Year in Review: arts achievements of 2012

The giants of modern culture have been quiet this year. But away from the commercial mainstream, there was a lot going on. We look back at the big hits of a year in the arts.

Across much of the cultural spectrum, 2012 has been a quiet year. The biggest films were sequels (or prequels) to long established franchises. The winner of the 2012 Booker Prize was Hilary Mantel – again. In music, there was no new talent big enough to halt the record companies’ long decline.

But looking away from the corporate mainstream, 2012 was far from uneventful. While the giants of entertainment were sleeping, the big cultural stories of the year were being driven by ordinary people, outside the system, often operating from the fringe.

Outsiders cash in

In books, for example, the smash hit of the year was not a great literary success. Written by a previously unknown author called EL James, 50 Shades of Grey first appeared (in part) on a Twilight fansite, before being self-published online. For months no respectable publishing house would touch it, because of its erotic content. Eventually, though, the buzz around this ‘pornographic’ novel was too loud to ignore. Published at last, it immediately became the fastest selling novel of all time.

Going viral

Music executives have a similar story. The best hit-making efforts of Western record companies were trumped, this autumn, by a comedy rap song from South Korea. Gangnam Style, by rapper PSY, has been watched on Youtube nearly one billion times.

The success of Gangnam Style was about more than just a catchy tune. The song, with its easily copied dance moves and catchy refrain was a magnet for parody versions. Imitators include Eton schoolboys, several astronauts, at least one robot, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon.

Gif prone?

The original song had become what internet scholars call a meme: a sort of online in joke, much like Nick Clegg’s spoof apology song. And in 2012, memes reached a new level of prominence in public life, used as weapons by both sides in the US presidential elections. Every verbal gaffe or past mistake from either candidate was immediately immortalised in digital format.

Many political memes came in gif format. Gifs (brief, looped sections of film) are quick to watch, easier than ever to make and simple to circulate online – the perfect medium for an age with a short attention span.

Political weight

Culture carried an unusual amount of political weight this year. In China, state officials were celebrating the award of the Nobel Prize for literature to Mo Yan, a Chinese writer who, unusually, is globally popular without being a thorn in the side of the Chinese government. Dissidents, led by famous artist Ai Weiwei, were furious, calling the prize award ‘an insult to humanity’.

In Russia, the big fight was over a punk band called Pussy Riot, jailed in August for an ‘obscene’ performance inside Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral in which they criticised Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

Meanwhile in Britain, scandal engulfed the BBC, after it was revealed that one-time national treasure Sir Jimmy Savile had in fact been a dangerous paedophile. BBC head George Entwistle was forced to resign, leaving the reputation of the UK’s most important cultural institution at an all time low.

Culture clashes

Culture was used to rebel against authority and to score political points this year. It has been produced by outsiders, and appropriated by ordinary people through the internet. This year’s most exciting creators are as likely to be amateurs working from home as members of the cultural establishment.

Is this a good thing? You could argue that nothing created this year is truly great enough to stand the test of time. On the other hand, surely it is when culture engages with people and politics that it is most important and alive.

You Decide

  1. Was 2012 a good or a bad year for culture?
  2. Is art at its best when it engages with politics?


  1. What do you think was the most important cultural event of 2012? Write a short piece explaining your choice.
  2. Working in groups, create a piece of art, drama or music responding to something that happened in current affairs this year.

Some People Say...

“Culture gets worse every year.”

What do you think?

Word Watch

Gangnam Style
Gangnam is a wealthy suburb of Seoul, the capital of South Korea. To do something ‘Gangnam style’ is to do something in the manner of the wealthy residents of that area. It is not, in the context of the song, necessarily intended as a compliment.
National treasure
A ‘national treasure’, in Britain, is someone who has become a cultural icon, with near universal popularity. The term is usually applied to older actors and actresses, or TV personalities. Jimmy Savile had been wildly popular as the star of a show called Jim’ll Fix It, in which he granted the wishes of children.

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