Beyoncé to Black Mirror; the culture that defines 2016

How better to make sense of this turbulent year than through the art and literature it has produced? Our critics choose the works that sum up the last 12 months

The film: Ghostbusters

If there is one film that holds a political key to understanding 2016, it is Ghostbusters: that funny, good-natured, easygoing female remake of the 1980s original. The movie, and the way it was received and viciously attacked online, told us something vital about the hive mind of the US’s reactionary right. It starred Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones. Wiig and McCarthy were already well known; McKinnon was the upcoming SNL superstar who was later in the year to become famous for her Hillary Clinton impersonation – but it was the African-American comic Jones who became the particular object of unpleasant abuse, reminiscent of #gamergate vitriol, naturally with a racist slant, though everyone was attacked, and all for daring to remake and allegedly “spoil” the original with a gender switch.

The film itself appeared to anticipate some kind of criticism with its own “trolling” jokes – but in retrospect the gentle nature of this material showed how unexpected the venom was. The attackers’ manifest inferiority to Jones et al in terms of intelligence or comedy was of no account. Social media changed the rules and contesting the trolls was like trying to fence with someone who is allowed to spray sulphuric acid from a high-pressure hose, though that notorious troll, Milo Yiannopoulos was barred from Twitter for orchestrating poisonous abuse towards Jones. At first I was baffled, along with many others. Why on earth was there so much hate, real hate, directed at a comedy film? The answer is that this was a pop-culture proxy war against Clinton, a dummy run. The trolls didn’t want a female remake of Ghostbusters, or the US presidency. The Ghostbusters hate campaign was John the Baptist to Trump’s non-Jesus. Only men belong in Ghostbusters; or the White House. Peter Bradshaw

From left: Linda Bassett (Mrs Jarrett), Deborah Findlay (Sally), Kika Markham (Lena) and June Watson (Vi) in Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchil
From left: Linda Bassett (Mrs Jarrett), Deborah Findlay (Sally), Kika Markham (Lena) and June Watson (Vi) in Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchil Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

The play: Escaped Alone, by Caryl Churchill

Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone, first seen at the Royal Court in January, perfectly caught the mood of the time. Set in a sunlit suburban garden, it showed four septuagenarian women talking about their lives. But behind the elliptical banalities of daily life lay a world of private pain which expanded, through a series of monologues, into a vision of impending apocalypse. In a year when women dramatists made all the running, Churchill’s play anticipated Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children, also directed at the Court by James Macdonald and also featuring Deborah Findlay, in its extraordinary mix of the diurnal and the dystopian.

From the seemingly random gossip, it emerged that Sally had an aversion to cats, Lena was a depressive agoraphobe and Vi was a hairdresser who had murdered her husband. But it was their nosy neighbour, Mrs Jarrett, who stepped out of the frame and who, through her solo speeches, suggested that present-day angst would be echoed and monstrously magnified by a coming catastrophe. Churchill in Far Away (2000) had already prophesied chaos in the natural world. But in retrospect the seismic shocks of 2016, both political and environmental, lent greater urgency to her nightmare vision. Linda Bassett as Mrs Jarrett described a world of fire, flood, and famine. Gas masks would be available on the NHS. Starving commuters would watch on their iPlayer as TV performers ate breakfast. Villages would vanish and whole cities relocated to their rooftops. Planes with sick passengers would be diverted to Antarctica.

Audiences laughed nervously at the exaggerated absurdity of it all. Yet, in a world of vanishing species, melting ice caps and uncontrolled population explosion, Churchill’s hour-long play tapped into our hidden fears. While we take tea in the garden and chat about our daily lives, our planet seems poised between survival and destruction. Michael Billington

The song: ‘Formation’, by Beyoncé

Back in January, who knew that by the year’s end those tense, ominous, flexing guitar riffs that open Beyoncé’s Black Lives Matter battle manifesto “Formation” would become so indelibly linked to tenacious resistance in the face of full-scale authoritarianism? Those powerful images of Beyoncé and a dancing black child in a hoodie facing off with the police in the video, and her insouciant resuscitation of Hillary Clinton’s most maligned statement in the 1990s (“I suppose I could’ve stayed home and baked cookies …”) as a closing kiss-off at one of Clinton’s rallies undergirded the spirit of this surprising and eccentric anthem.

