Lifting a Glass to 2004

It's time to hail the year's heroes, mark triumphs like see-through cement and podcasting, and mourn the greats we've lost

By Thane Peterson

Trying to distill all of this year's major cultural events and trends into a short list isn't sensible. But who said I was sensible? My list is a somewhat subjective, even eccentric, take. Others may have a different approach, but here goes:

LEON FLEISHER. He's the great classical pianist who 40 years ago lost the use of his right hand to an obscure neurological disease. For decades he battled despair while teaching music and playing one-handed -- but never gave up the dream of one day playing the two-handed repertoire again. Medical advances have allowed Fleisher to regain use of his hand. This year, the pianist, now 76, triumphantly recorded a CD of music by Bach, Scarlatti, Chopin, Debussy, and Schubert -- appropriately titled Two Hands. Bravo!

PODCASTING. This is the technology that allows owners of audio players such as Apple's (AAPL ) iPod to download radio broadcasts. Minnesota Public Radio and Air America, among others, have already started podcasting, as have many individuals. My prediction: Podcasting will democratize radio (and video broadcasting, for that matter, as technology progresses) by making it possible for just about anyone to broadcast audio content -- much as blogging did for written commentary.

9/11 COMMISSION REPORT. Politics largely dominated the nonfiction best-seller list this year, but the nonfiction publishing event of the year wasn't Bill Clinton's windy memoir or the popular political screeds by Bill O'Reilly, Ann Coulter, et al. Rather, it was the 9/11 Commission Report, which has been a best seller since it came out 20 weeks ago.

This is a sign of hope for two reasons. It's a rare bipartisan effort by prominent politicians to force the government to do the right thing for national security policy. And this report, at least the long narrative introduction, is remarkably well-written. "I was astonished that a government report could make such compelling reading," says James Carey, the Columbia University communications theorist. "It's very good in a literary sense -- and very good at simply explaining what happened."

FCC's BONO DECISION. Or was it the bonehead decision? After rock singer Bono uttered the F-word on prime-time TV, the Federal Communications Commission banned the expletive's use in prime time entirely. The result, predictably, was confusion among broadcasters, some of whom erred on the side of caution by refusing to air Saving Private Ryan, one of the greatest war movies ever, on Veterans Day (Nov. 11). A good New Year's resolution for the FCC would be to go back to more sensible obscenity rules that make allowances for extenuating circumstances, historic context, and artistic merit.

NEW MOMA. A lot has been written about the architectural qualities of Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi's $425 million expansion and redesign of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. But to me only one statistic matters: The exhibition space has more than doubled to 630,000 square feet. The new museum, unveiled in November, is airier and far more open than the old digs, even while the number of works on display has vastly increased. "It's absolutely beautiful, a really wonderful space for showing art," says Victoria Miro, the prominent London art gallerist who attended the opening.

Several rooms are now devoted to the museum's marvelous photo collection, and new acquisitions get a lot more space. There are also some wonderful, spacious rooms chock full of Cezannes, Matisses, and van Goghs, which previously were displayed in more cramped quarters. On the top floor, two sunlit near-football-field-size exhibition spaces are dominated by two enormous paintings, the most spectacular of which is James Rosenquist's 86-foot-long F-111, painted in 1964 and 1965. Good show! By Thane Peterson CHINESE ART. Some would say the key art sale of the year was a 1905 Picasso called Boy with a Pipe that went for a cool $104 million at Sotheby's in May, the first painting ever to top $100 million at auction. In the long run, however, the more important sale may have been of a Chinese crab dish in San Francisco -- actually an 18-inch Ming Dynasty dish that sold for a record $5.7 million at a Bonhams & Butterfields auction on Nov. 17.

I predict that prices in the Chinese art market will continue to climb as Chinese collectors gain in wealth and sophistication. By the way, I referred to the Ming piece as a crab dish because the California family that had long owned it, unaware of its value, had used it to serve cracked crab. Bet they're glad nobody dropped it.

LIFE PASSAGES IN PHOTOGRAPHY. It was a sad year for photography lovers. Henri Cartier-Bresson, the Frenchman who was arguably the greatest living photographer, died in August at 95. Other greats who passed away this year included Helmut Newton (at 83 in January after crashing his car in Los Angeles), Richard Avedon (at 81 in October), and George Silk, one of the best Life photographers (at 87, also in October).

PASSION OF THE CHRIST / FAHRENHEIT 911. Neither was great in cinematic terms, but they were the two most important films of the year from a cultural standpoint. From its sappy musical score to its historical distortions to its excessive violence, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ is pure Hollywood. But it's important because Gibson's movie is part of the bid by evangelical Christians to gain the status and influence they believe their numbers and wealth merit. The outcome of the 2004 Presidential election certainly got the secular world to stand up and take notice.

Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 911 is one-sided and not especially well crafted. But the film is still tremendously important because it forcefully raised criticisms of the war in Iraq and Bush Administration policies that the mainstream media had soft-peddled. I doubt if John Kerry would have done nearly as well as he did in the Presidential race were it not for the doubts the movie raised.

Love 'em or hate 'em. Gibson and Moore are now movie moguls with huge bank accounts. We're going to hear a lot more from them.

TRANSPARENT CONCRETE? Among architectural innovations, check out LiTraCon, invented by the Hungarian architect Aron Losonczi. Optic fiber mixed into the concrete allows light to filter through, yet the material is as strong as regular concrete, so it can be used to make transparent walls and floors. The main drawback is that LitTraCon costs upwards of $2,000 per cubic foot, though the price surely will fall if it catches on. It's a very interesting building material.

GOODBYE, JULIA CHILD. Since we're toasting, let's also tip a glass to the memory of TV chef and cookbook author Julia Child, who died in August at 91. When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, it was nearly impossible to get a decent meal and a good bottle of wine, except at a few expensive big-city restaurants. Now, largely thanks to Julia, you can eat and drink well in almost any midsize berg. Bless her.

BROKEN CURSE. The Boston Red Sox won the World Series for the first time since 1918.

Happy holidays and best wishes for 2005!

Peterson is contributing editor for BusinessWeek Online. Follow his State of the Arts column on culture and the arts, only on BW Online

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