by Todd Giles
2020 marks the twentieth anniversary of Mary Harron’s film adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s 1991 much-maligned novel of 1980s excess and greed, American Psycho. Patrick Bateman, brilliantly portrayed by Christian Bale, is still a modern day American corporate Jekyll & Hyde figure for the ages, a coked-up Gordon Gekko from the era of no-holds-barred corporate raidering. Mergers & acquisitions Master of the Universe by day/psychopathic serial killer by night, the twenty-seven year old Bateman is emblematic of the heartless Reagan Era neoliberalism in the 80s which espoused free markets, deregulation, privatization, tax cuts for the wealthy, and shrinking social programs. He is also a psychopathic serial killer who happens to collect some of the most important serial art of the decade produced by the Pictures Generation, a group of hip young New York artists working in the 1980s who, surely unbeknownst to Bateman himself, critiqued the very consumer-saturated world he himself so brilliantly exemplifies.
A theoretically rich body of critical work exists on both the novel and film versions of American Psycho which explores everything from serial masculinity and consumerism, to serial murder, pornography, voyeurism, and neoliberalism, just to name a few. Of particular interest on the literary side of the scholarship in relation to this essay are Donia Baelo Allué and Berthold Schoene’s articles on seriality in the novel. Schoene argues that “traditional masculinity [is] an ideologically motived gender construct that . . . promotes a type of male subjectivity that displays conspicuous similarities to Asperger’s Syndrome and high-functioning autism . . . [which] perpetuate[s] itself through an endless sense of coercive acts of psychic self-(de)formation” (379). What Ellis does in American Psycho, according to Schoene, is “provide us with a case study of postmodern male hysteria, intricately recording his protagonist’s increasing nervous implosion as he wards off imminent self-disintegration by violently pulling himself together and repeatedly–that is, serially–asserting himself over and against the other” (394). Similarly, for Allué, Ellis’s novel denounces “consumerism from within, from the mind of its most extreme representative, he who serially consumes objects and people: the serial killer.” Bateman, immersed in consumerist values, equates his killing with “his consuming in series” and his “capacity to buy everything, to own anything he wants,” thus his “personality is constructed through the images and messages he receives through mass and consumer culture” (88).
On the film studies side of the scholarship, Jaap Kooijman and Tarja Laine argue that in “striving to embody both the image of a yuppie Wall Street stockbroker and a serial killer, Bateman becomes a dark double of the 1980s New York yuppie subculture that reveals nothing but meaningless” (48). And more recently, Peter Deakin situates American Psycho alongside Fight Club and The Matrix, placing them within the framework of Susan Faludi’s massive tome on American men and masculinity, Stiffed: The Betrayal of the Modern Man (1999), suggesting that “representations of a certain kind of ‘masculinity lost’ in this cinema collided with the fallout of a contemporary elegiac gender politic that suggested that in some way life for the modern male was (almost) irreparably damaged by accelerated forces of consumer culture and image- and commodity-fetishism” (86). Even today, vestiges of Bateman continue to haunt cyberspace with a masculinist vengeance that is apparently not lost on consumers; witness the interactive 3D model of his apartment on archdaily.com that “invites you to experience the apartment from the inside–without fear of an axe to the head” (Babey). And with a quick scroll through the crafty etsy.com, one finds hundreds of Bateman-related home décor and fashion accessories ranging from Pierce & Pierce coasters, bloody Bateman coffee mugs, business card lapel pins, night lights (seriously), and even numerous one-of-a-kind painted portraits of the man himself.
Rather than attempt to add a sharp-edged new theoretical approach to the blood-soaked discourse on American Psycho, my goal here is to explore some of the iconic 80s artwork showcased in Bateman’s penthouse apartment and discuss the ways in which it thematically reflects the same issues Bateman and his counterparts struggle with throughout the narrative–the anxiety caused by the wholesale loss of identity and originality plaguing yuppies as they sleepwalked their way through the commodity fetishization and conspicuous consumption of 80s America. In much the same way that Allué suggests Ellis adopts the “seriality characteristic of mass cultural production in his own artistic language and style . . . [to] channel and reflect contemporary consumer culture,” set designer Jeanne Develle and production designer Gideon Ponte took this move a step further in the film adaptation by bringing a particular set of artworks together not only to decorate Bateman’s apartment in the latest artistic 80s avant-garde, but more importantly to feature artworks that accurately mirror Bateman’s own insecurities and neuroses (88).
