Review of the Year 2009: Culture

Shining lights in the post-crash gloom

By Tom Sutcliffe
Wednesday 23 December 2009 01:00

The hazard in any grand cultural survey is that you end up unconsciously reshaping the landscape to suit the current weather, meteorological and metaphorical. This year was predominantly overcast – a predicted summer heatwave failing to turn up and autumn rains so persistent that they threatened to wash parts of Cumbria out to sea. And that matched the economic and political mood, with Labour limping to the end of its third term in office like a pensioner with a dodgy hip and the banks on an expensive form of life support. It's quite tempting, then (because it soothes our desire for the world to be more coherent than it is), to see the arts as having somehow tracked the barometers and the stock-market indexes. Not all that difficult, either. Take film to begin with.

You could cite one of the year's early successes – Darren Aronofsky's film The Wrestler, which starred Mickey Rourke as a washed-up fighter trying to get his life in order – as a perfect expression of the bleak mood of the times, all reduced horizons and lowered expectations. Or you might single out Michael Haneke's Palme d'Or-winning film, The White Ribbon, as an example of the new austerity – its lustrous black-and-white photography accompanied by a thousand shades of grey in its account of small-town cowardice and cruelty.

The only difficulty being that art generally takes time to absorb these things, and there are always contradictions. If you want to to advance The Wrestler as a prescient take on post-crash gloom, how do you explain the optimistic ebullience of Slumdog Millionaire, a dare-to-dream fable which – in its own story of "plucky Hollywood outsider sweeping the board at the Oscars" – mirrored the film's story of a Bombay chai wallah who strikes it rich? And where exactly would you place films such as Watchmen, Zack Snyder's hugely anticipated and correspondingly disappointing film version of the cult graphic novel, or Brüno, in which Sacha Baron Cohen tested the limits of audience embarrassment? Where would you put the Cineplex blockbusters that earned all the money – films such as Terminator Salvation or Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, films as noisy – and as hollow – as dustbins being churned in a cement mixer?

Probably best to admit that there's no simple correlation between culture and the national mood and that if such a thing as zeitgeist exists, it's almost always discovered in long hindsight, when local irregularities have faded away. And best, too, to treasure the irregularities – such as Tomas Alfredson's film Let the Right One In, a vampire film for people who hate vampire films. Easily the best of what you would have to call a clot of vampire-related productions this year (including the second of the Twilight franchise and True Blood, a blue-collar vampire series from HBO), Alfredson's film treated its supernatural elements with brilliant, and moving, matter-of-factness. Its quiet seriousness was matched by two other notable films – Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, among the best films so far made about the Iraq war, and the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man, a painfully funny transposition of the Book of Job to the American Midwest, which solemnly claimed in its closing credits that "no Jews had been harmed in the making of this movie".

In theatre, the connection with the credit crunch was often a calculated one. Rupert Goold had a hit in Chichester and at the Royal Court with Enron, an Oh, What a Lovely War for capitalism's trench warfare, while the Soho Theatre enterprisingly commissioned some rapid-fire responses to the economic crisis in Everything Must Go! Both productions left David Hare looking as if he was playing catch-up with The Power of Yes – more an over-manned PowerPoint lecture than a play, but still one of the National's successes in a rather mixed year. Richard Bean's England People Very Nice took interesting risks with racial stereotypes and was ill rewarded with some knee-jerk reflexes from audiences, while another experiment – the digital relay of Helen Mirren's performance in Phèdre to cinemas around the country and the globe – paid off handsomely enough to guarantee further ventures. But the play that really jolted both audiences and critics alike was Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem, a terrific comedy of rural misrule which gave Mark Rylance the opportunity to deliver the standout performance of 2009. It was nasally the most impressive production of the year, too, wafting the scent of petrol and singed flesh across the stalls at several critical moments. Any prize for technological audacity, though, would have to be shared by Katie Mitchell, whose After Dido was a miracle of ingenuity and synchronization, and La Fura dels Baus's production of Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre at ENO, so dazzling in its stagecraft that it persuaded even the more conservative members of the audience to forget their antipathy to the music. And the Tricycle further cemented its reputation as theatre's foremost think tank with The Great Game, a day-long festival of specially commissioned plays about Western involvement in Afghanistan. It Felt Like a Kiss, Punchdrunk's eerie and astoundingly detailed collaboration with the film-maker Adam Curtis and the musician Damon Albarn, concluded with many who experienced it running from the venue in a state of queasy dread – something that other theatre productions have achieved before, but never because that was precisely what they were aiming for.

