The storyline of these two episodes begins with the Joker (Cesar Romero) bursting into a gallery opening for “beloved American artist” Oliver Muzzy. Barely looking at the pastoral landscape paintings (and a token Grant Wood knock-off) he declares it all “an outrage” and “an insult to art” and begins spraying everything with paint guns. Batman and Robin (Adam West and Burt Ward) attempt to apprehend him, but instead of pressing charges, Muzzy praises the Joker’s intervention, exclaiming “I have been trying to paint this modern stuff for years!” Thus the Joker creates for himself a kind of political graffiti artist persona with a superficial Abstract Expressionist aesthetic. “Holy hoaxes!” adds Robin.
The Joker, whose work is by definition a joke, has apparently fooled the entire local art scene with his stunt, and is invited to compete in the Gotham City International Art Contest. The competition, organized by wealthy young socialite Baby Jane Towser (Diana Ivarson), is like a forecasting of Bravo’s reality TV show Work of Art, though these participants are already “world famous.”
Five artists with names like Jackson Potluck and Leonardo Davinsky (painter of the famous fresco “Midnight Snack”) are given three minutes to complete a painting. Their techniques make use of the obvious Action Painter one-liners as one contestant splashes paint from buckets onto his canvas and another trains his pet monkey to throw paint balls at his.
Yet another uses his body as a human paint roller, first dipping himself in a wheelbarrow full of paint. The judges describe the results as a “fine example of Neo-realism,” making reference to the Nouveau réalisme movement, characterized by the work of Yves Klein, Jean Tinguely, Arman and others. In 1960 Klein staged a piece entitled “Anthropométries de l’Epoque bleue” (Anthropometries of the Blue Period), in which three nude models covered themselves in blue paint and then left their body prints on sheets of paper.
A contestant named Vincent Van Gauche, on the other hand, seems to channel Irish painter and writer Christy Brown, who suffered from cerebral palsy and painted with his left foot. While Brown used a brush, Van Gauche applies the paint directly with his feet, and the audience finds it all hilarious.
The Joker paints nothing, and only gesticulates flamboyantly with a brush in front of his easel. He titles his work “Death of a Mauve Bat” and explains that the bat is dead, and died in 1936 (“a very bad year for bats”). Fooling everyone once again, the panelists decide that the piece is symbolic of the emptiness of modern life (“What else?”) and Baby Jane declares him the winner.
After his victory, the Joker announces he is opening a new school where he will instruct his students personally on “the secrets of modern art.” He makes it clear that his school is for “millionaires only,” shifting the plot into an allegory for the high-cost MFA industry. One difference between this institution and today’s pedigree art programs is that there is no rigorous application process for those wishing to enroll, as long as they are wealthy.
The Joker later reveals his ulterior motives: he intends to hold his pupils hostage and demand a pricy ransom from their parents (is this sounding familiar?). Millionaire Bruce Wayne is a student at the school and succeeds in foiling the plan with Robin’s help, but the ever-persuasive Joker yet again manages to talk his way out of any legal consequences (“I’m an artist”).
The Joker, now a bad boy art star, relentlessly spouts clichéd artspeak tropes, such as “out with the old; in with the new” as justification for his non-stop destruction of other people’s property. He is a childish vandal and loyal to no one, destroying Baby Jane’s dining room table, for example, and then fancy-talking his way into being taken seriously as an artist.
This concept that the purveyors of modern abstract art are evil and cannot be trusted is a common theme in the entertainment industry (see Steven Berkoff’s character in Beverly Hills Cop or Terrance Stamp’s role in Legal Eagles). They are often portrayed as possessing great power, and though he is literally a clown and a con man, nearly everyone succumbs to the Joker’s charisma. So eager they are to belong to an elite class of the cultured and contemporary, it is only when he ties up his protégés at gunpoint that they even get upset.