All of the artworks under discussion here were produced by the loosely-knit group of artist known as the Pictures Generation, which included, among others, Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine, and David Salle, who were working together in New York from the mid-70s to the mid-1980s. Influenced by their Pop, Minimalist and Conceptual Art predecessors, the younger generation simultaneously reveled in and critiqued the ways in which mass media construct and manipulate the images that bombard us on a daily basis. One of the modes of production the Pictures Generation appropriated from their artistic forbearers was the employment of serial art. Not only are nearly all of the artworks in Bateman’s apartment the products of the Pictures Generation, they were also produced in discrete series of similar works–not one-offs, but one ofs. In this essay, I use the term “serial art” in its broadest sense–that is, artworks conceived of as part of a larger group or series–as opposed to the more art historically specific modules making up Minimalist sculptures from the 1960s as seen, for example, in the work of Carl Andre and Donald Judd.
While individual works in a series can indeed stand on their own, they are often regarded as somehow incomplete until seen in context with the whole. For example, think of the short stories comprising Sandra Cisneros’s Woman Hollering Creek or Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time–great stories on their own, certainly, but so much richer in connection with the other stories surrounding them. Likewise, seeing all of Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills hung together in a gallery setting provides an entirely different experience from seeing them individually. Bateman’s small but exemplary collection of serial art by Pictures Generation heavy-hitters Cindy Sherman, Allan McCollum, Robert Longo and Richard Prince, explores, like American Psycho itself, issues of false identity, appropriation, inauthenticity, staged reality, surface veneers, and the consumption of mass media.
As viewers step into Bateman’s apartment, their eyes are naturally drawn through the foyer to the beautiful, sleek lines of the furniture in his sitting room–one of Cassina’s 1973 reboots of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Hill House Chair, which was originally designed in 1900, situated against the blank back wall; a pristine example of Ludwig Mies Van de Rohe’s Barcelona Suite, complete with matching ottomans; and one of Paola Piva’s Alana coffee tables, which were produced for B&B Italia around 1980. Bateman’s furniture is all very chic, even by today’s standards, and, like Bateman himself, is distinguished by its crisp, clean lines with a minimum of extraneous adornment. Indeed, the entire living space is hyper-clean, uncluttered, and looks all but unlived in. Everything is hard, industrial, modern; nothing, including Bateman, looks comfortable.
Taking a few cautious steps back into the foyer (as every unwitting entrant into Bateman’s lair surely wishes they had done), viewers see a series of what appear to be six empty picture frames clustered together along the left-hand wall. These inauspicious frames are Allan McCollum’s Collection of 200 Plaster Surrogates, which were produced between 1982 and 1985 (see fig. 1).1 According to Douglas Eklund, McCollum’s Surrogates exhibition at the Marian Goodman Gallery in New York in 1983 was “considered by his colleagues to be one of the best exhibitions of the decade,” so for Bateman to own several examples of this series speaks to his acumen as a collector of contemporary art, as does his possession of the other artworks in his collection, including his furniture (271).
As with all of the artworks under discussion here, the Surrogates are rather disconcerting. Artist-critic Paul McMahon wrote of the exhibition at the time, “‘McCollum’s pieces look all right at first, then you realize they aren’t all there’” (qtd. in Eklund 275). These are surrogates, stand-ins; they aren’t the real thing. They are disconcerting because one usually expects to see something in picture frames. In Bateman’s apartment, though, the first thing viewers see are what appear to be empty frames awaiting their absent pictures/identities, an apt metaphor for Bateman himself. However, these aren’t even actual picture frames; they are plaster molds covered with enamel paint–no frames, no canvas, no pictures, no referents, no identities.
