Elvis isn’t dead. He faked it. You can imagine him hounded by fans and psychopaths unable to live the life he’d earned but couldn’t enjoy, thinking his only hope to slip away would be to kill off what he had come to be for millions of people around the world. Paul McCartney, on the other hand, actually died in the sixties, and a doppleganger was put in his place (which explains a lot). Apart from Christ, controversies about death don’t get any bigger than JFK’s – although this could change with the disclosure of CIA files on Cuba, coupled with speculations about Diana’s so-called accident. This is why JFK is the Elvis of politics, but still it was Che Guevara’s face which ended up as the sign of a heroic life cut short.
John Beagles and Graham Ramsay are not dead. They are little fakers. Death is the last resort of mortals in torment, but the crowning glory of prophets and superstars. Essentially it’s because death is final that people fake it, or other people think that they’ve faked it. Fans think that Elvis is still alive because death is the only thing that could have separated ‘The King’ from his unique fame. In a similar vein, Richie ‘Manic’ Edwards left his car by the Clifton Suspension bridge and did a Reggie Perrin. For, if its rebirth you want, a new beginning, then death is your doorway to a new life. Not that you have to do it alone, or in a quiet closing of the eyes. Suicide cults go out in a massive sweeping gesture. The pact is a piece of magic which dramatizes each individual death in a spectacle of blood-letting. Stupid cults. Beagles and Ramsay are not the first artists to fake their deaths, of course. As all art-anoraks are aware, Arthur Cravan, the Dada artist and boxer, forger, lumberjack and chauffeur, vanished in November 1918 . Many people were convinced that Cravan hadn’t drowned at sea, but had reinvented himself yet again. He had disappeared before, and his life was a string of personae and impersonations, deceptions and disguises, outlandish claims and outrageous polemics. At one point he had even advertized his suicide as an evening’s entertainment for a paying public. Cravan lived an enigmatic life, and died an enigmatic death, culminating perfectly in a momentary reappearance in the twenties. Actually the mock-deaths of Beagles and Ramsay have got more in common with Walt Disney’s. Disney is really dead, but he is cryogenically suspended in a sci-fi fantasy of a very secular afterlife. Disney has become the undead, but he awaits reanimation as a fully fledged zombie. Beagles and Ramsay are one step up from that. Unlike zombies, they are walking. talking corpses who rather than stalk the shopping malls for prime cuts, put together exhibitions of fine art. So, even in their utter wretchedness and soulless reanimation they pursue the most human of preoccupation’s: to play, to question, to swoon, to create. Three cheers for the cultivated zombies: hubba, hubba, hubba! The thing about these two is that they are so brutal? Are they trying to impress their lad mates or what? Young British art (annoyingly dubbed ‘yBa’) gets a lot of flak for being sensationalist and hyped, but Beagles and Ramsay are downright vulgar. In the past artists have been hammered because you couldn’t tell if the painting was upside-down, or because anyone can arrange a few bricks on the floor. But you have to go back to the antics of Dada and Surrealism to find art as low down and entertaining as this. It might be young and British but it aint cricket.
Lord Reith, the first Director of the BBC, had instructed his staff to remain on the ‘high’ side of public moral principle – which as far as he was concerned meant sacking someone for being homosexual, or banning a musician for being divorced. Back in them days we had standards! Radio, and later TV, were far less eager to entertain than edify and educate, when it wasn’t being plainly propagandistic. For a long time no regional accents were allowed, and only middle-class interests and moral codes got an airing. And the King’s English didn’t give way to Michael Caine’s without a struggle. And it’s no mere coincidence that cockney reached the screen around the same time as Pop entered the gallery, and following the Suez crisis, the rise of the British New Left and the introduction of independent commercial TV. Between the 1880s, when the political franchise was expanded to include working class men, and the emergence of a transformed popular culture in the 1950s, the cultural settlement between the classes confirmed the cultivated tastes and values of the educated middle class. Jazz, skiffle and Rock-n-Roll were some of the first signs of impending change. The sixties may have been swinging, but this was certainly a period when the working class penetrated cultural spaces which had previously been the province of their betters. Which is why complaints about so-called permissiveness and moral and cultural decay have since always caught up in conflicts to do with class. Films like “Saturday Night, Sunday Morning”(1960), “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner”(1962), “Billy Liar”(1963), “This Sporting Life”(1963) and “Up the Junction”(1967) were part of this emergent working-class voice, speaking in dialect and talking candidly about working-class lives – warts an’ all. This was initiated by the ‘Angry Young Men’ of ’50s literature – grammar school boys who found the world and business of culture riddled with class prejudice – who anticipate Pop’s unapologetic vulgarity in the unperfumed depiction of working-class sensibilities. As such, it is the opening monologue of “Saturday Night, Sunday Morning”, not the best line of “The Loneliness of the Long-Distant Runner” (“What I want is a good time. All the rest is propaganda.”), which sets the tone of these films: don’t let the bastards grind you down. Compare this with the repressed sexuality and claustrophobic conventionalism of “Brief Encounter”(1945). “Alfie”(1966) depicted a more metropolitan warts an’ all portrait of the working-class, but if this is less grim it is no less brutal. In America at the same time the movies were no longer telling moral tales about goodies overcoming baddies. With “Bonnie and Clyde”(1967) it wasn’t only ultraviolent bankrobbers who were treated sympathetically for the first time, this couple were poor working-class losers who converted their own class brutality into glamour. “Get Carter”(1971) also heightened the brutality, and thus class differences, of its working class protagonists through the depiction of a criminal underworld. Ultraviolence and other forms of ‘bad taste’ in mainstream commercial culture since the 60s signalled something like the end for that patronizing and paternalistic cultural leadership which had hoped to use the technologies of mass culture to improve the impoverished and raise the moral standards of the nation. Unfortunately, the demise of the Reithian dream of a class-led culture doesn’t mean that the battle against cultural gentrification has been won. No, too much shouldn’t be read into the fact that entertainment and popular pleasures now have an advantage over the complaints against lowering standards – complaints which are inevitably seen as rearguard attacks, when they are not simply taken as the obsessions of cranks. For one thing, the loosening of the grip of the middle-class on culture does not mean that its categories and values lose all of their authority and power. This insistent power and unswerving sense of legitimacy is continually demonstrated in the official censure and middle-brow disapproval of unaesthetic art and uncultivated culture.
Beagles and Ramsay are a ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ for a 90’s Europe, minus the bullets and sex appeal. Their work is “a strange and purposeless mingling of fact and claptrap that teeters uneasily on the brink of burlesque” , as was said about ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ on its release. And yet, the ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ reference is all wrong because it’s artists like these who have finally got out from under the American shadow which for so long in Britain has haunted art practice – and not only art practice. Forsaking American internationalism, their work is instead not merely peculiarly British as utterly provincial and unceremonious. For a Welshman like Raymond Williams this sort of hidden Englishness, an England not of the dominant English class, needs to be discovered. When a Belgium visitor watching TV and seeing the Beatles and Liverpool football fans for the first time asked Williams “what on earth had happened to the English?”, Williams had to explain that these “incongruous and incompatible English” had been there all along. That’s why Beagles and Ramsay’s work is not a jingoistic promotion of Englishness, or Britishness: it’s not rooted in warm beer and cold emotions, but the miners’ strike and football hooliganism. They might be yBa, technically speaking, but they’re definitely not BBC.