2016 in review: campaigning culture

Spotlight: Eight films, books, plays and musicians — winners of major awards in 2016.

In a year dominated by dramatic political news, no coincidence that the big awards in the arts tended to go to creative people with a campaigning edge. But was it good for culture?

‘How many years can some people exist before they’re allowed to be free? How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see?’

These were lines from Bob Dylan’s most famous song, Blowin’ in the Wind. In the 1960s, Dylan’s lyrics captured the spirit of opposition to war, racism and inequality.

Dylan is now a musical veteran. But in October, he was recognised in an unexpected way, as he was given the Nobel prize for literature. The decision was typical of awarding bodies in 2016 — the year art with a campaigning message gained official recognition.

The trend began at the Baftas on Valentine’s Day. The Revenant, a story about man’s relationship with nature, was awarded Best Film. Two weeks later, its star Leonardo DiCaprio spoke about climate change as he accepted the Oscar for Best Actor.

That night, a series of stars joined him in making political statements. And Spotlight — a movie about real-life reporters who investigated child abuse in the Catholic church — was made Best Picture.

Also in February, Kendrick Lamar — a vocal critic of American attitudes to race — was the biggest winner at the Grammys. In the autumn Paul Beatty claimed the Man Booker prize for his book The Sellout, a more nuanced satire on the same topic. And the message of diversity was central to Hamilton, a Broadway musical which dominated the Tonys in May.

Elsewhere Ken Loach’s film about the impact of welfare reform, I, Daniel Blake, won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival. And the international Man Booker went to Han Kang for The Vegetarian — a subversive novella about a South Korean woman’s defiance of her family’s wishes.

So culture was increasingly political this year — and the trend also applied in reverse. Many celebrities became heavily involved in political campaigns, particularly Hillary Clinton’s bid to become president. Beyoncé and Lady Gaga sang publicly about police violence and sexual assault; comedians at the Edinburgh festival drew heavily on the Brexit vote.

The art of persuasion

Art should be a powerful tool which changes society, say fans. Charles Dickens’s writing shone a light on the injustices of Victorian England; French writer Emile Zola bravely helped to end the Dreyfus affair. Like them, today’s musicians, actors and writers are making vital contributions to our understanding of our time.

How cheap, retort detractors. Greats like Renoir, Da Vinci and Shakespeare did not need to campaign. Today’s second-rate imitators are making up for their inadequacies by playing to the political prejudices of their audiences — and the judges. Good music, films or fiction should explore the soul, not berate us with left-wing messages.

You Decide

  1. Do you prefer songs, films or books which have a political message or those which do not?
  2. Is the best art also a tool for social change?


  1. Write a song or short story with a political message in it. Discuss in pairs, then as a class: does your message strengthen your work?
  2. Take one piece of artistic work mentioned in this story. Write a one-page memo about its message: what does it say, how and why does it say it and what criticisms might be made of it? How valid do you think it is?

Some People Say...

“All art is political.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I don’t like much popular culture. Can’t I just ignore what is being said?
You could try, although culture is relevant to the way many of us are entertained. Even if you just watch films or TV occasionally, cultural trends will influence what you see and how it is presented. Besides, reading books and watching plays are good for your brain — they will make you a more interesting person.
But does art really change the society around me?
Yes, but the extent is debatable. Campaigning films and books can influence the way people see the world, broaden their perspective and encourage them to think differently. But people may not always react to them as the makers expected. And sensationalism sells: powerful people’s decisions are rarely as straightforward as they are presented in culture.

Word Watch

Jenny Beavan, who won Best Costume Design, echoed DiCaprio on climate change. Sam Smith, writer of the song to the James Bond film Spectre, dedicated his award to ‘the LGBT community’. Host Chris Rock discussed the lack of black actors nominated for awards.
Lamar’s songs include The Blacker the Berry, which has lyrics such as: ‘You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture’. The Black Lives Matter movement has embraced his work.
Non-white actors are cast in all the play’s leading parts.
Hamilton won 11 Tony awards, narrowly missing the record (12).
Clinton campaigned with celebrities including Bruce Springsteen, Beyoncé, Jay-Z and Katy Perry. Few stars supported Donald Trump — with the notable exception of Clint Eastwood.
Beyoncé sang Formation at the Superbowl; Lady Gaga sang Til It Happens to You at the Oscars.
Dreyfus affair
A French artillery captain was falsely convicted of passing secrets to the Germans in 1894. Zola wrote a letter — ’J’accuse!’ — to a newspaper, saying the French army had engaged in a cover-up.

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