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
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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.