Our Favorite Cultural Artifacts of 2020

 

It has been a year of cancellations, delays, and postponements—in art as in life. Major films, major books: pushed back, like everything else. But much survived, and 2020 has given readers, viewers, and listeners much to enjoy, from Taylor Swift’s two quarantine albums to audacious, timely fiction. To celebrate a year’s worth of artistic achievement, The Yale Review asked our editors to choose a work in any medium from the past year that they have devoured, loved, hated, or mulled upon without end. Here’s what they said. 

—The Editors


The piece of culture that haunted me most this year was Celia Paul’s Self-Portrait, which I picked up after reading Zadie Smith’s review of it. I hadn’t heard of her work, but the minute I searched Google Images, I needed to know more about the mind behind those ghostly, mournful, deeply odd—yet piercing—portraits. A beautifully written memoir, Self-Portrait is fascinating as an artist’s notebook, as an autobiography, as a record of a muse (Lucian Freud and Paul were lovers; she was 19; he was 56). She’s a moving writer, and I ended up scribbling many long block quotes in my notebook. But I can’t stop thinking about one moment early on: Paul describes taking her portfolio to the Slade School of Fine Art in London as a young girl and interviewing with the principal, painter and educator Lawrence Gowing, who decides immediately that she must start there as a student in the fall and writes a letter to convince her father. Gowing tells him: “Pictures unpainted make the heart sick.” Self-Portrait was full of passages like these—ones that stopped me in my tracks, made me rethink art and life, and helped me forget about the worst, if only for a moment. — Stephanie Kelley, Assistant Editor

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Quarantine, for me, has meant taking care of my toddler and preschooler when I’m not working, and so I’ve read and watched little this year, though I can recommend the fabulous children’s book Pomelo Begins to Grow, about an animal that is not sure what it means to be big, which makes a great gift for small children. Other than I May Destroy You, the TV show that swept me up (and kept me up) was The Bureau: an old-fashioned and extremely modern French spy show that is revealing to the American viewer for, among other things, the ways it portrays our nation as a very loud and demanding third party in the room, the way most nations in the world experience it. The show is far more invested in subtleties of character, complicity—and existence itself—than American shows are, and it intertwines a pessimistic vision of realpolitik with an enduring romance. (It’s French, after all.) But perhaps the most significant thing I’ve encountered in 2020, which I just began reading last weekend, is a foretaste of 2021: Tove Ditlevsen’s The Copenhagen Trilogy, a stunning three-part memoir by a Danish poet about art, marriage, addiction, and much more, that comes out in the U.S. in January. Read it. — Meghan O’Rourke, Editor

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I live in a town of under 2,000 people, in a household of two, and so have seen few bodies in the last ten months. When I visited MASS MoCA in September, it felt almost as exhilarating to stand in line for timed entry as it did to see the art inside. The exhibition “Kissing through a Curtain” (on view through October 2021) contains many pleasures, including Justin Favela’s fringed tissue-paper landscapes and Clarissa Tossin’s staged conversation between Siri and the great Octavia Butler. But most affecting was Jessica Vaughn’s After Willis (rubbed, used and moved) #011. Eighteen decommissioned seats from Chicago public transit—or rather, 18 sets of upholstered fiberglass seat-inserts—are mounted flat on the wall in a grid, each seatback above the gently curved seat of its seat. The velour upholstery is navy or faded black with a lighter cross-hatched pattern, the pile worn down, dirt hardened into the fibers. Vaughn’s title refers to the Chicago Public Schools superintendent whose policies reinforced segregation and suggests the ways city infrastructure can perpetuate or alleviate inequality. In this moment, the work also evokes the national crisis in public transit—these discarded parts a synecdoche for trains sitting out of service, bus routes suspended indefinitely. Decommissioned, now recommissioned as art, the objects on the wall become final, untouchable. They hold absences made permanent. Yet here, still, is the record of so much human touch and movement, an index of so many individual lives—riders reading or holding groceries, nodding to music or to each other, trying to keep their kids’ sneakers off those seats…  In the largely empty museum, I felt my body among them, felt their company and was overcome.  — Rachel Mannheimer, Senior Editor

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What’s a summer jam without the summer? Cardi B and Meghan Thee Stallion’s free-flowing feminist anthem “WAP” dropped on August 7, 2020, when most of the country was still in lockdown. It didn’t feel like summer, at least not indoors. But a song like “WAP,” with its big-booty bass and instantly quotable lyrics, was meant to be played at the club. The semiotics of the club banger is an always present-tense now, a utopia that narrates the things we are supposedly doing right at this moment. But in 2020, Belcalis & Meg were narrating a not-yet-now, a gushy alternate universe where Black women, and their appetites, were larger than COVID-19. That the song dropped while many were still on the streets protesting the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor was a reminder that the “Black Lives” part of BLM wasn’t only suffering. It could be joy, desire, hyperbole, camp, leopard print pasties with actual leopards. “WAP” is both an acronym and onomatopoeia, but its meaning? Everything. — David M. de León, Assistant Editor

