The Year in Review: How the map of our culture was redrawn

Share
Related Topics

How do you best map the cultural year? The conventional way is a kind of aesthetic Mercator projection, in which the irregular realities of the arts are smoothed out on to a single flat plane. Some of the resulting realms and territories are very large. Film has a landmass all to itself and Theatre and Books command imperial stretches of space. And, just as a Mercator projection stretches and squeezes in variable ways, the act of year-end summary means that some regions loom larger in diagrammatic form than is consistent with their heft in the real world. This is a moment for the Iceland of contemporary dance to expand its newsprint real estate.

The Mercator projection isn't how any human can see the world, though, which is viewed more intimately, and through various filters of memory and prejudice. The way we actually look back on the cultural year is more like that famous Saul Steinberg drawing of the average New Yorker's perception of the world: in which 9th and 10th Avenue fill over half of the perspective, with a thin strip of the United States just over the Hudson River, and Japan and Russia just visible on the far horizon. Time does some of the foreshortening here. Remember how large A Prophet loomed 11 months ago? And yet Jacques Audiard's sensational film about a young man's criminal education in a French prison – easily among the best films of this year – already seems to have dwindled into the distance so that The Social Network (also excellent) now looms much larger.

Personal experience can have the same effect. My own Steinberg projection of the year has a kind of Great Wall of China in the near foreground, composed of uncorrected proof copies of the 140-odd novels that were in contention for this year's Booker Prize – judging which entirely skewed my view of the landscape. On this side of the wall stands Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question, which won, and on the other, out beyond even the Jersey shoreline, I can just see Joseph O'Connor's equally touching Ghost Light, the one book that would have made my final decision much harder (had I been a better advocate for its virtues than I proved).

On Steinberg's map the foreground is all detail and the middle ground a scatter of geographical place names. In my perspectival view, the states are mapped out with abstractions, within which cluster all kinds of event. There's a region marked out as Controversies, for example, not very large this year because the kind of explosive arguments the arts can ignite turned out to be thin on the ground. Sometimes you expected a bang which never really came, as was the case with Chris Morris's intriguing film Four Lions, a comedy about suicide-bombing which was preceded by much wary editorial but was succeeded only by laughter. In other cases the rows were real, as with the debate provoked when the 11-year-old heroine in Matthew Vaughn's Kick-Ass addressed a room full of villains as Jeremy Hunts (in the sense later popularised by Jim Naughtie), a moment that generated vexed editorial from both sides of the political watershed. Michael Winterbottom's intensely violent adaptation of The Killer Inside Me brilliantly captured the bleakness of the Jim Thompson novel it was based on but also provoked a fierce attack on the misogyny it depicted, which some viewers felt it didn't do enough to condemn. And the television writer Jimmy McGovern, for whom tabloid opinion columns are a kind of litmus paper to test whether he's touched the right nerves, got the result he wanted with a gripping drama about an army bully, one of the episodes in his series Accused.

Somewhere over where Steinberg put Canada, there's a big section marked Recession, too. Because this year it was increasingly plain that hard times are starting to bite into artistic sensibility. American novels did it best, with Lionel Shriver's scaldingly angry novel So Much For That conducting an autopsy into the fatal wounding of a couple's savings by their encounter with the American health system, and Jess Walter's The Financial Lives of the Poets, a funny, unnervingly plausible account of a redundant journalist who turns to drug-dealing to make ends meet. Oddly, Recession is also the location for a couple of the best arts exhibitions, because this was a year in which intelligent frugality began to make its mark. There were big-ticket shows that worked – most notably The Real Van Gogh at the Royal Academy, which revealingly linked the art to the artist's letters – but Cezanne's Card Players at the Courtauld Gallery and Close Examination at the National Gallery showed that small exhibitions, or those which draw on a gallery's own permanent collection, can have as much weight as the old-fashioned blockbusters. And there's a film here, too: Debra Granik's remarkable hard-scrabble thriller Winter's Bone.

On the left-hand side of the map, where Steinberg puts Mexico, there's an extensive region marked Performances, because this year the acting was often more durable in the mind than the film or play or series they were in. Nobody could seriously argue that Dion Boucicault's London Assurance is a theatrical classic, but this old warhorse of a farce offered Simon Russell Beale and Fiona Shaw the opportunity for a textbook display of comic improvisation. In film George Clooney found his perfect role in Jason Reitman's Up in the Air, that faint complacency about his attractions perfectly aligned to the plot. Meanwhile, Judi Dench was so magisterial in Peter Hall's Midsummer Night's Dream that it made you fantasise about the Prospero she could give, and Rory Kinnear took the awards with an excellent Hamlet. The one new play that seemed more than the sum of its (excellently played) parts was Nina Raine's Tribes at the Royal Court, evidence of a writer with a genuine feel for theatrical emotion.

Beyond that, it's random saliences that remain as landmarks – the equivalent of the buttes and mesas which Steinberg has protruding from the tabletop flatness of his truncated Middle America. One marks the site of Christian Marclay's extraordinary video work The Clock (coming shortly to the Hayward, for those who missed it elsewhere). Another, fittingly enough, the engrossing south-western landscapes of Red Dead Redemption, a video game that edged the form one intriguing step closer to the standing of art. In the near distance there's Jeremy Sams' wonderfully funny libretto for Don Giovanni at ENO – refiguring Leporello's list song as a PowerPoint projection. And there, in the middle, the Ayer's Rock bulk of Radio 4's History of the World in 100 Objects, a concatenation of national treasures that included the broadcasting institution that made it and the museum that supplied the objects. Who won the Turner Prize? Sorry, it doesn't seem to be marked on this map at all.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

 

Ed Miliband's conference speech must show Labour has a head as well as a heart

Patrick Diamond
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments