High culture? Give me Beavis and Butthead

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The Independent Online
I have seen no more profoundly depressing sight recently than the one I witnessed in a bar in California recently. Two guys in their mid-forties sauntered over to the juke-box and put on Bryan Adams's latest hit, "18 till I die". They ordered another beer and proceeded to sing loudly while punching their hands in the air to the chorus. Eighteen till they die? For maybe three minutes they believed it because they wished it. I wished they were dead.

It's easy enough to talk about the dumbing down, the infantilisation of all culture, especially the uber culture of America. Critics get cross because Swan Lake is being performed in the round, because its purity is lost, while others worry that we are enthralled to Tiffany and Bianca on EastEnders. Channel 5 is yet another example of the lowering of our taste. The tabloidisation of not just the press but all our media causes worry. Even Peter Mandelson shedding a sacred tear but not one secret on telly was enough to prompt a Newsnight discussion. How confessional should we be? How low can we go?

No one asks why so much high- or middlebrow culture is so slack, so sentimental, so insular, so predictable, so ingratiating. Every time someone like Lisa Jardine, head of the Orange Prize jury, makes some uncontroversial remark about preferring American to British writing, they are torn to shreds by the culture vultures whose very certainty about prescribed cultural values should indicate that it is time for them to cash in their pension schemes. The reaction to Cronenberg's Crash was a case in point. The critical language used both to attack and defend this film seemed to belong to another era. Either it was bad because it showed perverted things and therefore the audience would be turned into perverts, or it was good because it was arty, or that great catch-all "disturbing".

Its defenders were keen to tell us that a film about sex and car crashes was not actually erotic but about eroticism. Of course Crash is erotic. It has got James Spader in it for a start. The man I sat next to in an empty LA cinema found it so erotic that he masturbated during the first half of the film. Mind you he also masturbated through the ads for hot- dogs, popcorn and insurance policies so Westminster council should also consider banning such arousing material.

Somehow within this critical melee a film that is seriously high culture got turned into low culture, its worth delineated by its sexiness. Such arousal can only lead to audience dissatisfaction, one of the points that Ballard's novel makes in the first place. Yet the general stupidity of the reaction to Crash suggests to me that the dumbing down of our culture is not so much the responsibility of consumers but a failure of critical will by the sanctimonious guardians of our culture.

Serious film critics have not paid much attention to a movie which is a study of stupidity, but they should have done. Beavis and Butthead Do America is one of the cleverest films I've seen for a long time. Beavis and Butthead, products of the moronic inferno, have not read Jean Baudrillard on America because they do not read.

Yet they are the living embodiment of his pronouncement, "If it is the lack of culture that is original, then it is the lack of culture one should embrace". Beavis and Butthead, the mutant waste of MTV culture, are actually cartoons of two adolescent boys who have no relationship to anything except TV, videos and each other. Let's not forget that stupidity was the key to both Forrest Gump's and Ronald Reagan's success. Now these boys have their own movie and their creators have given full vent to their nihilism.

The worst thing that could possibly happen to them happens: their TV gets stolen. "This sucks more than anything has ever sucked before." Their world is severely bipolar. Things either suck or are cool. Their bearded liberal teacher, who strums songs like "Lesbian Seagull", catches them trying to steal a TV from school. He informs them that, "We don't need TV to entertain us". The boys snigger: "He said anus".

Now you don't have to like Beavis and Butthead just as you don't have to like Howard Stern, who is another American Monster and who doesn't even have the excuse of being a cartoon, but you shouldn't ignore them. Stern's movie Private Parts will be released here soon. He is the offensive US DJ who similarly divides the world into creeps and arseholes. He is described by Roseanne Barr as a racist, a sexist and a homophobe. He is all these things. He is a sewer through which every prejudice flows. He can also be very funny. I don't think his film is funny because Stern is just too desperate to be liked.

But he has his fans. He "disses" blacks, gays and women on a regular basis and yet during the Bush administration, at the height of its anti- abortion fervour, he advised on air any woman who voted for Bush to put her vagina in an envelope and mail it to the White House, as she was giving the government control of her body.

What saves Stern and Beavis and Butthead for me is their self-loathing. You laugh and loathe with them and at them. The British bad boys, the Loaded lads, the Men Behaving Badly are just too pleased with themselves and think they are doing OK. Stern complains constantly that he is "hung like a pimple". Beavis and Butthead never get to score, they never get anything. They are, as the late, great Frank Zappa once sang, "the slime ooozing out of your TV set".

They are created out of banality but they are never as banal as the average play, opera, or concert. Timothy Bewes in his brilliant book Cynicism and Post Modernity (Verso) argues that Beavis and Butthead's assessment of the world is from a "perspective born of a refusal to engage ... a manifestation of ignorance adopted wilfully for pragmatic reasons". The culture of stupidity is a strategic reaction to the complexity of post-modern culture. Its promise is the release from any notion of social responsibility. That may in itself be a bad thing but it is no less escapist than the romantic dreams of high culture.

It is also more artful - look how so much modern art is based on stupid ideas. Our reaction to it necessitates a critical language that understands how clever all this stupid stuff is, as well as those who are prepared to stand up for art and culture that is not socially responsible. Instead we are stuck with an anal critical establishment that is so hung up on notions of taste that it doesn't know the difference between what is really cool and what ultimately sucks.

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