Beyonce to Black Mirror; the culture that defines 2016

How better to make sense of this turbulent year than through the arts and literature it has made? 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 remaking of the 1980 s original. The movie, and the way it was received and viciously assaulted online, told us something vital about the hive intellect of the USs 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 specific is the subject 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 gags but in retrospect the gentle nature of this material showed how unexpected the venom was. The attackers show 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 fencing 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 poison abuse towards Jones. At first I was amazed, along with many others. Why on ground was there so much detest, 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 didnt want a female remake of Ghostbusters , or the US presidency. The Ghostbusters detest campaign was John the Baptist to Trumps non-Jesus. Only men belong in Ghostbusters ; or the White House. Peter Bradshaw

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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 for the Guardian

The play : Escaped Alone, by Caryl Churchill

Caryl Churchills Escaped Alone , first considered at the Royal Court in January, perfectly caught the mood of the time. Set in a sunlit suburban garden, it proved four septuagenarian females talking about their lives. But behind the elliptical cliches 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, Churchills play anticipated Lucy Kirkwoods 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 apparently 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 echo and monstrously amplified by a arriving tragedy. Churchill in Far Away ( 2000 )~ ATAGEND had already prophesied chaos in the natural environment. But in retrospect the seismic shocks of 2016, both political and environmental, lent greater importance to her nightmare vision. Linda Bassett as Mrs Jarrett described a world of fire, inundate, and famine. Gas masks would be available on the NHS. Starving commuters would watch on their iPlayer as TV musicians ate breakfast. Villages would vanish and whole cities relocated to their rooftops. Airliners with sick passengers would be diverted to Antarctica.

Audiences chuckled nervously at the exaggerated sillines of it all. Yet, in a world of fading species, melting ice caps and uncontrolled population detonation, Churchills hour-long play tapped into our concealed anxieties. While we take tea in the garden and chat about our everyday lives, our planet seems poised between survival and extermination. Michael Billington

The song: Formation, by Beyonc

Back in January, who knew that by the years objective those tense, ominous, flexing guitar riffs that open Beyoncs 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 Beyonc and a dancing black infant in a hoodie facing off with the police in the video, and her insouciant resuscitation of Hillary Clintons most maligned statement in the 1990 s( I suppose I couldve stayed home and baked cookies) as a closing kiss-off at one of Clintons rallies undergirded the spirit of this surprising and eccentric anthem.

Watch the video for Beyoncs Formation
Somehow all that highbrow-lowbrow, mega-icon fulfills just another round-the-way daughter, coupled with hardcore, get-my-freak-on, female sexual satisfaction added up to a rallying call that had the global pop mass swooning. The magnificence of the singles sonic arc is one that is rooted in euphoric release, as it tracks the tension in Beyoncs restrained, raspy, near-whisper vocals that promptly explode at the moment of her black pride celebration of afros and negro snouts, grind hard aspiration, capitalist actualization, and jubilant solidarity. For the first nine months of the year, Formation was the feminist accompaniment to Kendrick Lamars Alright. Fast presented to December on a cold Saturday night off-Broadway, where director Lileana Blain-Cruz has staged a bold new production of Suzan-Lori Parkss avant-garde play, The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World , and you hear Beyoncs taut opening notes on a cool 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- battle progression, 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 present : Black Mirror

Does Black Mirror still work? Part of the phase of Charlie Brookers anthology of dystopian satire has always been that it presents an alternative world merely a couple of turns away from this one. Most of the time, it imagined the worst that a technological innovation might expose in us, allying anxieties merely with the unspoken point that at least we hadnt 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 Oakeshotts 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 attain you find 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 cant garner enough likes, it feels a little on the nose.

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Black Mirror : whats the worst that can happen? Photograph: Giles Keyte

By and large, though, Black Mirror is still brilliant, above all for the route 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 suffered even as Netflixs vast budgets and transatlantic splendour have offered more opportunities to newspaper over any cracks.

This is not only a matter of set-dressing. In the presents 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 internets capacity for gleeful evil with correspondingly two-dimensional characters. Watching that one, I never genuinely believed that Brookers heart was in it , not least because its miseries feel as if they have already happened.

I dont know if its 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, perhaps by necessity, the objective is 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 Hitlers bunker decorated with premonitions of the end of the world. Anselm Kiefers Walhalla was so laden with images of modern historys most nightmarish moments that it was perversely thrilling, even sardonically gleeful at the sight of everything coming to a catastrophic climax.

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A canvas from Anselm Kiefers installing Walhalla . Photo: Anselm Kiefer/ White Cube

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

Walhalla is his uncompromising vision of mortality, inspired by the same Viking and Germanic myths of deities 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 Londons Bermondsey, Kiefer made that final autumn happen. He transfigured every available space, turning a hallway into a hallway of fallen heroes, amassing spectacular works of art from a rusty spiraling staircase hung with empty clothes to an eagle with a body of immovable stone among rows of stretchers and beds that seemed to have been found in some forgotten military hospital.

The timeliness of Kiefers vision of history as an unhinged opu headed for its monster final act was eerie and unavoidable. Walhalla opened in the closing months of a year that had watched an MP murdered, immigrants menaced and demagogues ruling the working day and that was just in Britain. Elsewhere, strong men bombed cities or lied their route into office. Far right parties rent up Europes liberal consensus. Kiefers 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 principles of the rule of unreason, racism and ferocity leadings? It takes you here, to a wasteland where the valkyries have abandoned their rusty bicycles as they flee a blizzard rolling across vast painted plains, straight towards us. Jonahan Jones

The slapstick: Monkey See Monkey Do, by Richard Gadd

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Richard Gadd, performing Monkey See Monkey Do in Edinburgh. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod for the Guardian

Something extraordinary happened in live slapstick on the Edinburgh fringe this year: funny got knocked off its perch by emotionally significant. For years, purist standups had complained about dead papa shows on the fringe, sob-story comedy situateds supposedly pandering to arty audiences. But in 2016 just as Tv submitted to the rise of the so-called sadcom( Phoebe Waller-Bridges Fleabag ; Will Sharpes Flowers ) so live standups took intimacy to the next level, with a striking array of displays addressing depression and nervousnes, brain bleeds and Aids diagnoses, bereavement and break-ups.

None was more intimate than win of this years Edinburgh comedy award, Scottish comic Richard Gadds extraordinary Monkey See Monkey Do . Gadd made a name for himself with schlocky multimedia depicts about sexuality, drugs and ultraviolence. This year, he drew back the cartoonish veil to uncover 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 the summer months not least at Gadds tear-stained curtain call, where reference is addressed audiences candidly about his difficulties in bringing this story to the stage it felt as if we were witnessing the Oprahfication of slapstick. 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 Gadds case, masculinity: alongside the personal healing, Monkey See Monkey Do insisted on a broader definition of manliness. With this courageous comedy defined, Gadd added his voice to an ever-louder chorus( suppose Grayson Perrys All Man , Chris Goodes Men in the Cities , RashDash theatre companys Two Man Show ) interrogating masculinity and reconsidering what it means to be a man. Brian Logan

The fiction: Autumn, by Ali Smith

Its rare for a novel to be explicitly addressed to the precise historic moment in which it appears. Yet thats 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 theyd really lost. All across the country, people felt theyd actually won. An ambiance of shame, defiance and unease pervades her moms village, where shes biding to visit Daniel, an elderly friend who is near death in a care home.

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Pauline Boty, the 1960 s 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 times over. Democracy. You lost . It is like republic is a bottle someone can threaten to smash-up and do a bit of damage with. But it also engages with this turbulent year in a deeper way. Dreams, visions and tales pervade the book, as it jumpings around to other days and out of time.

But perhaps the main engine of the book is empathy: the ability to see, or not to assure, through someone elses eyes. It contains two impossible love narratives, as Daniel and Elisabeth both fall in love with another persons way of considering in Daniels case, with Pauline Boty, the neglected 60 s 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 peoples heroes died, Autumn celebrates charismata and the route even unrequited love can illuminate a whole life.

All Smiths volumes deal in health risks and reward of human connection, often exploring the advent of the stranger, and how the community reacts and is changed. With Brexit dramatising Britains great divide, and with global migration ever growing and dread 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 demonstrating Elisabeth how to tell hospitable narratives that welcome in possibility rather than closing down other points of view. At the end of a bleak year, this is a fiction that feels colorful and nourishing as well as clear-sighted about the state of the world. Even as winter bites, there are rises, there are still roses. Justine Jordan

The term : 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, isnt?

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Trump advocates at a victory rally in Mobile, Alabama. Photo: Evan Vucci/ AP

As the name indicates, 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 words connotations are exclusively negative.

The seeds of this were present at the beginning, for a very early politicians who used the word were scarcely angels. The US Populist party of the late 19 th century attributed workers ailments to Jewish control of the banking system, as did the Russian Populists who advocated agricultural collectivism around the same hour. Perhaps the only innocent employ of populism was to describe a group of French novelists in the 1920 s and 30 s 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 ( peoples 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 loathing of expertise. It has changed meaning in the same style as demagogue, which once meant a people champion and now entails, 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 person or persons to whom populism appeals genuinely are racist and ignorant, doesnt a dedication to democracy necessitate 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 years 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.

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Pepe the Frog Photograph: Matt Furie

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

Matt Furie, the frogs inventor and a Clinton supporter, was first bewildered by the embezzlement, and then infuriated. He launched an online campaign to reclaim Pepe, urging people to post non-hateful depictions of the frog employing the hashtag #SavePepe. If this all sounds like a blizzard in an online teacup , note that from swastikas to brass eagles, the approved appropriations of popular symbols for hateful causes has historical precedents. I would like to get the frog off the abhor database, Furie told, in perhaps the most mournful citation of the year. It means a lot to me as hes an extension of myself. Simon Parkin

The photograph : Baton Rouge, Jonathan Bachman

She merely stood there and attained her stand, told 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 photo she stands still as two policemen in futuristic body armour close in on her. Bachmans image of Iesha L Evans was taken on a street in Baton Rouge in July as Black Lives Matter protests collected momentum following yet another killing of a young black human by police policemen. It went viral within hours.

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

There are several reasons set out above this photograph resonates. In many routes, it is a resolutely old-fashioned image: a moment of traditional photojournalism that harks back to the revolutionary 1960 s, in an age of smartphone citizen journalism, echoing Marc Ribouds shot of a young hippy girl presenting a bloom to a line of bayonet-wielding soldiers during an anti-Vietnam war demo at the Pentagon in 1967.

Back then, Ribouds 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 switching in global, corporate driven-politics. As this serenely powerful image depicts, activism arrives at a cost, but if this year has taught us anything, its that the alternative doing nothing and hoping that this is a nightmare that will somehow end soon is no longer an option. Sean OHagan

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 republic? How are tensions between the popular will and the rule of statute best resolved? Why, when a man with Donald Trumps scorn for the proprieties of the US constitution can be elected president, should we assume that democracy even in its American heartland is inevitably for ever?

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