Watch the video for Beyoncé’s Formation

Somehow all that highbrow-lowbrow, mega-icon meets just another round-the-way girl, coupled with hardcore, get-my-freak-on, female sexual satisfaction added up to a rallying call that had the global pop masses swooning. The brilliance of the single’s sonic arc is one that is rooted in euphoric release, as it tracks the tension in Beyoncé’s restrained, raspy, near-whisper vocals that quickly explode at the moment of her black pride celebration of “afros” and “negro noses,” “grind hard” ambition, capitalist actualization, and jubilant solidarity. For the first nine months of the year, “Formation” was the feminist accompaniment to Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright”. Fast forward to December on a cold Saturday night off-Broadway, where director Lileana Blain-Cruz has staged a bold new production of Suzan-Lori Parks’s avant-garde play, The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, and you hear Beyoncé’s taut opening notes on a chilling loop.

Here on stage at the end of the year, at the end of the Obama era, at the end of another historical phase of freedom- struggle progress, “Formation” remains the soundtrack for a black revolution still under way but shifting gears. It is a song elastic enough to stay with us while changing with the times. Daphne A Brooks

The TV show: Black Mirror

Does Black Mirror still work? Part of the point of Charlie Brooker’s anthology of dystopian satire has always been that it presents an alternative world only a couple of turns away from this one. Most of the time, it imagined the worst that a technological innovation might reveal in us, allying fears only with the unspoken point that at least we hadn’t got there yet. In 2016, that gap is less secure. Tiresomely, everyone keeps saying that everything is like a Black Mirror episode (we have to go back to Lord Ashcroft and Isobel Oakeshott’s biography of David Cameron last year for the porcine indignity that lies behind that dreary meme); with its audience thus inured, the series has less space to make you see things differently. In the opening episode, “Nosedive”, a woman whose chances of a better life rest on the plausible curation of her social media feed is driven nearly to madness; when one of her colleagues is locked out of the office because he can’t garner enough likes, it feels a little on the nose.

Black Mirror: what’s the worst that can happen?
Black Mirror: what’s the worst that can happen? Photograph: Giles Keyte

By and large, though, Black Mirror is still brilliant, above all for the way it combines fantasy with specificity. Brooker has always understood that his nearly-lands are only as plausible as their most jarring detail. His commitment to imagining things thoroughly has endured even as Netflix’s vast budgets and transatlantic grandeur have offered more opportunities to paper over any cracks.

This is not only a matter of set-dressing. In the show’s best moments – see “San Junipero” with its giddy, romantic meditation on eternal youth – that meticulousness governs the characters’ inner worlds as much as it does the worlds around them. Conversely, its only really weak episode is “Shut Up and Dance”, a flatly horrible tour of the internet’s capacity for gleeful evil with correspondingly two-dimensional characters. Watching that one, I never really believed that Brooker’s heart was in it, not least because its miseries feel as if they have already happened.

I don’t know if it’s evidence that Black Mirror’s auteur has mellowed or that the times demand a diagnosis that retains hope, but this is a striking change from previous series, whose most memorable and satisfying moments have always been shot through with nihilism. In 2016, maybe by necessity, they are blessed with a kind of sly humanity instead. Archie Bland

The art: Walhalla, by Anselm Kiefer

It says something about 2016 that the work of art to sum it up best was an apocalyptic installation that recreated a grotesque version of Hitler’s bunker decorated with premonitions of the end of the world. Anselm Kiefer’s Walhalla was so laden with images of modern history’s most nightmarish moments that it was perversely thrilling, even sardonically gleeful at the spectacle of everything coming to a catastrophic climax.

A canvas from Anselm Kiefer’s installation Walhalla.
A canvas from Anselm Kiefer’s installation Walhalla. Photograph: © Anselm Kiefer/White Cube

Kiefer was born in 1945, in the ruins of the Third Reich. Walhalla was, among other things, his pungent way of brooding on the passing of the years as he goes on working with colossal energy in his 70s. Ever since he was photographed as a young artist making a Nazi salute while posed as the romantic wanderer from the sublime early 19th century paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, Kiefer has resurrected romanticism, expressionism (and every other excessive, self-dramatising, ripely symbolical art style going) to create work that flouts good taste to make us see the grandeur of life, its beauty and horror.