Trevor Strake points out that the Surrogates, which he refers to as “blank paintings cast from an absent original,” raise some interesting questions that also relate to Bateman and his friends: “How to engage with ‘paintings’ from which all content has been emptied and in which formal variation has been reduced to minimal difference? How to distinguish between the authentic and the performed, between the genuine and the artificial?” (n.p.). Or, one might ask, how do you engage someone whose personality and appearance is nearly identical to everyone else’s around them? How do you distinguish between when they are being authentic or faking it? When is Bateman Bateman, not, say, Halberstram or Davis? Even with the perfect body, perfect skin, perfect apartment and wardrobe, Bateman has no frame, no canvas, only empty surface. As he says in voiceover at the beginning of the film while peeling off a clear facemask in front of his bathroom mirror, “There is an idea of Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction. But there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory. . . . I simply am not there.” His “content has been emptied,” and the “formal variation” between Bateman and the other 20- and 30-somthings who continuously confuse his identity with that of others, “has been reduced to minimal difference.” They are “blank[s] . . . cast from an absent original.”
As Bateman says towards the end of the novel, “Surface, surface, surface was all that anyone found meaning in . . . this was civilization as I saw it . . .” (375). This is why he is constantly narrating what everyone is wearing, eating, and carrying in the form of high-end accoutrements–with no originality, they can only be defined through the products they purchase, wear and consume. McCollum himself says that the Surrogates have “reduced attributes and . . . relentless sameness,” much like the characters in American Psycho. The latter are, like the Surrogates, empty signifiers; they are copies of copies of copies, all having lost any semblance of uniqueness. Indeed, one might go so far as to suggest that Bateman and his friends are 1980s surrogates of our lost humanity. McCollum, once again: “[I]n our world, we are always working to protect the integrity of the unique against its debasement by the replica, to make defense against the threat of plentitude by retreating into the solace of scarcity” (qtd. in Auping 120). It is this “solace of scarcity” that perpetually punctuates Bateman’s product-riddled narrative as he so desperately strives for some semblance of identity-integrity through his purchases in a world of copies, fakes and surrogates. As he tells his fiancé while riding in the back of a limo, he just wants to fit in.
Cindy Sherman’s work, like that of Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer, critiques the impact of culturally-driven images of gender and power. What distinguishes her work from her fellow 70s & 80s feminist colleagues is that all of her photographs focus on images of her own body. Sherman is best known for her iconic black & white Untitled Film Stills, which were produced between 1977 and 1980. In these photographs, Sherman poses as different characters in a variety of familiar yet unidentifiable locations, appearing as everyone from 1940s film femme fatales, 50s housewives, career women, and damsels in distress. Inspired by film clichés, these images bring to mind scenes from black and white movies. They are not replications of specific scenes; rather, they are imperfect replications that momentarily seem something other than themselves, when in fact they are merely surface without depth, much like McCollum’s Surrogates and Bateman’s Wall Street yuppie set. In staging her photographs, Sherman’s visage always embodies someone else, leaving observers free to construct our own narratives for each character, while at the same time implicating them in the voyeuristic nature these images set out to critique. At the same time, in offering so many different characters, Sherman undermines her onlookers’ attempts to affix specific identities to them because, although meticulously staged, they have no backstory to help tease out their deeper narratives.
Bateman owns a poster-sized print of Sherman’s Untitled Film Still #56 from 1980 which shows one of Sherman’s many characters intently gazing at her own reflection in what appears to be a mirror, something Bateman does repeatedly throughout the film (see fig. 2). Not only does he look at himself in the mirror several times while allowing the viewer to become privy to his morning bathroom routine, his reflection also appears in shiny objects such as the metallic menu during his dinner with Stash and Vanden, the stainless steel axe blade he uses to hack Paul Allen to death, and his framed Les Misérables poster, the latter of which appears throughout the book and film as a kind of economic counterbalance to Bateman’s world of privilege. What Kooijman and Laine refer to as Bateman’s “Janus-Face” is particularly relevant in this scene because “Bateman’s identity is as illusory as the one of the sublime beggar of Victor Hugo, but whereas the latter has emotional and psychological depth, Bateman is merely a psychic void” (53).
