Review of the year: Culture

Don't ignore the elephant in the road
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The Independent Online

At the year's end there was one piece of fun for all the family which outdid all the pantos and Nutcrackers. The giant slide at Tate Modern proved not just the most popular piece of conceptual art of the year, but a cultural event. Yet, as one used to ask long ago, before the phrase became hopelessly infra dig, is it art? It was hard to find anyone outside the employ of Sir Nicholas Serota who could make a case for its artistic criteria. Yet it didn't seem to matter. This was a year when artistic criteria became more confused than ever, and enjoyment and "event" became cultural criteria. To use a word not encountered since the Sixties, the "happening" was back. Months before the slide, we had a 40ft wooden elephant paraded through London's Regent Street. This was deemed to be theatre, and certainly it was just as much theatre as a helter skelter was contemporary art. Both elephant and slide received public money, and perhaps helped those trying to find a working definition of what was art in 2006. It was anything that was funded.

It was not just with grand conceptual art and even, if there is such a thing, with grand conceptual theatre, that new rules were being written and traditional hierarchies challenged. Opera received a much needed burst of competition as Opera North and Glyndebourne threatened to dent the Royal Opera and ENO's dominance in the capital. When Sadler's Wells gave a showcase to new productions by Opera North and Glyndebourne, Nicholas Payne, a former head of both the Royal Opera and the English National Opera was moved to look askance at his old paymasters and write in The Independent that it was the first named companies that were now viewed internationally as the most innovative.

Dance too saw some mighty reputations take a knock. Visits by the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky (formerly Kirov) coincided, a treat that dance fans might consider akin to paradise on earth, except that the Bolshoi received mixed reviews and the Kirov a bunch of stinkers. For once, the best talent was available here, not so much the Royal Ballet, though it more than holds its own on the world stage, but the solo talents of the likes of Carlos Acosta and especially Sylvie Guillem. Her mesmerising shows at Sadler's Wells had queues for returns every night, not bad for a dancer the wrong side of 40.

As every tetchy, not to say panic-stricken, record company executive will tell you, it was in rock and pop music that the natural order of things was most upset. The year began with the debut - and later Mercury prize-winning - album from the Arctic Monkeys. The band was huge even before the album's release, such was the power of MySpace and other websites. Those who hailed this as the first example of the web and word of mouth creating a monster hit are more or less correct, though this band that epitomised spontaneous success had managers and PRs in place mighty quickly. But, Arctic Monkeys were as cool as they were talented. What lousy luck to have that coolness ripped from them, with the Chancellor announcing at Labour Party conference that he was a fan.

As downloads grew in importance, being counted towards the official charts for the first time, and the major labels wrestled with that then with piracy, then with losing the battle on extending copyright, there grew a legion of female successors to the Arctic Monkeys, women such as Lily Allen and Sandi Thom, who blogged and webcast their way to fame, Allen's feisty, streetwise and melodic debut a genuine highlight. She shared the column inches with the Monkeys and the ubiquitous Pete Doherty as rock personalities of the year, which fans of the less newsworthy Snow Patrol must have thought a little unfair as they quietly chalked up the year's best selling album.

There were changes to the established order elsewhere in the UK, huge changes that strangely were little remarked upon in England. North of the border, Scotland opened its own National Theatre in February. Opened is not quite the right word as this was a theatre without its own building, a National Theatre that was truly national, committed to touring Scotland. It proved a great success with 28 productions in 62 locations seen by 100,000 people. Those locations have included theatres, ferries and forests, village halls, airports and tower blocks.

Those who recall the comedy series Yes Minister might remember one episode had the minister ordering the head of England's National Theatre to become a touring theatre and dispense with its London base to become "truly national". The fictional head of the theatre was outraged and the episode deemed a great joke. What was a surreal joke for England has become an ideological reality for Scotland. There were other major jolts to the established order. Both Scotland and Wales made moves to abolish their respective arts councils, Scotland succeeding, Wales still meeting resistance. Had this happened in England, every arts worthy would have publicly denounced the attack on the precious arms length principle of governance of the arts. What is being tried in Scotland and Wales is all too likely to come to England at some stage, though the ineffectiveness of the Arts Council of England in dealing with the various crises at English National Opera - which lost yet another artistic director this year - has lessened its case for survival.

