The cultural highs and lows of the year

spiked contributors offer their choices of the best and worst films, albums, plays and exhibitions of 2011.


Topics Politics

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We asked spiked contributors to share their cultural highs and lows of 2011. Here is a rundown of exhibitions, albums, TV programmes, films and shows that inspired, thrilled, bored, angered and engaged some of our writers in 2011.

High: The Heretic, a play by Richard Bean
Low: The Shadow Line, a BBC TV drama

Richard Bean’s play at the Royal Court in London told the story of an Earth scientist who disagrees with the consensus on climate change. It is an exploration of how even scientists committed to objectivity can create an intellectual climate that stifles dissent – and was all the better for focusing on an issue on which typical theatregoers sympathise with the consensus.

The Shadow Line is about a conspiracy involving gangsters, senior police officers… and pensions. Unlike the unwatchable conspiracy series Hidden, this was a compelling show, so the ridiculously unsatisfactory conclusion was a real let-down. A lesson in how not to do politics in drama.

Dolan Cummings is editor of Culture Wars and an associate fellow of the Institute of Ideas.

High: Jerusalem, a play by Jez Butterworth
Low: Tyrannosaur, a film by Paddy Considine

Two works which found themselves in the reprehensible ‘Best of British’ category this year were Paddy Considine’s film Tyrannosaur and Jez Butterworth’s play Jerusalem. As with so many other homegrown productions, they were both hailed by critics as incisive works which define what it is to be British today. But where the dismal Tyrannosaur merely pandered to tired class stereotypes, Jerusalem succeeded purely because it explored British identity while refusing to pin it down. It may not deserve the amount of acclaim it garnered, but Jerusalem remains a definite dramatic highlight of the year: a perceptive and eccentric British play that made Tyrannosaur look all the more inane by comparison.

Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer.

High: Watch the Throne, an album by Jay-Z and Kanye West
Low: Let England Shake, an album by PJ Harvey

Watch the Throne is a brilliant collaboration between two of the greatest living rappers who are at the top of their game: Jay-Z and Kanye West. This celebration of ‘black excellence, opulence, decadence’ has been slated for being unsuited to our recession-hit, austere times. Far from it. The powerful collage of samples – from Otis Redding to Bon Iver – and original work, fused with the same intensely creative spirit of West’s 2010 masterpiece My Beautiful Twisted Dark Fantasy, is all the better for its aching confidence.

When PJ Harvey played the title track of her album, Let England Shake, on the Andrew Marr Show in front of Gordon Brown, there was fervent speculation about just what the former UK prime minister was thinking. ‘The West’s asleep weighted down with silent dead. England’s dancing days are done’, sang Harvey. My own thoughts were: ‘Will this whiny, faux political, pseudo-intellectual, fatalistic jeering by someone who evidently knows sod-all about history ever end?’

Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked.

High: Friday Night Lights, a TV drama series
Low: Tracey Emin

Situated somewhere between Beverly Hills 90210 and The Wire is Friday Night Lights, an American TV series about a high-school football team and the significance of their wins and losses for a small town in Dillon, Texas. The drama explores big questions: the limited future facing most of the students; American decline; and the search for moral values, love and family. Despite echoing a soap opera, the characters are well-developed and their actions believable. All face serious challenges, even with fantastic hair. It is the only series I have seen to tackle disability well, and it does so without shouting about it. It is also the only series I have seen that shows a happy marriage, with the normal strains of everyday life – surely a radical storyline today. I watched it as TV should be watched – on a box set – but that it was aired on NBC – a mainstream channel – is encouraging.

Loath as I am to even mention Emin, if I could erase anything from last year it would be the Tracey show. This year saw a major survey exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, the unveiling of her poster for next year’s Olympics, and her appointment as professor of drawing at the Royal Academy. Despite these plaudits, or maybe because of them, her work remains in the well-worn, but under-developed groove of ugly self-expression that has become so very conventional. My objection is less with her – after all, who wouldn’t exploit such attention? – and more with the art establishment that fawns over her and attempts to elevate and institutionalise her, salivating because Emin fulfils their need to appear cutting edge. The problem is it is Britain’s art world that is now ‘Stuck! Stuck! Stuck! Stuck!’ – to use Emin’s dismissal of figurative art – and it needs to come up with something new that is more interesting, and which could be genuinely popular.

Tiffany Jenkins is a cultural sociologist and author of Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections: The Crisis of Cultural Authority, published by Routledge.

High: Kill List, a film thriller
Low: King of Limbs, by Radiohead, an album

Ben Wheatley’s arthouse-realist thriller, Kill List, crowned a remarkable year for British cinema. It encapsulated a boldness, originality and vitality – while never losing sight of plot credibility – that has come to define this new wave of British talent. For sheer audacity, Kill List had the edge over the new Brit talent that has helped clear domestic screens of rotten gangster flicks and Richard Curtis parodies.

Radiohead are the most pompous, self-regarding band since Pink Floyd, the aural equivalent of Occupy St Paul’s: irritable faux-radicalism that gives off a bad odour. Anyone calling a song ‘The Daily Mail’ deserves to be pointed at by small children and laughed at.

Neil Davenport is a politics teacher based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

High: Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, an exhibition at the National Gallery in London
Low: Sunflower Seeds, an installation by Ai Wei Wei at Tate Modern in London

We went from art hell to art heaven in London this year, starting with an installation in Tate Modern’s anti-art Turbine Hall and ending with an awe-inspiring blockbuster exhibition at the National Gallery.

The installation, by Ai Wei Wei – everyone’s favourite dissident Chinese artist – was a pile of millions and billions (just like the Chinese, geddit?) of handmade (not industrial, see?) sunflower-shaped porcelain seeds. They were neither true nor beautiful. Just very dusty. Indeed.

