So should we go with quantity or quality in assessing the year that's just gone? If you opt for the former, then there's really no contest when it comes to the two landmark events of the cultural year. Fighting it out for top spot, with audiences of approaching a billion people each, were Danny Boyle's Olympics Opening Ceremony and "Gangnam Style" – a YouTube video in which a portly Korean pop star guyed the inhabitants of an upscale suburb. And they were both, in their different ways, representative of a world in which old cultural borderlines have long vanished, so that distinctively local creations can reach huge world audiences. A cheeky pop tune that PSY had aimed squarely at a home audience became the global ohrwurm of the year, wriggling its way into the collective consciousness and sending quite a few people temporarily insane as it did so.
If you did opt for quality as your chief metric, then it's possible that "Gangnam Style" wouldn't figure in your annual audit, though it wouldn't be difficult to make the case for Danny Boyle's pageant of British virtues to retain a place. It triumphantly refuted all predictions of disaster (including, I might as well confess, my own). It was a mass-market spectacular which understood that there might be a morality in being part of the crowd, and that patriotism could be defined not by your hostility to other countries but through an affection for the most admirable parts of this one. It even managed to be quite highbrow, in an understated way – drawing inspiration from Humphrey Jennings's great anthology of industrialisation, Pandaemonium. And it included the year's unbeaten jaw-dropping reveal: the moment at which the world realised that the reason the look-alike Queen was so good was because she wasn't a look-alike at all.
The Olympics were accompanied by a Cultural Olympiad – extensive, expensive and variably successful. Some of its promised highlights still haven't turned up. Others unfolded in ways that touched participants deeply but barely impinged on a national audience. And some elements, such as the David Hockney retrospective at the Royal Academy or the BBC's The Hollow Crown Shakespeare productions, were among the year's most notable events. But none of them quite generated the same sense of collective pride as Boyle's opener, with its tacit assertion that creative invention and artistic spectacle were as much a part of British greatness as riding a bicycle or propelling a wheelchair faster than anyone else. When the time came for members of the arts world to protest at cuts to arts funding, not a few of them pointed back at Boyle's opening ceremony as an example of what could grow from a modest investment of seed money. And Boyle himself was vocal in his dismay at proposed cutbacks.
Quantity wasn't a reliable indication in almost any other field. One of the box-office hits at Tate Modern, for example, was the Damien Hirst exhibition, opening at almost precisely the moment at which people (and investors, judging from the salesroom prices) began to wonder whether the bubble had burst. It made a mint for Tate Modern, and offered some of the most expensive souvenirs the museum has ever sold, but it didn't exactly consolidate Hirst's artistic reputation. The real highlight of the Tate's year wasn't that exhibition, but the launching of The Tanks, a new display and performance space. The Hayward continued to show real flair in terms of curatorship, with popular exhibitions of David Shrigley's work and a thought-provoking show titled Invisible, consisting largely of work that wasn't there, and the Whitechapel dazzled us with Giuseppe Penone's Spazio di Luce. But the show of year, by some considerable stretch, was the Royal Academy's Bronze – an exhibition which set aside academic and chronological niceties to let astounding sculptures from all over the world start a kind of conversation about what they had in common. Like that Opening Ceremony, it proved that an intensely local art can acquire universality if it's good enough.
If universality is the goal in itself, quality is a bit harder to come by. The year's highest-grossing films – Marvel's The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises – made vast amounts of money by studiously underestimating their audience, but will not trouble historians of film in even two years time, I would have thought. Sam Mendes also found commercial success with Skyfall, an okay Bond film which was widely greeted as if it was a matchless one. At the same time, Joss Whedon, who directed and co-wrote The Avengers, produced Cabin in the Woods, a clever horror entertainment that actually asked you to think about what it was that was entertaining you, and was rewarded with 72nd position in the 2012 box-office list. And the best films of the year were so far down the earnings list that scrolling to reach them would induce repetitive strain injury. For my money – which doesn't appear to be the money that Hollywood is interested in – the films of the year included David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis and Leos Carax's Holy Motors, both of which sharply divided the critics and both of which could be described as stretch-limo trips, with an emphasis on the hallucinogenic. And Michael Haneke's Amour and Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master also kept the flame burning for high cinematic ambition.
Theatre, fortunately, can still just afford to think of art first and worry about income second – and it was a year in which both the new and experimental and the classic and the restrained impressed. In the latter camp, David Suchet and Laurie Metcalf were remarkable in a revival of Long Day's Journey Into Night, while Jonathan Pryce unnerved and moved as Lear in Michael Attenborough's Almeida production, which presented the protagonist as a sexually abusive father. Shakespeare survived that liberty, as he did several others, including Tristan Sharp's bold shortened version of Hamlet at the Brighton Festival, The Rest is Silence, and two strikingly cast versions of Julius Caesar – Greg Doran's Africa-set production in Stratford and Phyllida Lloyd's all-woman version at the Donmar. If there was a general theme to the theatrical year, though, it was the increasing representation of women – as writers (Lucy Prebble's The Effect, Lucy Kirkwood's NSFW and Caryl Churchill's Love and Information were among the best new plays), directors and artistic directors, with Josie Rourke and Indhu Rubasingham starting their terms at the Donmar and Tricycle in confident fashion.