Walhalla is his uncompromising vision of mortality, inspired by the same Viking and Germanic myths of gods and heroes that Wagner dramatised in the Ring Cycle and Hitler identified with in his hellish twilight of the gods. The scary thing about north European pagan myth is that it says the gods themselves must die. Walhalla, their palace, will fall into the void. Taking over the spacious White Cube gallery in London’s Bermondsey, Kiefer made that final fall happen. He transfigured every available space, turning a corridor into a hall of fallen heroes, amassing spectacular works of art from a rusty spiral staircase hung with empty clothes to an eagle with a body of immovable rock among rows of stretchers and beds that seemed to have been found in some forgotten military hospital.

The timeliness of Kiefer’s vision of history as an unhinged opera headed for its monstrous final act was eerie and unavoidable. Walhalla opened in the closing months of a year that had seen an MP murdered, immigrants menaced and demagogues ruling the day – and that was just in Britain. Elsewhere, strong men bombed cities or lied their way into office. Far right parties ripped up Europe’s liberal consensus. Kiefer’s Walhalla released the demons 2016 seeded and let them create a world, as if in a grisly Frankensteinian experiment. You want to see where the rule of unreason, prejudice and savagery leads? It takes you here, to a wasteland where the valkyries have abandoned their rusty bicycles as they flee a storm rolling across vast painted plains, straight towards us. Jonahan Jones

The comedy: Monkey See Monkey Do, by Richard Gadd

Richard Gadd, performing Monkey See Monkey Do in Edinburgh.
Richard Gadd, performing Monkey See Monkey Do in Edinburgh. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Something extraordinary happened in live comedy on the Edinburgh fringe this year: funny got knocked off its perch by emotionally significant. For years, purist standups had complained about “dead dad” shows on the fringe, sob-story comedy sets supposedly pandering to arty audiences. But in 2016 – just as TV submitted to the rise of the so-called “sadcom” (Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag; Will Sharpe’s Flowers) – so live standups took intimacy to the next level, with a striking array of shows addressing depression and anxiety, brain haemorrhages and Aids diagnoses, bereavement and break-ups.

None was more intimate than winner of this year’s Edinburgh comedy award, Scottish comic Richard Gadd’s extraordinary Monkey See Monkey Do. Gadd made a name for himself with schlocky multimedia shows about sex, drugs and ultraviolence. This year, he drew back the cartoonish veil to reveal “the real Richard Gadd” – pounding on a treadmill throughout the show, failing to outrun the monkey on his back or the anxious voices in his head. Flitting neurotically between audio and video, past and present, Gadd staged both his breakdown and re-assembly, as – spoiler alert – he spoke publicly for the first time about being sexually assaulted four years ago.

At times this summer – not least at Gadd’s tear-stained curtain call, when he addressed audiences frankly about his difficulties in bringing this story to the stage – it felt as if we were witnessing the Oprahfication of comedy. Sometimes, the rawness felt too much; more often, it felt essential, as an artform cast off glibness, and helped break the conspiracy of silence (and solemnity) surrounding mental health. And, in Gadd’s case, masculinity: alongside the personal healing, Monkey See Monkey Do insisted on a broader definition of manliness. With this courageous comedy set, Gadd added his voice to an ever-louder chorus (think Grayson Perry’s All Man, Chris Goode’s Men in the Cities, RashDash theatre company’s Two Man Show) interrogating masculinity and reconsidering what it means to be a man. Brian Logan

The fiction: Autumn, by Ali Smith

It’s rare for a novel to be explicitly addressed to the precise historical moment in which it appears. Yet that’s what Ali Smith has done in Autumn, the first in a planned quartet structured around the seasons, which accelerated the publishing process to bring us a portrait of the UK in the wake of the Brexit vote, where the news feels “like a flock of speeded-up sheep running off the side of a cliff”.

Her central character is Elisabeth, an art history lecturer, struggling to acclimatise to a Britain in which “All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won.” An atmosphere of shame, defiance and unease pervades her mother’s village, where she’s staying to visit Daniel, an elderly friend who is near death in a care home.

Pauline Boty, the 1960s artist, also acted on television and the stage.
Pauline Boty, the 1960s artist, also acted on television and the stage. Photograph: FremantleMedia Ltd/Rex Features

Smith is known for her playful and profound investigations of art, gender and identity. Autumn addresses current social reality – job insecurity, toxic social media, the murder of Jo Cox, the privatisation of public space – as well as the violence of contemporary public discourse. “‘Your time’s over. Democracy. You lost.’ It is like democracy is a bottle someone can threaten to smash and do a bit of damage with.” But it also engages with this turbulent year in a deeper way. Dreams, visions and stories permeate the book, as it jumps around to other times and out of time.

But perhaps the main engine of the book is empathy: the ability to see, or not to see, through someone else’s eyes. It contains two impossible love stories, as Daniel and Elisabeth both fall in love with another person’s way of seeing – in Daniel’s case, with Pauline Boty, the neglected 60s pop artist. Boty was passionately engaged, like Smith in this novel, with the present moment, and Autumn brings her vibrant canvases and exuberant life force back to our attention. In a year when many people’s heroes died, Autumn celebrates charisma and the way even unrequited love can illuminate a whole life.

All Smith’s books deal in the risk and reward of human connection, often exploring the arrival of the stranger, and how the community reacts and is changed. With Brexit dramatising Britain’s great divide, and with global migration ever growing – and fear of “the other” hardening, this theme comes into urgent focus. Autumn examines it aesthetically rather than didactically, through riffs on fairytale and fable, with Daniel showing Elisabeth how to tell “hospitable” stories that welcome in possibility rather than closing down other points of view. At the end of a bleak year, this is a novel that feels colourful and nourishing as well as clear-sighted about the state of the world. Even as winter bites, “there are roses, there are still roses”. Justine Jordan

The word: populism

The word of the year in Europe and the US is surely “populism”, to which liberal commentators have gravely attributed the surprising resurgence of far-right politics. But what exactly is wrong with populism? Why is it a bad thing, when being popular, like Taylor Swift, isn’t?

Trump supporters at a victory rally in Mobile, Alabama.
Trump supporters at a victory rally in Mobile, Alabama. Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP

As the name suggests, populism was originally a word for a kind of politics that sought to represent the interests of (ordinary) people against those of the rich and powerful. In that sense the Democrats and the Labour party are (or should be) populists. And yet now the word’s connotations are exclusively negative.

The seeds of this were present at the beginning, for the earliest politicians who used the word were hardly angels. The US Populist party of the late 19th century attributed workers’ ills to Jewish control of the banking system, as did the Russian Populists who advocated agricultural collectivism around the same time. Perhaps the only innocent use of “populism” was to describe a group of French novelists in the 1920s and 30s who, according to the OED, “emphasised observation of and sympathy with ordinary people”. Yet the word populisme in French had itself come about as a translation of the German Volkspartei (“people’s party”), which is of course irredeemably tainted by history.

So “populism” is now overwhelmingly used as a euphemism for a style of politics that plays on xenophobia and hatred of expertise. It has changed meaning in the same way as “demagogue”, which once meant a people’s champion and now means, at best, “a successful politician with whom I disagree”. In the journey of these terms to the semantic dark side we may perceive all the problems of our political moment. For if “the people” to whom populism appeals really are racist and ignorant, doesn’t a dedication to democracy entail that their governments should be as well? Steven Poole

The meme: Pepe the frog

Going by the numbers, Pepe the Frog, a melancholic stoner amphibian who debuted as an innocuous MySpace comic book character back when MySpace was still a thing, was last year’s meme-du-jour. This cartoon character, whose droopy eyelids and laconic smile became the go-to reaction image for tens of thousands of wags in online comment threads, was reportedly the most shared character on Tumblr in 2015. Such was his ubiquity that Nicki Minaj felt moved to post a twerking Pepe on social media with the caption “Me on Instagram for the next few weeks trying to get my followers back up.”

Pepe the Frog
Pepe the Frog Photograph: Matt Furie

Pepe has maintained his position of meme dominance into 2016 not through doggedness but through transformation. In May, an article declared Pepe the mascot of the so-called “alt-right”, a conclusion reached after the frog’s image was co-opted by elements of president-elect Donald Trump’s troll demographic. Hillary Clinton’s campaign soon issued a statement describing Pepe as a “white nationalist symbol”. Pepe became a self-perpetuating whirlwind, as, goaded by media reports, trolls created new images adorned with symbols of antisemitism and white supremacy. Earnestly hateful or glibly anarchic, by the time Pepe was transformed into an avatar for Trump, complete with roomy suit and feathery blonde hairdo, the Anti-Defamation League had labelled the frog an “online hate symbol”.

Matt Furie, the frog’s inventor and a Clinton supporter, was first bewildered by the misappropriation, and then infuriated. He launched an online campaign to reclaim Pepe, urging people to post non-hateful depictions of the frog using the hashtag #SavePepe. If this all sounds like a storm in an online teacup, note that from swastikas to brass eagles, the appropriation of popular symbols for hateful causes has historical precedents. “I would like to get the frog off the hate database,” Furie said, in perhaps the most mournful quotation of the year. “It means a lot to me as he’s an extension of myself.” Simon Parkin

The photograph: Baton Rouge, Jonathan Bachman

“She just stood there and made her stand,” said Jonathan Bachman of the young woman who, in a year in which America seemed at war with itself, became an icon of peaceful resistance. In this dramatic photograph she stands still as two policemen in futuristic body armour close in on her. Bachman’s image of Iesha L Evans was taken on a street in Baton Rouge in July as Black Lives Matter protests gathered momentum following yet another killing of a young black man by police officers. It went viral within hours.

Iesha L Evans protests against the shooting of Alton Sterling near the headquarters of the Baton Rouge police department in Louisiana in July.
Iesha L Evans protests against the shooting of Alton Sterling near the headquarters of the Baton Rouge police department in Louisiana in July. Photograph: Jonathan Bachman/Reuters

There are several reasons why this photograph resonates. In many ways, it is a resolutely old-fashioned image: a moment of traditional photojournalism that harks back to the radical 1960s, in an age of smartphone citizen journalism, echoing Marc Riboud’s shot of a young hippy woman presenting a flower to a line of bayonet-wielding soldiers during an anti-Vietnam war demonstration at the Pentagon in 1967.

Back then, Riboud’s image carried all the hope, idealism and unbound optimism of the times. Fifty years on, hope, idealism and optimism are in short supply. And yet there is something profoundly powerful about this stilled moment: the sense of calmness, peace and even spirituality that emanates from Evans, a silent, unafraid, black woman faced with the full force of overwhelmingly white militarised police. As the Trump protests across American cities have shown, defiance may be all the liberal left has at the moment, in the face of a new and ominous shift in global, corporate driven-politics. As this serenely powerful image shows, activism comes at a cost, but if this year has taught us anything, it’s that the alternative – doing nothing and hoping that this is a nightmare that will somehow end soon – is no longer an option. Sean O’Hagan

The non-fiction: Democracy – A Life, by Paul Cartledge

Questions that go to the very heart of political theory have been raised by the tumultuous and unsettling events of the past 12 months. What should be the proper relationship of direct to representative democracy? How are tensions between the popular will and the rule of law best resolved? Why, when a man with Donald Trump’s scorn for the proprieties of the US constitution can be elected president, should we assume that democracy – even in its American heartland – is necessarily for ever?

Paul Cartledge’s Democracy: A Life takes the long view.
Paul Cartledge’s Democracy: A Life takes the long view. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

No book published this year holds up a more fascinating mirror to these questions than Paul Cartledge’s Democracy: A Life. As befits a study written by one of the pre-eminent scholars of ancient Greece, it takes the long view. Today, democracies draw sustenance from the past, from knowing that “government of the people, by the people, for the people” can be made to work; but Cartledge, by taking us back to a time when this was not the case. Without ever indulging in sentimentality, he pays due respect to Cleisthenes, who in 507 BC served as midwife to the revolution that brought the demos to power in Athens, and to the ideals that then sustained it for almost 200 years. Cartledge’s feat is to bring home just how astonishing it was, in a world dominated by monarchies and tyrannies, that the vote of a peasant should ever have ranked equal to that of an aristocrat.

Yet the Athenian democracy, which functioned by holding the equivalent of a referendum every nine days, was quite as capable of taking disastrous wrong turns as its modern counterparts. It is a notorious paradox that those contemporary accounts of it which have survived are almost all profoundly critical. No one could be as merciless towards Athenian democracy as an Athenian intellectual. Today – in the wake of Brexit and Trump’s election – the counterparts of Plato, who detested the notion that the ignorant and poor should sway the well-educated and refined, are alive and well. The contest within a democracy between “experts” and those who decry them has a pedigree which reaches back 2,500 years. The huge value of Cartledge’s book is the reminder that 2016 is merely a way-stop on a very long journey indeed. Tom Holland


Archie Bland, Michael Billington, Peter Bradshaw, Daphne A Brooks, Tom Holland, Jonathan Jones, Justine Jordan, Brian Logan, Sean O'Hagan and Simon Parkin

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