As 2006 wheezed to a close, Slate asked a number of prominent writers, thinkers, and other luminaries to answer the following question: What cultural event most amazed or disappointed you this year? Here are their responses:
Christopher Benfey, art critic, Slate; Mellon professor of English, Mount Holyoke College
The demotion of Pluto disappointed me. The bleak little rock (with its symbol PL) was named for Percival Lowell, the great Japan hand (and big brother of poet Amy Lowell) who founded the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz., where Pluto was discovered in 1930. But Lowell got some good news this year, too. For a century, astronomers have ridiculed his claim that there were canals on Mars, but guess what? Photographs of Mars, according to the New York Times, "strongly suggest that water still flows at least occasionally" on the surface of the red planet. So, here's to you, Percival! (And let's hope no one argues that the occasional trickle is too small to be called a canal.)
Tyler Cowen, professor of economics, George Mason University; director, the Mercatus Center
In January and February 2006, Lincoln Center presented a festival of live music called The Passion of Osvaldo Golijov. Golijov, an Argentinian Jew, is the first breakthrough composer of the new millennium. His Ayre (song cycle), Passion According to St. Mark, and Aindamar (opera) make classical music passionate and popular and theatrical once again. In particular, I am amazed that a mix of tango, klezmer music, gospel, Cuban music, and the classics can bear so many repeated listenings. Golijov also reflects the growing role of Latin America in North American high and popular culture.
Stanley Crouch, author, The Artificial White Man and Considering Genius: Writings on Jazz As we are all aware, the technology of films has never been more convincing, but the human content seems to diminish with every advance in duping techniques. That is why I was absolutely startled by Little Children. It focuses on humanity as the most marvelous of all narrative enhancements and has in Kate Winslet an actress of classical cinematic greatness. She is a woman who can look beautiful or plain at will and whose capacious ability to ride the pulsations of human feeling is second to none in this age. After all that we learn about the oddness, delusions, loneliness, needs, and dreams of its characters, the film comes down to something quite unusual for our narcissistic age. In the film Paths of Glory, one character says that compassion is the noblest of all human impulses. There is such a thorough realization of that perception in Little Children that it explains both the blue, lyrical, and aching nobility of the film and the ennobling experience it provides for the audience.
Stephen J. Dubner, co-author, Freakonomics
I [heart] Aaron Sorkin's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. It isn't necessarily the best TV show ever. But I can't think of another show with a greater disparity between a) how good it is and b) how much it is dismissed by the smart-seeming people who tell us which TV shows are good, and why. What I most love about the show is its audio track: It is as dense, fast-paced, and jargony as the audio track for Sorkin's West Wing, but since I usually watch Studio 60 on my iPod, I can actually hear what's being said, and understand most of it. It is like listening to a really good radio play. I fear that NBC may cancel Studio 60. If so, I hope Aaron Sorkin will at least let us all tap into his brain for a daily podcast.
Dana Gioia, poet; chairman, National Endowment for the Arts
The most startling encounter I had this past year with a new work of art was with a short choral piece by Morton Lauridsen. Only 15 minutes long, Lauridsen's Nocturnes consists of three interwoven settings of poems in three languages by Rilke, Neruda, and James Agee. Nocturnes creates a complex and strange beauty that doesn't sound like any other composer. Yet for all its musical intricacy, the work has a direct and powerful emotional impact—not the impact of a scream, but of an intimate whisper that cuts right through you. Listening to these pieces repeatedly, I find my tough, old heart filled with both wonder and gratitude.