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It had been 16 long years since Susanna Clarke’s first novel was published. In the interim, she lived in near-total isolation, suffering from chronic illness and often unable to write. That isolation fed a novel—if the word even applies—unlike any other I’ve read. Piranesi is a puzzle, a short gasp of something both endlessly expansive and deeply claustrophobic. It is dazzling, part fantasy, an homage to C.S. Lewis’s most engaging, troubling writing; and part academic mystery, an argument against the ephemeral pleasures of our over-connected world. It is also, despite originating long before the novel coronavirus was even thought of, a near-perfect quarantine novel, one that explores isolation, fear, and—almost amusingly—the endless creation of new, oddball hobbies. Clarke’s writing has always been a joy, a marvel of creativity at depths few other authors even attempt; Piranesi may be the pinnacle of her form. — Parker Richards, Digital Editor

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Michaela Coel possesses spectacular talent, audacious vision, the mysterious “something,” and beaucoup craft. Days upon days upon days upon nights of craft. I May Destroy You—which follows three fictional friends and their experiences with consent, sex, intimacy, rape, assault, trauma, art-making, friendship and healing—is a masterful work of art. Throughout the twelve episode arc, writer/creator/director/actor Michaela Coel makes consistently surprising, intriguing, complicated, dazzling, and gut-wrenching choices. Coel’s storytelling tilted me off my axis, forcing me to confront and rethink memories from my own narrative past. It disturbed me, like a hand disturbing the water’s placid surface. A water that held my face. — Ama Codjoe, Contributing Editor

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Poet Jihyun Yun’s début collection Some Are Always Hungry fashions the humble topic of food into a great lyric theme, opening fresh sensory, emotional, and formal avenues to plumb the realms of inherited memory, the devastation of war, and the worldwide peregrinations of immigrant families. She finds in the imperative voice of recipe cards poetic addressees, refines into taut verse the plummy prose of food writing: “Douse the black lacquered belly of the earthenware pot with rice vinegar antiseptic and scrub,” begins one striking poem. In a year when so many of us sought solace in the scents and rhythms of our kitchens—and food often provided our only reason to leave home—Yun’s meditations on the traumas and healings passed down through the Korean dishes of her female family members offer a grand view of why cooking evokes the feelings that it does. Her recipe-poem “Reversal” ends with words that connect our forebears’ past sufferings with the struggles we all strain to abide: “Dear Reader, I so want to survive this. Please lead me whole into another season so I may dare begin again.” — Spencer Lee-Lenfield, Assistant Editor

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The night before my twenty-ninth birthday, delirious from too much cake and the weary existentialism particular to life in 2020, I went on the internet to look for an a cappella rendition of “Shallow,” the chart-topping pop song from the 2018 blockbuster, A Star Is Born. One search result stood out: a video from January 2019 featuring “Stay Tuned,” the premiere a cappella group of Cherry Hill High School East in South Jersey. The chorus, wearing all black and stationed in a loose semicircle around a scuffed auditorium stage, kicks off the song with low, ethereal hums. A dulcet tenor sings Bradley Cooper’s lines, and then, a minute in, Lady Gaga’s part begins. The beat-boxer is subtle and attenuated; the soprano is positively virtuosic. When she launches into the chorus halfway through—“I’m off the deep end, / Watch as I dive in”—the audience begins quite literally to scream. It’s hard not to; her voice is as clarion and assured as any I’ve recently heard.

In my opinion, “Shallow” was made for Stay Tuned to perform it. I don’t know why I’m so consistently moved by this video, but I’ve come back to it a hundred times since: these voices a generation younger than mine, delivering the overfamiliar with verve, surprise, and a feeling of inexplicable promise. — Maggie Millner, Senior Editor

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Three pieces have been with me recently: Gwendolyn Brooks’s “my dreams, my works, must wait till after hell”; Thin Places by Jordan Kisner; Karen Solie’s “Emergency Response.” All of them feature a moment where someone’s attachments have come undone, and they each refer to that moment as “waiting.” This whole year has felt like an undoing of attachments, so I’ve been reading these texts to figure out how to be in the waiting and what thought is uniquely possible here.

These writers don’t wait with much concrete expectation. Solie’s poem is too busy with the bustle of repair, with trying to figure out if repair is another word for love. Brooks’s stores away what is most precious for safekeeping in the exhausted hope that those things might still feel precious when it’s safe to return. Kisner’s waiting always seems to take place in the aftermath of epiphany (after belief, after death, after an encounter). As if we linger a bit inside of transformation while we learn how to move differently. Each of them is teaching me how to stay attuned to what survival and change feel like right now. — Lacey Jones, Assistant Editor

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Although 2020 has been a difficult year, there have been some meaningful cultural events that have left an indelible impression on me, chief among which is the election of Senator Kamala Harris, a woman and person of color, as the Vice President of the United States of America. Since Donald Trump assumed the presidency in 2016, people of color and other minorities, such as immigrants and refugees, have been living in a state of insecurity and precarity. As a refugee myself, the America to which I was drawn as a teenager had changed overnight, becoming nothing not too dissimilar to the regime of oppression and bigotry that was destroying my own country. That a black woman has been elected as vice president restores some hope that America still holds some promise of decent living and perhaps genuine belonging for marginalized communities.  — Nyuol Matiok, Assistant Editor


Graphic by Will Frazier.