Accessory to the fact: art in American Psycho


Next year it will be 25 years since American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis; in that time various crimes have been exposed in the banking industry. So it seemed timely to reread.

But it’s not just about greed and Wall Street. It’s about fashion, food, designer goods and popular music. It’s hardly about art at all, but what little there is will amuse you. It’s a blackly funny yarn.

Patrick Bateman has a dubious gift for recognising labels and brands. The running joke of this 400 page book is that every last outfit is broken down, itemised and noted.

So here, art is just another commodity. In a friend’s house, he spots “spooky” photos by Cindy Sherman and a painting by Eric Fischl, which he doesn’t even bother describing. (pp.279-80)

And while running from police he recognises a Julian Schnabel painting in a lobby. (You were just waiting for one to appear). It’s how he realises he’s in the “wrong fucking building”. (p. 351)

But the artist who most speaks to or for Bateman is David Onica. He owns a painting which sounds to be the original version of Sunrise with Broken Plates. He discreetly boasts about its cost.

The painting is mentioned a number of times. A crack appears in the ceiling overhead. And before she meets her fate, a murder victim points out the work is hung upside down. A loopy sign.

After dispatching this girlfriend, Bateman sells one Onica painting and buys another. This time it is “a huge portrait of a graphic equaliser done in chrome and pastels”. A portrait of a thing? Right.

As if in response to its literary fame, the artist remade his Sunrise painting in 2004 and now sells a range of merchandise from mugs to iPhone cases. One wonders what became of the original.

It is chastening that the most evil and soulless of characters also owns a Frank Stella print and, in his office at Pierce & Pierce, a painting by George Stubbs, the location of which he muses about.

Just where does one place a sign of ‘old money’, amidst state of the art stereo equipment and a 1980s twilight blue colour scheme? It is just this conflict which has spawned a Bateman.

By the time the murder count is in double figures, the killer finds himself out with, among others, a one John Constable (p. 347). So much for pastoral romance. This book kills it stone dead.

Page numbers refer to Picador edition of American Pscyho (c) 1991. David Onica merchandise can be found here.

One thought on “Accessory to the fact: art in American Psycho

  1. Interesting. Art doesn’t play much of a part in Bret Ellis’s novels apart from this one– oddly, considering the sophisticated cities and scenes his novels are set in (NYC, LA). For Bateman art is obviously a commodity and a status symbol– owning a fashionable and expensive work of art proves you are ‘somebody’ in the same way as your clothes and apartment. Bateman is despicable and a psycho, but he’s not uneducated or uncultured. I think in Ellis’s ‘college novel’ The Rules of Attraction he is the older brother of sensitive Sean and went to the same expensive liberal arts university that Sean is studying in , in ‘Rules…’ (Bennington). He even, as I recall, talks about ‘maturity’ as a desirable thing in relation to a little review of the Huey Lewis and the News LP ‘Sports’ (one of the most popular mainstream LPs of the 1980s). It’s too simple just to say Patrick has no soul. This is true but Patrick is more a metaphor for a soulless culture that substitutes the cathartic and perhaps healing aspects of art for a price tag, taming it. And the more complex and disturbing desires that could be explored and negotiated to an extent through a real understanding of art go underground and result, in the case of this novel, in murder and cruelty. Well, that’s my take on it anyway. Thanks for the essay!

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