2011: The year in arts

Past made a comeback in 2011

Michael J. Lutch
Stages did not lack for classic titles, including ‘‘The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess’’ at the American Repertory Theater.

Occupy movement encampments have been getting shut down all over. But what may qualify as the biggest Occupy camp of all gets shut down at midnight New Year’s Eve. This camp has nothing to do with politics, and only indirectly with economics. It’s the occupation of the artistic past by the artistic present, which has shaped so much of cultural life in 2011.

Why such prominence for the past? Maybe it’s anxiety over troubled economic times, or uncertainty about the continuing impact of technology on entertainment, or a collective loss of artistic nerve, or just coincidence (which is never to be underestimated). Whatever the cause(s), there’s no mistaking the effect. In television, movies, music, even the theater and museums, the past made a big comeback.

Now it’s true that remakes, revivals, homages, appropriations, bouts of nostalgia - and let’s not forget copying and outright artistic theft - have been going on almost as long as art has. New art has shown the influence of previous art ever since a bison in one of the second cave painter’s paintings looked like a bison in one of the first cave painter’s paintings. This past year the cave seemed especially crowded.


Consider television. Tim Allen, in “Last Man Standing,’’ channeled Tim Allen, in “Home Improvement.’’ Zooey Deschanel, in “The New Girl,’’ channeled Marlo Thomas, in “That Girl.’’ Moving back a bit earlier in the ’60s, there were “Playboy Club’’ and “Pan Am.’’ Both fell under the heading of “What hath ‘Mad Men’ wrought?’’ “Boardwalk Empire,’’ in its second season, continued to be “The Untouchables,’’ only moved to the East Coast, done far more stylishly, and seen from the other side of the law.

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If this idea of the present occupying the past had a flashpoint, it was the ART production “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.’’ George Gershwin’s opera is a classic, of course, and theater without new productions of old plays would be an awfully limited enterprise. Area stages did not lack for classic titles in 2011. There were no fewer than three productions of Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,’’ at ArtsEmerson, Williamstown, and Pawtucket’s Gamm Theatre.

“Porgy’’ was different, though. Stephen Sondheim, the most revered living figure in musical theater, voiced strenuous objection in the pages of The New York Times to what he saw as excessive liberties taken by director Diane Paulus and playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. Paulus and Parks had created new scenes, added new biographical specifics to the characters, and come up with a happier ending. They did this, it should be noted, with the cooperation of the estates of George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward, who wrote the libretto and contributed many of the opera’s lyrics.

Was this a case of occupying the past or annexing it? Things settled down soon enough, not least of all because the happy ending got dropped. Expect a further flurry next month. Currently in previews, “Porgy’’ has its Broadway opening on Jan. 12.

Movies in 2011 embraced the past twice over. Some of the biggest releases seemed to be set not just in the past but in a past movie. “The Help’’ took place both in civil-rights-era Mississippi and in the imaginative space (well, not all that imaginative) of “To Kill a Mockingbird.’’ “Super 8’’ was explicitly set in the spring of 1979 - and implicitly set in the sensibility of “E.T.’’ In fact, Steven Spielberg was one of the film’s producers.


Even more striking was the attempt of several films to engage with the medium’s DNA. They were occupation as celebration. “My Week With Marilyn’’ offered a valentine to the glories of Hollywood star power, as personified by the movies’ most famous sex symbol. “The Artist’’ wasn’t just a tribute to the Silent Era. It was an actual silent movie. Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo’’ centered on the rediscovery of that most magical of movie pioneers, Georges Méliès.

“Hugo’’ was in 3-D, as was Spielberg’s “The Adventures of Tintin’’ (another reclamation of the past, albeit without a film pedigree). The mania for new productions in 3-D seemed to fade in 2011. But the success of Disney’s release of “The Lion King’’ in that format indicated that audiences might prefer the more predictable novelty of seeing a familiar film with a (literal) dimension added. Next year will see 3-D releases of the first “Star Wars’’ movie, in February, and “Titanic,’’ in April.

It may not have been big box office, but Christian Marclay’s “The Clock,’’ at the MFA, was the ultimate movie example of the present occupying the past - and the past (or at least the passage of time) preoccupying the present. The thousands of film clips that make up Marclay’s work proceed in real time. A scene set at midnight gets shown at midnight, noon at noon, and so on. Maybe he should have called it “24 Hour Movie People.’’

Art museums have a special relationship with the past. They preserve and collect as well as exhibit. The past was especially visible at several local museums - and a particular portion of the past, to boot. MIT’s List Art Center observed the university’s 150th anniversary by focusing on innovators from the ’60s and ’70s associated with its Center for Advanced Visual Studies: Stan VanDerBeek, Juan Downey, and Otto Piene. The Institute of Contemporary Art helped celebrate an anniversary of its own, its 75th, with “Dance/Draw,’’ a show grounded in ’60s experimentation. The ’60s (and ’50s) also took center stage with the reopening of Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum, thanks to the riches of the Rose’s mid-century holdings.

Popular music, usually the most up-to-the-minute cultural enterprise, felt awfully traditional in 2011. The clearest expression of that was Adele. She dominated the charts with a soulful voice that was two parts Dusty Springfield to three parts Lulu. Can’t you just hear her remake of “To Sir, with Love’’? If Tony Bennett records a “Duets III’’ album, consider her signed up. Bennett celebrated his 85th birthday last September by releasing “Duets II.’’ Collaborators like Lady Gaga wanted to appropriate the singer’s storied past even as he was trading on their hit-making present. It was a fair trade - and a good record.


One of those collaborators was Amy Winehouse. She died far too young, at 27. Bennett recalled after her death how delighted she’d been when he’d compared her to Dinah Washington, the self-styled Queen of the Blues. A very different sort of monarch died last year. Elizabeth Taylor hadn’t acted in years - other than continuing to play her most enduring role, Liz I, queen of Hollywood. No titled head since Victoria had reigned so long, not that there was anything Victorian about Elizabeth Taylor. The records set earlier this month when her jewels were auctioned showed how much of a hold she retains on the popular imagination.

The most notable cultural death in 2011 wasn’t any artist’s, at least not artist as the term is usually understood. But that made sense, since Steve Jobs was all about not doing things in the usual way. He was an artist to the extent that he made a living through imagination and creativity. It’s just that the objects of that imagination and creativity were business and technology rather than fields commonly thought of as cultural. Except, that is, Jobs made them cultural. In creating the iPod and iTunes and, more generally, popularizing a design philosophy of sleek, elegant functionality, Jobs did more to affect how people hear music and experience the world than any one person in a very long time. In doing so, he was both ahead of his time and outside of it. He helped the future occupy the present.

Mark Feeney can be reached at