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Joker’s Slash Act an Artless Endeavor

“Batman” may have grossed $142 million as of last week, but the movie is making a few enemies too. Some are indignant over a scene in which actor Jack Nicholson as the Joker maniacally defaces master works of Western civilization.

Courting actress Kim Basinger who plays Batman’s love interest, Nicholson wreaks havoc in Gotham City’s Flugelheim Museum, laughing wickedly beneath his silk beret all the while.

Smash! Nicholson tips over a sculpted Degas dancer with the tap of a walking stick. Splat! He and his goons toss cans of paint against the walls and go after a Rembrandt. Psssssssst! They spray-paint Gainsborough’s iconic “Blue Boy.”

Not one official at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, where “Blue Boy” is housed, had seen “Batman,” a spokeswoman said.

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But when Ron Haver, who heads the County Museum of Art’s film department, saw “Batman” for the first of three times, his jaw went crashing to his chest. Though he otherwise “loved” the film, its museum scene is “socially irresponsible” and sets a dangerous example, he said.

“There are so many nuts out running around that could easily be influenced by a combination of a Jack Nicholson and Joker,” said Haver, observing that audience members at one theater he attended hooted gleefully every time a painting was destroyed. “Anti-heroes are powerful symbols to sub-literates. Even if the scene arouses one person to try to emulate (the actors) and one masterpiece is defaced, it has done a disservice.

“People in the movie industry make such a big thing about being socially responsible,” continued Haver, a widely respected authority on film. “They don’t represent premarital sex because of AIDS and they don’t encourage drug use. But they’ll take something innocuous--or innocuous to them--and make a big laughing thing out of it. And it’s not. It’s absolutely not.”

Critics for the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Boston Globe and Newsweek magazine did not object to the scene. In fact, writers for the latter three described it as one of the Warner Brothers movie’s best or liveliest sequences.

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The Los Angeles Times’ Sheila Benson sided with Haver, however.

Nothing could keep the “orgy of slashing and splashing” from being “a true stomach churner. Not in today’s world of indiscriminate art whackos,” film critic Benson wrote.

Indeed, incidents of art vandalism continue to claim headlines worldwide. Perhaps the most infamous case involved the man who shattered part of Michelangelo’s Pieta with a hammer in 1972. As indigenous as murals are to Los Angeles are the graffiti-makers who mar them.

A spokesman for Warner Brothers said phone calls for a comment on the issue made to “Batman” producers Jon Peters and Peter Guber were not returned.

Still, others in the art world were not bothered a bit by the “Batman” massacre.

“I didn’t find it socially irresponsible at all,” said Charles Desmarais, director of the Laguna Art Museum. “I assume that people raised with a healthy attitude won’t be changed by some quirky scene in a film.”

Artist Christopher Williams, whose work is included in “A Forest of Signs: Art in the Crisis of Representation” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, felt that the Joker’s widespread product tampering--he poisons cosmetics--makes a more worrisome suggestion.

“That seems a lot more dangerous to me than destroying artworks,” Williams said. “Nicholson’s act of (art) vandalism was so casual really. There wasn’t any passion or political agenda behind it. He was just waltzing through on his way to have tea with (Basinger’s character) Vicki Vale.”

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FREEDOM OF ART: The Los Angeles-based Lannan Foundation has awarded a grant to Washington Project for the Arts (WPA) to help present “Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment,” a photography exhibit to be shown at the WPA from July 21 to Aug. 13.

The exhibit was recently cancelled by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, another Washington museum, to avoid exacerbating a congressional battle over National Endowment for the Arts funding. Controversy over such federal funding had erupted over the exhibit, which contains some of Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic-themed images.

The grant “serves in part as acknowledgement of our concern with the troubling challenges to First Amendment rights now facing the cultural community in this country,” said Lisa Lyons, Lannan Foundation director of art programs. Citing Lannan Foundation policy, Lyons would not disclose the amount of the grant.

Neither would Philip Brookman, WPA director of programs. But he said it was one of two major gifts given to support the exhibit, which will cost the WPA about $80,000 to stage.

The show, organized by the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, is scheduled for a stop at the University Art Museum at UC Berkeley from Jan. 17 to March 18.


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