By contrast, the year ended with Saint Nicholas Penny giving us the Christmas present of a lifetime: the National’s Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan. Just nine paintings showing us nature made idea, human life immortalised, raised up not trodden down.

Angus Kennedy is head of external relations at the Institute of Ideas.

High: Museum of Broken Relationships, a touring exhibition
Low: 10 O’Clock Live, a satirical current affairs show

The touring Croatian Museum of Broken Relationships contained 100 objects showcasing all the scrapings, detritus and used underwear left on the floor of the ‘foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart’. It offered a bittersweet summertime fling for Londoners during August. A reminder of the endless capacity for pain, self-delusion, renewal and optimism which occurs when human beings worldwide attempt the complex task of copping off with each other, this was a genuinely surprising and strangely comforting gem. Contrary to the advice of friends, family and assorted medical professionals, it was also an excellent date venue.

To borrow from Airplane, it looks like I chose the wrong day to stop sniffing glue. Did I really have such high hopes for the Channel 4 satirical current affairs show 10 O’Clock Live when it started back in January? Tuning in week after week as David Mitchell, Charlie Brooker, Lauren Laverne and Jimmy Carr took a lofty liberal sneer at the ignorance of the masses, while fluffing their lines over topics they clearly didn’t understand, became a TV columnist’s form of self-flagellation. In a strange and troubling year for politics and society, this was laughter in the dark which somehow failed to pack in fewer good jokes than The News Quiz.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV reviewer

High: Relational aesthetics
Low: Relational aesthetics

Relational aesthetics, defined by art critic Nicolas Bourriaud as ‘festive, collective and participatory’ artistic projects, came into vogue in the 1990s. This year, one of its champions, Carsten Höller, turned the New Museum in New York into a kind of amusement park, including a 102-foot slide, a sensory-deprivation tank and a flashing-lights installation. This year, art that brings out the child in us found plenty of other homes, too. For instance, there was the Creator’s Project, a weekend of events and installations in Dumbo, Brooklyn, and the Talk to Me exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). Exploring ‘the communication between people and things’, Talk to Me included a Metrocard vending machine, video games and various touchy-feely devices.

In fact, it seems non-experiential art is the exception rather than the rule these days. But the phasing out of a mature creation and appreciation of art, and of the museum as a special space where we quietly appreciate others’ mastery of aesthetics, means art easily becomes reduced to cheap thrills.

Having said that, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre premier of Minus 16, by Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin, was nothing short of thrilling, exhilarating, uplifting, hilarious, touching – any superlative will do. The piece uses Naharin’s ‘Gaga’ method, which is supposed to encourage spontaneity among elite dancers and non-trained members of the public alike. It’s relational aesthetics for dance. And it’s wonderful.

Nathalie Rothschild is an international correspondent for spiked. Visit her personal website here. Follow her on Twitter @n_rothschild.

High: Anything Goes, a musical
Low: The Republican presidential debates

2011 revived me with a terrific revival of the lovely, loopy Depression-era Cole Porter musical, Anything Goes (original book by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse; updated by John Weidman and Crouse’s son Timothy). The cultural gifts of the great American songbook and mid-twentieth-century American musical theatre (plus late-twentieth-century Sondheim) might compensate for the curse of reality TV.

Speaking of which, the Republican presidential debate marathon, which many have rightly likened to a reality TV series, was the year’s most depressing cultural event. With self-aggrandising buffoons like Herman Cain in the running, however briefly, the baleful influence of positive-thinking popular culture on politics has rarely been more clear.

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer, writer and free speech activist.

High: The Passenger, an opera by Mieczysław Weinberg
Low: Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe, an exhibition at the British Museum

In art, the Holocaust is too often a hackneyed artistic trope hijacked by simplistic moral messages. By contrast, The Passenger, an opera by Polish-Jewish composer Mieczysław Weinberg, shows that mature critical distance is a boon. Written in 1968, Weinberg’s distinctive musical voice still well expresses a world, as was evident at the English National Opera staging this year. Weinberg’s wide open bits of chord, tugging dissonances and brittle melodies capture a genuine depth of thought and feeling, with all their opacity and quiet truth. Percussion and snatches of jazz added surprising humour to the ENO’s serious on-stage world of Auschwitz. Despite the right-on hype, Weinberg proves that opera is its own art – and most articulate when left to its own devices.

A reliquary is a devotional object holding part of a holy person – a bone or hair – often in the shape of the body part in question. A reliquary housing part of St Blaise’s foot bone, for example, is crafted in the form of a foot. Such objects, along with other relics like bits of the True Cross, are fiercely venerated. With such a fascinating subject matter and macabre glut of material, the Treasures of Heaven exhibition at the British Museum had to work hard. Unfortunately, there was little interrogation of the enviable material on show. This was a missed opportunity to peer into the peculiar medieval mind – a shaping influence of Europe’s unique past.

Sarah Boyes is a freelance writer and editor, and the assistant editor of Culture Wars.

High: BBC Radio 3’s Symphony season
Low: The death of Amy Winehouse

The Symphony season on BBC Radio 3, in which over 60 of the most renowned musical compositions of the past two centuries were played, was a personal favourite. It demonstrated that the station is not afraid to celebrate traditional favourites. In performing them in their entirety, it defied the conventional myth that music for a middle-brow audience needs to be bitty. It was an aural treat, too.

A low of the year was the death of singer Amy Winehouse. There is nothing tragically romantic about an artist dying young. It is a terrible waste of a young person’s life, let alone a gifted musician’s.

Patrick West is spiked’s music columnist.

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