2012 in review: The New Statesman on... the arts

From Michael Jackson to Martin Amis: the best NS writing on the arts.

Welcome to the sixth instalment of the New Statesman's 12 days of Blog-mas. (Yesterday's round up, of our best interviews, is here).

This summer, the Cultural Olympiad showed off British art to the world, but as autumn arrived the cuts to art programmes made in the spring started to show. Here are some of our best reviews - click the headlines to open them in a new window:

The wizardry of The xx

"It’s as close to magic as you’ll get in Shepherd’s Bush". Sophie Emhirst reviews that rare thing: a shy band.

This gig is a lesson in how you put on a show if you don’t like prancing about on stage or chatting to your fans. You need three things: smoke, lights, a surprise object. The smoke comes first, pumped and billowing long before the trio come out on stage. It all makes sense once the lights go down and a spotlight, swirled with clouds, falls on Romy singing “Angels”. But the lights have their own show to do, building as the bass gets thicker. These aren’t spotlights, or disco swoopers, or strobes, or circling glitter balls. These are lights as walls: wave after wave sweeping over the audience and then twisting back to decapitate the band, their heads in pitch black, bodies illuminated. They keep coming too, these lights, so just when you think the ship has steadied, there they are in different forms – as a fan from ceiling to floor, vertical, a slatted gate of light slicing through the crowd and then as a thumping glare, flashes of full white in time with the beat, so you get moments of screaming brightness followed by black again.

Read all about it: NS Books of the Year 2012

The New Statesman’s friends and contributors choose their favourite books of 2012. Here's AS Byatt's:

Jenny Uglow’s The Pinecone (Faber & Faber, £20) is about the language of carving, objects containing ideas. It is the story of Sarah Losh, a north country heiress in the early 19th century, forceful, learned, independent, who built a church full of fascinating images. The tale is mysterious because Uglow worked with almost no manuscript remains and scrupulously invented nothing. She has turned this central silence into a kind of force by describing stones, glass, things constructed, so precisely that they become not exactly alive but strangely present on the page. Their world – business, weather, politics, poets, marriages, deaths – becomes a revenant around them. I don’t know another book that feels quite like this one.

Review: Sweet Revenge - the Intimate Life of Simon Cowell

Sophie Elmhirst reviews Simon Cowell's biography. She finds it a rocky read.

Bower depicts a young man burning with desperation, reliant on his father for cash bailouts, a figure of industry-wide mockery. (He is perfectly described by a music producer in the 1980s as “not credible. He looked like he was in charge of Easter eggs.”) Eventually, he has a genuine hit (if that’s a fair description of Westlife) and it’s not long before the TV version of Cowell is launched and the money rolls in.

Is "Portrait of a Lady" by Henry James a great American novel?

Sarah Churchwell writes a portrait of the novel.

Henry James once defined criticism as the mind “reaching out for the reasons of its interest”, a process that he deemed “the very education of our imaginative life”. Michael Gorra doesn’t include this quotation in Portrait of a Novel but it is an apt description of the book he has written about James’s The Portrait of a Lady (1881).

George Osborne: the Austerity Chancellor - review

Jason Cowley finds a biographer with an over-developed vocabulary.

Among other irritations, Ganesh has an alarming fondness for the ostentatious or redundant adverb: Britain has a “haughtily opaque state”; Norman Lamont was “elegantly caustic”; Archie Norman, the businessman and former Tory MP, is “sublimely able”; Andy Coulson, the disgraced former News of the World editor-turned-Tory spinner, is “sublimely able”; Alan Clark, the Conservative diarist and libertine, is “famously fleshly”; the civil servant Nicholas Macpherson is “languidly brilliant”; Boris Johnson is “chaotically charismatic”; the Institute for Fiscal Studies is “unimpeachably pukka”; City financiers on their way to work are the “impossibly multinational hordes scurrying from Bank or Moorgate . . . each morning”; Oliver Letwin is “almost uniquely unsuited to practical politics”. Can something be “almost” unique?

Amis and Larkin: Hate in a cold climate

Kingsley Amis’s novel Lucky Jim has its origins in his intense and competitive friendship with Philip Larkin, writes Keith Gessen.

Both young men spent a good portion of their time at Oxford abusing the literature they were supposed to study. “I can just about stand learning the filthy lingo it’s written in,” Larkin wrote to Amis about Old English poetry. “What gets me down is being expected to admire the bloody stuff.” They invented a game called “horsepissing,” in which they’d replace words from classic literary texts with obscenities –“I have gathered up six slender basketfuls OF HORSEPISS,” for example – which they’d write in their own and each other’s copies of famous books. It was a game they never tired of or, indeed, outgrew.

Michael Jackson: The boy in the bubble

Released 30 years ago, Michael Jackson’s album Thriller was the beginning of his assault on the white pop world. Here's Kate Mossman.

No one knew quite what to say when Jacko died in 2009 at the age of 50. Some said they “saw that coming”, which is also what they said about Whitney Houston and Amy Winehouse. It seemed disingenuous – if anything, all three had been conveniently, temporarily forgotten like the mad woman in the attic. Perhaps the world is now ready to accept, all over again, that Jackson was the greatest pop star who ever lived. He broke the race barrier, redefined the pop video and forged a sound so pervasive that it can be heard in the songs of Justin Bieber, Rihanna, Nicky Minaj and a whole host of twenty somethings who were not even born during his glory years. Which brings us back to that kid in front of the TV. The record that achieved all these things was Thriller.

Playing God

Ryan Gilbey on divine presences in the movies.

There have been surprisingly few filmmakers (and actors) willing to put the deity into tangible form on screen. Probably my favourite example is from television. In the “Batteries” episodes from The Sarah Silverman Program, Silverman has a one-night stand with God (Tucker Smallwood). To her chagrin, He’s still there in the morning—and He’s clingy. (Later she uses Him for her own ends when she wants to show up at her high-school reunion and trump her former classmates with her impressive new boyfriend. Perhaps the nicest touch is His little “GOD” nametag.)

Josh Osho: A portrait of the artist in a digital age

"People just want to connect. If I put my heart in it and people connect that’s the most important thing." Alan White on Josh Osho.

There’s a part of yourself that’s omnipotent. That’s the creative moment – you start with something tangible, then you’re almost like a God for a moment, and then you step back, and you’re human again. At that point, you can analyse it and break it down. And quite often I read back something I wrote and don’t understand where it came from. There are all these layers you never saw. It’s like Amy Winehouse – she always starts with something tangible – little conversations, or moments, raises them to the level of art, and then in the ears of her listeners, it becomes something different again.

The 100 most iconic artworks from the last five years

Art website ARTINFO has released a list of the “100 Most Iconic Artworks From the Last 5 Years”. Charlotte Simmonds digests it.

Feminist punk group/performance artists - and recent cause-célèbre - Pussy Riot’s most famous performance saw them perform on the alter at Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow - then landed them in jail.

Simon Cowell was once "a young man burning with desperation". Photograph: Getty Images
A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.