After the Olympic party of 2012, will 2013 be the year of the Olympic hangover? In the wake of four years of build-up, and a summer of intense cultural activity when arts organisations of every sort wheeled out their big guns, it would hardly be surprising if the coming year seemed a little quieter on the cultural scene. And for many people this might almost be a relief: surely no one, however much of a culture-hound or completist, could have managed to see all 37 of the international Shakespeares at the Globe, and it was literally impossible to experience every one of the sparkling world music artists in the River of Music event, since they were often playing simultaneously at different venues along the Thames.
So, for 2013, perhaps less will be more? Perhaps not. One of the first of 2013’s worldwide jamborees, the centenary of the birth of Benjamin Britten, could not even wait until the year had rolled round: it kicked off in November on what would have been the composer’s 99th birthday. So much is planned, from Malmö to Mauritzburg, Sheffield to San Francisco, that a website, britten100.org, is needed to corral the schedule (it currently lists 1,362 events). Suddenly, it seems, the music world has collectively nodded its head in agreement: this is a great man.
Has it taken a centenary, and the focus one can bring, to achieve that? The new year is replete with anniversaries, and although our collective Kunstwollen seems to like them, sometimes it’s hard to see the point. Wagner, for instance, is 200 – but does that matter? Since his music is so deeply embedded in the cultural life of the western world, a mere birth-date seems irrelevant.
More interesting than the birthday centenary are the creative centenaries. The arrival of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in 1913, danced by Nijinsky in the Ballets Russes production, caused near riots on its premiere in Paris. By the time we’ve seen or read about the six new interpretations and productions planned for the coming year we might feel it’s wrong to have so many Rites, but it is nonetheless wonderful to mark and reassess a creation that broke so much ground.
Significant in the same way is the centenary of New York’s 1913 Armory Show, where the first showing of works by Duchamp, Matisse and others caused many US commentators to yelp about artistic anarchy and the triumph of ugliness (does anything sound familiar there?). But two commemorative exhibitions in the US this coming year will remind us just how explosive that moment was – when a European avant-garde vision met the growing American self-confidence, culture-hunger and can-do attitude. While newspapers poured scorn and ridicule, what proved to be some of the most significant works of the 20th century were scooped up by bold and discerning buyers and formed the bedrock of great collections we know today.
In the world of pop, the Rolling Stones are 50, as they keep telling us – and so, as Philip Larkin memorably told us in his poem “Annus Mirabilis”, is sex. He located this invention “between the end of the ‘Chatterley’ ban/and The Beatles’ first LP”. Few people will remember or care about the removal of the censorship of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (although stage censorship continued until 1968 in Britain), but March 22 1963, when The Beatles released Please Please Me, remains a dies mirabilis for millions. There will be many more celebrations. It is 50 years, too, since the Taylor/Burton Cleopatra broke the record for movie budgets. And (ssshhh) since the birth of Brad Pitt.
Enough of looking back. Or even of looking forward to looking back. Scanning the schedules for something really new on the cultural scene in 2013, however, is not particularly rewarding. Perhaps because of the demanding economics of all forms of performance, producers are nervous of something that has no pedigree: they prefer to recycle, remake and reference. Several of this season’s biggest films have been based on tried-and-tested novels, from Tolstoy to Rushdie to Yann Martel. Publishing may be in dire straits but even ballet, it seems, still leans on the beleaguered book for inspiration: choreographer Peter Schaufuss is bringing his Midnight Express (adapted from the 1977 work by Billy Hayes) to the UK for the first time in April.
In theatre, too, there seems to be a strong reliance not only on adaptations of books but on adaptations of real life: Helen Mirren is set to play the Queen yet again, this time on stage in Peter Morgan’s The Audience, and since the play is based on the monarch’s meetings with her prime ministers over the years, we’ll also be treated to Robert Hardy as Churchill (again), Nathaniel Parker as Gordon Brown and Rufus Wright as David Cameron, among several other portrait/caricatures. Judi Dench will be on stage too, in Peter Logan’s Peter and Alice, playing the ageing Alice (in Wonderland) Liddell Hargreaves against Ben Whishaw’s Peter Llewelyn Davies, the original model for Peter Pan. This may be a new play, but the layers of referenced nostalgia it contains are almost too many to unpick.
But there is real inventiveness around, too, and of a properly international kind. The Young Vic continues its imaginative programming with multimedia performances by and about African traditions – starting soon with the multi-authored Feast, which investigates Yoruba culture, and later in the year Chiwetel Ejiofor stars in Aimé Césaire’s A Season in the Congo. At Sadler’s Wells, the regular strengths of the dance programme are punctuated by Anjin, a new play by Mike Poulton with Shoichiro Kawai that takes as its drama the culture clash of a westerner’s first exposure to Japan.
In the visual arts, 2013 will bring another crop of the magnificent exhibitions that we – spoilt as we are – have come to expect. Last year London saw a predictably strong bias towards British artists, but no one could complain about being treated to the Royal Academy’s David Hockney, the National Portrait Gallery’s Lucian Freud and Tate’s Damien Hirst – among much else. Even the British Museum (despite its name, one of the least nationalist of institutions in its programming) resorted to a Shakespeare show, but this year can branch out again with Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, and reach deep into the past with the surprising Ice Age Art. This last is not only intriguing in itself, but chimes beautifully with the continuing fashion for comparative or cross-century showings – put the 26,000-year-old Venus of Dolní Vestonice against a Matisse nude and, well, some eternal vision seems to have come full circle.
But, after an Olympic year in 2012 that saw the British put aside their usual cynicism and embrace an almost excessive nationalist fervour, the exhibition that I hope will most neatly sum up the spirit of 2013 will be at Tate. Its theme? Iconoclasm. Here’s hoping.