art than an afternoon spent amongst renaissance master work.
The Joker is quick to note that “art styles change, but crime goes on forever,” which is perhaps true if one is unable to divorce artists and their work from the exorbitant sums that were without a doubt making headlines around the time this episode first aired. But the pleasure of viewing art has never really been about commerce, anyway. A large part of what makes contemporary art so exciting is its eclectic and interdisciplinary nature, its strangeness and ability to continually surprise—something the Joker can undoubtedly appreciate.