In the galleries and museums, you could have been forgiven for thinking that the world's economy was booming, rather than crashing, with several lavish unveilings. Nottingham Contemporary opened its new gold box of a gallery with a Hockney retrospective, while the Victoria and Albert could boast a stunning makeover of its Ceramics Galleries and its Medieval & Renaissance Collections, both of them underpinned by the kind of donations it will be much harder to find in the next few years. In both of the V&A galleries, the new curatorial orthodoxy was clearly on show – emphasising chronological narrative and breaking down the old scholarly demarcations of geography and classification. The buzz words now are "trade" and "influence" – a transparency about the messiness and miscegenation that makes culture thrive. The same approach has completely refreshed the collections at The Ashmolean in Oxford, also reopened this year with a gleaming new extension by the architect Rick Mather. Elsewhere there was a story of paradoxically radical conservatism – the only shocking thing left being to do what would have been utterly commonplace 100 years ago. So Damien Hirst provoked headlines (and almost unanimously terrible reviews) by taking over a room in the Wallace Collection to show recent oil paintings, and the Turner Prize went to Richard Wright, who works in fresco technique. What was also conspicuous was the continuing rise of the curator essayist, with unconvincing examples (such as Tate Modern's Altermodern) outweighed by really thoughtful theme shows at the Hayward (including Walking in My Mind), the Wellcome Collection and the Edinburgh Festival, which scattered its show The Enlightenments all over town.

It wasn't really a year for classic blockbusters: the National Gallery's much-touted Picasso: Challenging the Past turned out to give you a heavyweight bout with only one fighter actually in the ring, squaring off against cardboard cut-outs of his sparring partners. But Anish Kapoor's exhibitions at the Brighton Festival and the Royal Academy confirmed his standing as an artist with the popular touch. In any other year, Kapoor's opening would have been unrivalled when it came to media coverage, a pneumatic cannon firing shells of blood-red wax against the Royal Academy's walls proving a draw even for news outlets typically wary of the fine arts. But this wasn't an ordinary year, because it also included Antony Gormley's One & Other, a project for the fourth plinth which allowed 2,400 members of the public to turn themselves – if only briefly – into a work of art. So successfully did it capture the public imagination that it was featured approvingly in both The Sun and The Archers – neither of which is notorious for their sympathetic coverage of modern art.

The big book of the year – working on poundage alone – was Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones, an epic and epically serious novel narrated from the point of view of an SS Officer serving on the Eastern Front. It had won the Prix

Goncourt in France in 2006, but its reviews here were not exactly a match for the title. Big books of the year – working on headlines and awards – were Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, which took the Booker, Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture, which won the Costa prize, and Marilynne Robinson's Home, winner of the 2009 Orange Prize. Any reader knows, though, that books are often remembered for their parts as much as their whole – and in my reading year it was shocks that stood out – short passages that leave you stunned both by how much can change in the turn of a page and by the skill at capturing it in language: in that respect, Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs and David Vann's extraordinary Legend of a Suicide are the ones that remain fixed in the mind. The most wildly extravagant narrative, though, wasn't found between hard covers at all – but on screen. The apotheosis of Susan Boyle, lifted from small-town eccentric to global star by millions of YouTube hits, and the careful calculation of Simon Cowell. And there is absolutely no way in which that stratospheric inflation of value could be tagged to a slumping market.

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