The recent wringing of hands about the number of musicals in the West End has given a false picture of the health of theatre. For a start there are still more straight plays than musicals, even in the West End. And the health of the National Theatre, Donmar and Almeida was yet again evident. Above all, this was a rather good year for Shakespeare. The RSC mounted the complete works over a 12-month period for the first time. And at Shakespeare's Globe the new artistic director Dominic Dromgoole defied predictions that he was the wrong man to follow Mark Rylance, and put on a critically acclaimed season.

Amid the new writing, Peter Morgan's Frost/Nixon at the Donmar stood out as an enthralling re-creation of the Frost/Nixon interviews of 1977. Audiences must have thought the playwright took two liberties with the truth - he had Nixon making a drunken phone call to Frost in his hotel room, and there was a scene in which Nixon suddenly demanded payment up front and Frost had to take his cheque book from his pocket and give him the dosh. When the real David Frost went backstage to congratulate the cast he confided in them that there had indeed been no drunken phone call, but the cheque writing incident was absolutely true. It was one of the most embarrassing moments of his life, he said.

Meanwhile, Sir David Hare, having fallen out with the National Theatre, opened his new play in New York. Moving one's tent across the Atlantic is marginally better than sulking in it; but it seemed a slightly churlish move by someone who has had the resources of subsidised theatre for decades. Broadway or no Broadway, his new work was greeted with decidedly mixed reviews.

If one of the golden rules of cinema has been that there has only ever been one James Bond, then here too the natural order was upset. At last Sean Connery has a challenger. Daniel Craig's rugged, sexy but insecure Bond, 007 with a chip on his shoulder, was the surprise of the year, and has audiences looking forward to the next Bond movie for the first time in ages. The film itself, character rather than stunt driven was also a welcome surprise, so it should have been no surprise to see a screen-writing credit for Paul Haggis, the writer (and director) of Crash, the character-driven tale about life in Los Angeles which won the best film Oscar. A dead cert for the best foreign film Oscar seemed to be Hidden, the cult movie of the year, which had cinema goers talking about its motives and mysteries at no end of after film dinners. But it won nothing as it could not be categorised. A French film with an Austrian director was clearly too confusing for the Academy, and it was deemed ineligible. If ever there was a crass decision in awards giving, this was it.

The literary world rubbed its eyes in disbelief as Ian McEwan had to defend himself against a charge of plagiarism for his 2002 Booker shortlisted novel Atonement. This year's winner Kiran Desai was definitely close to another long-term Booker favourite, gaining the award that has more than once eluded her mother, Anita Desai.

A highlight of the television year for me was the one off Royle Family return, showing Caroline Aherne to be still at the top of her form as the most poignant of small screen comedy writers and comedy actresses. The pity is that we see so little of her and her work. It was good too to see the BBC givingThe Culture Show a prime time Saturday night spot, and the breadth of its reporting made up for the sometimes too studiedly whimsical approach of its presenters, ever determined to show that they were having a "laff" with this culture lark.

Architecture's top award, the Stirling Prize, went to Richard Rogers for his New Area Terminal at Barajas airport in Madrid. His efforts are just as badly needed back home, where a think tank is set to report to Conservative leader David Cameron on bad buildings in Britain. At least it will be refreshing to have a political party speak about architecture in Britain. It is hard to recall a Labour minister pronouncing on the state of architecture this year - or in the last nine years.

In a year of changes to the natural cultural order, it was heartening to end the year with a grizzled old certainty still going strong. Columbia Records this month made what at first seemed like a ludicrously outlandish claim. "Public awareness of Bob Dylan," it said, "is at an all time high." Could it really be the case that the king of the Sixties counter culture is better known now than then? After a year in which his acclaimed album made him the first sexagenarian to enter the US album chart at number one, BBC showed the Martin Scorsese documentary on him, and Radio 2 began airing his satellite radio show, it might be true. And if it isn't, the thought that it might be is at least as remarkable as a 40ft elephant.

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