2011 was a year of friction -- people demanded to be heard and if they weren't heard, they occupied. They physically made themselves part of the conversation, taking the narrative into their own hands and putting voice to visceral disagreement. Political debates devolved into jabbering about fiscal fictions divorced from reality. Presidential pretenders ignored problems in plain sight while posturing about unreconstructed ideas generations behind the times. It was not a satisfying spectacle -- that's why much of the year's best culture made a sense of redefinition urgent and indispensable.
South by Southwest remains a vital part of the year -- there are simply too many good bands to hear. Other favorites from Austin: the intoxicating techno pop of Toronto's Austra, the ongoing winning melodies of Beach Fossils, the British power pop precision of Veronica Falls, and perennial favorites An Horse and Amy Cook.
In a difficult year, we took pleasure where we could get it, whether it was Richard Diebenkorn's luminous book The Ocean Park Series (Prestel), Howard Hodgkin's lively paintings at Gagosian, George Braque's essential dynamism at Acquavella Galleries, the sublime show of Indian paintings at the Met, or Werner Herzog's unforgettable Caves of Forgotten Dreams. But two favorite moments were of completely different scale: Richard Serra's epic installation, Junction/Cycle at Gagosian was not about the fanfare or imposing his will upon the audience. Rather, it was the masterwork of the artist in full, and the scale was exactly right. The most obstinate artist of the era presented objects of unrelenting beauty -- the grandeur felt entirely justified. At the other end of the spectrum was the intimate concert at the Met Museum of the Anonymous 4, the stellar early music group. Singing carols across centuries, it was a rare moment of undiluted aspiration. In a year when powerful voices often sank to the bottom it was a reminder that a sustained high note of can still be heard. You just had to listen closely.