As Sherman and Bateman (both of whom are play acting) look at themselves in mirrors, viewers voyeuristically stand breathlessly close behind them just out of sight. In this position, the voyeurs not only see the characters seeing themselves, they also see the backs of the characters’ heads, which creates a strange doubling effect that comes about as close as possible to situating themselves within the mirror-gazers’ own perspectives. This is particularly intriguing in Bateman’s case because were the viewer to fully subsume his ocular perspective, they would see that there is no Bateman there to begin with, only an empty mirror, like the empty reality of Bateman’s serial killer fantasies.
Sherman’s work is brilliantly, albeit very briefly, highlighted during the key scene when Bateman has just brutally hacked up his body-double, Paul Allen, who he so jealously wishes himself to be; though he and Allen look alike, wear similar clothes and hair styles, Allen is in possession of the illusive Fisher account, owns his own tanning bed, and has no problem getting reservations at Dorsia, the one restaurant Bateman so desperately wants to crack by year’s end. Even though Allen and Bateman appear like identical copies of one another, he has, at least in Bateman’s distorted vision, achieved what Bateman himself has not–superyuppiedom. Thus he must die. Bateman, blood splattered in his gray pinstripe suit, blue suspenders, blue French cuffed shirt and black wingtips, sits facing his felled foe, who is a mirror image of himself in this scene, right down to shoes, slacks, suspenders and slicked-back hair. Just like Sherman’s double image hanging on the wall just off center behind Bateman, here witnesses of the murder see the back of Bateman’s doppelganger’s felled corpse reflected in Bateman himself as he sits facing the viewer–both of whom “themselves are fakes of fakes,” just like Sherman’s staged images of herself posing as someone else (Karnes 169). It is truly a fascinating scene, particularly because Bateman’s face is at the same level as that of Sherman’s image, right next to her–viewers get the back of Sherman’s head, her face reflected back, Bateman’s blood-soaked face, all in immediate procession.
Another member of the Pictures Generation is Robert Longo, who created one of the most famous series of portraits in the 1980s–Men in the Cities–which were composed between 1979 and 1982 (see figs. 3 and 4). These iconic over-sized charcoal and graphite drawings on paper measuring eight feet high by five feet wide depict the artist’s friends–including Cindy Sherman–twisted into exaggerated freeze-frame poses that don’t jibe with their conservative black & white business attire. Photographed as one-person performances on a New York City rooftop, Longo provided his subjects with various forms of stimulation to get them to move unselfconsciously–for example, playing music, tugging ropes tied to their limbs, or pelting them with tennis balls. They were photographed from low angles so the viewer would feel like they were looking up at performers on stage or on screen. As with the work of Richard Prince below, Men in the Cities are pictures of pictures, and, like McCollum’s Surrogates, were produced with the help of several studio assistants.
Like the ever-uncomfortable Bateman in social situations, the Men in the Cities figures look pained, contorted, anxious, flailing out of control with no reference to space–no ground, no background, no depth–nothing to situate where they are other than floating in a white void of emptiness. With nothing to support them, they are bereft of any kind of personal narrative beyond what viewers can extrapolate from their 80s business attire. Just seconds after murdering Paul Allen, Bateman, himself an unhinged man in the city, stands in front of one of his prized Longo’s, whose model is likewise engaged in her own untethered dance. Both Bateman and the woman suggest a radical alienation, but as Carter Ratcliff suggests concerning Men in the Cities, their twisting and writhing in emptiness highlights the fact that the burden they bear is not one of any real weight or consequence, but is due rather to the fact that they are, to quote Howard Fox, “the products of a hollow mass culture of inauthentic values and unreal images” (27).
It is precisely these “unreal images” and “inauthentic values” that Richard Prince also so interestingly explores in his art. Unlike Longo and Sherman, Prince’s postmodernism harkens back to his Cubist and Dadaist predecessors like Picasso, Duchamp and Man Ray in that much of his work centers on found objects. Like his Modernist forefathers, Prince relocates popular mass-produced images, moving them from the realm of advertising and mass culture to artistic artifacts. Here’s a helpful quote from Prince: “The great thing about an appropriation is that even though the transformation reads as fiction, everybody knows that the source of the appropriation was at some point non-fiction, (magazines, movies, etc.), and it’s these sources, or elements of non-fiction, that gives the picture, no matter how questionable, its believable edge” (qtd. in Auping). A prime example of this is found in Prince’s most well-known series, the Untitled Cowboy photographs produced between 1980 and 1984. These are indeed photographs, but Prince’s Cowboys were produced by re-photographing and blowing up advertising images from Philip Morris’ “Marlboro Country” cigarette ads which started appearing in 1963.
