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
Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation