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The Top Twelve Artistic Perpetrations of 2012

You may know what happened this past year in the news world or the political scene. But what was notable about 2012 in the world of art and culture? Here are what I see as the most notable, momentous performances and creations of this past year, in no particular order:

1. Bad Jews at the Black Box Theatre:

Joshua Harmon’s new Off-Broadway play Bad Jews might just be the most piercing look at American Jewry since a young man named Phillip Roth picked up his pen. It is nothing less than a two-hour vivisection of contemporary Judaism, all our hypocrisies and shortcomings laid bare in a tiny basement theatre. The premise is simple: three young Jews, Daphna and her two cousins Liam and Andrew, gather in an Upper West Side apartment to attend the shiva of their grandfather. They then have to decide who will receive his treasured Chai piece, and all out ideological war ensues. Tracee Chimo achieves a sort of dark phoenix quality in her portrayal of Daphna, a young woman clinging to religious tradition in the face of her many insecurities, who lashes out at her cousins with a viciousness that lodges into the audience’s chest. Michael Zegen brings his own put upon intensity to the role of Liam, returning Daphna’s broadsides with bruising liberal counterattacks. Their battle engulfs the stage, and the audience in turn. I walked out feeling the burn.

2. The Master, playing at the Village East Cinema

James Joyce said of Dubliners that “the Irish deserve one good hard look at themselves”, and his collection of short stories was just that. Shame then, that when America got a searching look at itself in its formative postwar era, it was greeted with puzzlement, and then disdain. Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master was said to tell the story of Scientology in America, from the beginning. Thankfully, for those who gave it a chance, it did so much more than that. The Master is not simply about the beginning push of a Scientology type of religion on the American Consciousness. It’s a meditation on the developing American condition, the will to power emerging in cities and suburbs across America. Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix, as a charismatic conman turned guru and his loyal yet unsettled right hand man, inhabit the two sides of the American id so forcefully that their descendants in the arts and American history can be traced right there in the theatre. Additionally, The film is shot in gorgeous 70-millimeter film. The American age of prosperity, hope, and encroaching darkness has never looked richer, or more foreboding, like the giving sun at twilight.

3. Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange  (available on iTunes and Amazon)

Simply put, Frank Ocean has taken R&B out of strobe lit basement clubs and VIP lounges right into the stratosphere, where it’s at home with permanence of stars and the iridescence of distant planets. This interstellar overdrive is apparent in tracks like “Pyramids,” “Thinking About You,” and “Super Rich Kids” which have their way with grooves, richly realized emotions, and the very concept of eternity. The music ranges from fiery, slow paced torch songs, to shimmering synth-pop, with stops at Gnarls Barkley soul infused rock along the way. As Pitchfork put it in their year-end summation, “In the year of YOLO, mischievously, Frank Ocean was thinkin’ bout forever.” Here’s a record that should last just as long.

4. El-P’s Cancer for Cure  (available on iTunes, Amazon)

In 2007, indie rapper El-P released I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, a classically Bush era apocalyptic musing on a future with mandatory id implants, prison camps featuring pain-coasters, and the timeless youth refrain of “we may have been born yesterday, but we stayed up all night”. Comes 2012, and although Bush vacated the big house, and America is out of Iraq, El-P still sees drones over Brooklyn. His new album Cancer for Cure is a massive, crushing metallic slab of impeccably produced indie rap. Starting with the massive Technicolor freakout “Control Denied,” and proceeding into the funniest meltdown Charlie Sheen never had with “The Full Retard,” El-P still storms the studio, and rains his fire down, one headset at a time.

5. Open City by Teju Cole (available at Amazon, local bookstores)

A short haunting meditation on memory and place, Open City cuts through the walls we build between our past actions and current conceptions. Gathering the thoughts and musings captured by a doctor on long walks throughout New York City, Teju Cole’s debut novel is a minor masterpiece, written with precision and tenderness to detail, teasing out its hard lessons with quiet devastation. A short, brutal, essential read.

6. The Perks of Being a Wallflower (coming soon to iTunes, Amazon)

I will admit that I never read Stephen Chlobsky’s novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower in high school, and after seeing his film of the same name, I am relieved that I didn’t. 15-year-old me would not have lasted long into this story without burying head in face, and locking self in room for months on end with nothing but a few books and several Nine Inch Nails albums for company. This is that kind of movie. A clear eyed look at the raging hellfires of outsider adolescence, Perks cuts deep for anyone who knows more about the inside of Smiths’ albums than basketball locker rooms. A smart young cast led by the insanely charismatic scene stealer Ezra Miller seals the heartbreak deal. Bring your favorite records, concert t-shirt, and a box of tissues, to be safe.

7. Cindy Sherman, at MoMA, February 2012

Perhaps one of the most influential photographers of the 20th and 21st Centuries, Cindy Sherman’s photographs all feature one woman as the subject: Cindy Sherman herself. She masquerades as clowns or as the subject of history portraits, disguising herself repeatedly, drawing on her drawers full of wigs, makeup, and fake noses. More than 170 photographs were on display from Sherman’s work since the 1970s. Certain pieces in the exhibit made the viewer cringe because of their suggestiveness and their gruesomeness. At a relatively mainstream museum, as opposed to at an independent gallery, this intense guttural reaction pushed the boundaries of the expected in mainstream postmodern art. Sherman’s body of work questions the malleability of identity in the postmodern world. We don’t recognize Cindy from portrait to portrait; how much, she asks, do we even recognize ourselves in our ever-changing environment?

8. The Devin Townshend Project’s By a Thread, Live in London (available on Amazon)

The most epic undertaking in metal lately has unquestionably been Devin Townshend’s four album cycle with the Devin Townshend Project. Beginning with Ki and Addicted, and culminating in summer 2011 with the Deconstruction/Ghost double album, Townshend cycled through every conceivable genre of music that can be played with a guitar. Addicted is an hour of sheer pop joy, all disco metal stomps and soaring choruses, while Ki digs in deep with its ethereal songs of the earth, making various pit stops in 50’s rock. Deconstruction is unabashed death metal goofiness, both celebrating and mocking its own nail studded pretensions to heaviness, while Ghost, for me the real jewel of the collection, is a collection of twilight music steeped in shimmering soft instrumentation and gorgeous folk music. Devin and his band played every album live over the course of four nights in London, and the music’s strength is on pure display. “Numbered” and “Bend it Like Bender” plant their feet firmly and take off majestically in the chorus, while “Coast” and “Blackberry” sit firmly on clouds, like a couple of angels whiling away the time with a few acoustic guitars. This five CD release does nothing less than show that rock is still alive, and it’s as beautifully varied as ever.

9. Lincoln (now playing at area theatres)

Every few years, Steven Spielberg has a big idea, and proceeds to make a really big movie. As his ideas get broader though, I’ve found that the returns are less and less, especially after last years’ double whammy of Tintin and War Horse. Thankfully, Spielberg is back on track this year, with the not so epic as much as stately Lincoln. The film is a telling glimpse at our 16th president’s attempt to ratify the 13th Amendment before the close of the Civil War, brought to life by Spielberg’s camera and Tony Kushner’s brilliant, knowing script. We open with a harrowing battlefield scene that demonstrates Spielberg’s ever-present grasp of the violent horrors men visit upon each other; the film instead digs in on the president and his teams of rivals, namely William Seward and Thaddeus Stevens. We see the lengths these men travel to better their nation, and their own souls, and at the very end, we see the rewards, and the cost. It’s a sobering and timely history lesson, brought to vivid life by its actors. Daniel Day Lewis owns the screen and our attentions, as the reedy voiced, tactically brilliant, occasionally imposing president, and David Straithairn brings a put upon grace and sobriety to the role of Seward, Lincoln’s one time rival for president. As the radical abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, Tommy Lee Jones gets all the best lines, and grounds the film’s ethical core: there is a great wrong that needs rectification, with all great haste. Lincoln pays these men, their noble ideas, and their tireless work for the betterment of our nation with a quiet, sustained respect, clothed in highest honor.

10. “The Rite Of Spring,” performed by the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Alan Gilbert, September 20th, 2012.

I walked into Avery Fisher Hall hoping at least one person brought a crowbar, a bat, or at least a glass bottle. If “The Rite of Spring” was going to be done right, we needed a riot, a row like the one that greeted it at its premiere in Paris in 1913. Sadly, the mostly grey and white haired crowd didn’t share my passion for historical recreation, and were content to simply hear the music. Defeated, I sat down myself, and enjoyed a ballet piece that has lost none of its harsh, modernist, pagan influenced edge in the ensuing 99 years. The Philharmonic, under the expert conducting of Alan Gilbert, produced an account that accorded the Earth its rightful dance, the virgin her gift to the gods. It was loud, bloody, beautiful.

11. The Stein’s Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant Garde, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, February 28—June 3 2012

The woman who said “A writer should write with his eyes and a painter should paint with his ears” who wrote a portrait of Picasso beginning with “If I told him would he like it,” also collected art. Stein portrayed Picasso with words; Picasso portrayed Stein with imagery. Gertrude, and her sibling Leo and Michael, all were collectors or art, opening their apartment on Saturday evenings to the Parisian avant garde. Their collection of Matisse, Picasso, and other paintings showcasing their relationship with other Paris influentials, is both a history and a visual exploration, taking the viewer back to the 1930s in Paris. This exhibit was a rare collection of amazing artwork in one place that transported the viewer to another place and time, and emphasized the importants of not only artists, but collectors as well.

12. Radiohead, Live at the Prudential Center, May 29th, 2012.

It’s been a rough few years since 2007, when Radiohead released their last album, In Rainbows. It was a dark, sultry, often despairing work, mood music really. One imagines that in the time since, a span in which we’ve seen economic meltdowns, bloody government overthrows, and, always a Radiohead concern, environmental catastrophes, Radiohead would come up with their most apocalyptic work yet. The band did something even more Radiohead than that though, and came out with a disc, entitled King of Limbs, that was all quiet emotions and computer twitching, with a few deep grooves for good measure. No screaming, no jeremiads, just an army of digital Thom Yorkes cooing about lotus flowers and tossing aside nocturnal flirtations. Radiohead brought this new digital dance to the Prudential Center, and these new tracks, mixed in with old stalwarts like Idioteque and Karma Police, led us all down the rabbit hole into body shaking oblivion.