Prince cropped out the slogans, leaving the cowboys dissociated from their products, and thus from their advertising context. The original Marlboro ads harken back to earlier Westerns staring the likes of John Wayne as the archetypal American cowboy, alluding to our national mythos of innocence, justice, and the self-reliant loners of the Old West. Prince, in re-appropriating cowboy imagery that was itself appropriated by Marlboro to sell their products, comments on the way in which marketers willy-nilly appropriate, through pastiche, whatever it is they want to sell, while we in turn as consumers create our own façade-like identities as we graze our way through the myriad of images before us. In Bateman’s case, his pastiche appropriations include everything from his business attire and kitchen couture to his fantasy of being a serial killer through his consumption of films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Body Double, as well as the daily revolving freak show of his favorite morning television program, The Patty Winters Show.
As art critic Jonathan Fineberg says that for Prince, “the mass media provides a stock catalogue of contemporary desires (symbolized in advertising images, for example) which he can appropriate as vehicles for his own experience. He dislocates the images by projecting his own fantasies into them, superimposing and recoloring them” (456). Along these lines, after giving up on trying to have sex with his antidepressant-numbed fiancé in the novel, Bateman goes home and masturbates to the memory of the picture of a model he saw earlier in the day in a Calvin Klein ad (24). Even his solitary bedroom fantasies are, to reference Allué’s more broad point about serialism, “inextricably linked to the concept of seriality since . . . mass culture products [are] consumed in a serial and repetitive way” (71). As Bateman’s narrative progresses, he becomes more daring in his sexual behavior, discarding his fiancés’ bedroom for an affair with his colleague’s fiancé, while at the same time hiring and physically abusing two prostitutes he films while having sex. As Fineberg says of Prince, Bateman “dislocate[s] the images by projecting his own fantasies into them,” eventually going so far as dislocating his fantasies through bodily dismemberment as he progressively moves from one “product” to the next.
According to Fineberg, “Prince is a kind of passive witness, yet he controls the camera, so he can manipulate the images in his own way. It this sense, he reclaims authority over his own identity in the depersonalizing world of mass media” (456). Something similar occurs when Bateman films himself with the two prostitutes in an attempt to reclaim his lost identity. In this scene, Bateman scripts all of the action for his video recorder, lustily looking both at himself in the mirror while in the act, as well as flexing his muscles and pointing directly towards the camera, inviting his own gaze and that of his paid actors. Like Sherman, he becomes a voyeur of his own gaze in the form of a made up character–in this case, Long Dong Bateman. As Karnes says of the Pictures Generation, “Photography, with its ability to seem real even when what it depicts is manipulated by the decisions of the artist/photographer, was the perfect medium to blur these lines between fact and staged reality” (162). For Bateman, who progressively feels himself spiraling out of control like the posers in his Longo drawings, the only place he feels any sense of control is behind the camera or in front of the mirror, which, unfortunately for his victims, progressively leads him into taking up the directorial role behind the wire hanger, knife, chainsaw, and finally behind the kitchen utensils he uses to cook and eat parts of some of them. Just like Paul Allen’s body dissolving in a vat somewhere in Hell’s Kitchen after Bateman hacks him to death, the threat of having his identity dissolved in a culture so steeped in conspicuous consumption and inauthenticity threatens Bateman himself. Rather than fight this “threat of dissolution,” as Fineberg puts it, Prince “seeks a route into individual authenticity through media culture rather than against it” (456). Likewise for Bateman.
Similar to Bateman’s prepackaged media-saturated vanilla pop musical tastes–Huey Lewis and the News, Genesis, and Whitney Houston–the postmodern art he collects appeals to a much wider audience than the more “cerebral” Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art collected by the previous generation of the moneyed class. Though he is collecting on the cutting edge of the 80s art world, Bateman is likely oblivious to the fact that artists like McCollum, Sherman, Longo and Prince were radically rethinking the relationships between works of art and other consumer goods in new and interesting ways which moved beyond their Pop predecessors. In doing so, they recognized that all cultural production is involved in complex social relations; that artists exist within society, not outside the world of commodification. The Pictures Generation was able to distance themselves against the concept of the unique art object, while at the same time critiquing concepts of representation in art, as well as those incessantly sold to us through the media. For Bateman, really, all of this is irrelevant, because he simply sees art as just another commodity like his Toshiba VCR, Charles Mackintosh Hill House chair, and Clinique beauty products. Art, for Bateman and his Wall Street yuppie friends, is for name-dropping. His lack of interest in art itself is seen in the novel, for example, when he mentions in passing some “spooky” photographs by Cindy Sherman and a painting by Eric Fischl in a friend’s apartment, none of which he shows any aesthetic appreciation for (279-280).
The only artist Bateman seems interested in is David Onica, whose painting titled Sunrise with Broken Plates he proudly owns in the novel. Here’s how he describes it: “It’s a six-foot-by-four-foot portrait of a naked woman, mostly done in muted grays and olives, sitting on a chaise longue watching MTV, the backdrop a Martian landscape, a gleaming mauve desert scattered with dead, gutted fish, smashed plates rising like a sunburst above the woman’s yellow head, and the whole thing is framed in black aluminum steel” (23-24). Perhaps he likes it because it is more easily digestible than the other artworks he owns–a nude woman, a TV, a stereo, bones. He likes all of these things, especially bones, as highlighted in the film when viewers see that the crossword puzzle he is filling out is populated over and over again with the words “meat” and “bones.” And the Onica is an actual painting, not a blown-up photograph of a mass produced photograph from a magazine, nor a surrogate of a picture frame, nor is it even a drawing of a staged photo. It is what it is, a painting. Simple. Really, though, his true interest in the Onica comes to the fore when, early in the novel, he tells a group of friends at dinner that he paid $50,000 for the painting when he actually only paid $12,000 (98).
What American Psycho does so well–both the novel and the film adaptation–is the same thing that Douglas Crimp, the curator of the 1977 exhibition titled Pictures who coined the generational moniker said about the artists under discussion; here is Karnes paraphrasing Crimp: they turned “a mirror on the world around them, sometimes critically, other times humorously . . . [to] exaggerate life and reflect it back onto viewers in ways that ignite potent questions about how we view ourselves” (162). This is precisely what Ellis’s dark comedy does–it exposes, through biting humor and exaggerated violence, what a certain set of Americans became in the 80s. Another way to “view ourselves” is through the words of philosopher Christy Mag Uidhir’s article “How to Frame Serial Art,” in which she says, “[m]ost artworks . . . appear to be singular, stand-alone works. However, some artworks (indeed, perhaps a good many) are by contrast best viewed in terms of some larger grouping or ordering of artworks, specifically as either the parts or the sums thereof” (261). One could say the same about Bateman and his colleagues in American Psycho who fit together serially as a whole to exemplify 80s American yuppiedom. Ellis provides readers with characters who hardly possess any individuality on their own; their identity, which is “best viewed in terms of some larger grouping,” is intricately tied to those around them. Without his narcissistic ability to deconstruct everyone’s fashion ensembles down to their shoes and socks he comes into contact with, Bateman would have no reference points to distinguish his own place in the larger whole. Ellis’s novel, like the artwork of the Pictures Generation, highlights the fact that there tends to be nothing behind the slick surface to identify with; rather, we are all constructed through mass media-driven stereotypes of popular imagery–any semblance of authenticity is merely a fleeting memory of what never was to begin with. To quote Bateman one last time: “Surface, surface, surface was all that anyone found meaning in” (375).
 According to production designer Gideon Ponte in an interview with Gwynne Watkins of Yahoo Entertainment, these are actually replications of McCollum’s Plaster Surrogates, not originals. https://www.yahoo.com/entertainment/american-psycho-production-designer-gideon-ponte-116482969982.html.
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