NEW YORK — Politics and the arts managed to harmonize in 1987.
It was the year that immortalized former President Nixon's 1972 trip to China in an opera, auditioned the vocal skills of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and sent all-American pop star Billy Joel all the way to Moscow.
It also was the year of Vincent van Gogh, whose painting "Irises" set an all-time record when it was auctioned for $53.9 million in November. A few months earlier, the artist's "Sunflowers" sold for $39.9 million.
Throughout the world, audiences and art lovers were beguiled by exhibits of old masters and challenged by works that extended the boundaries of traditional opera and theater.
For American movies and music, 1987 was a banner year.
Such hits as "Fatal Attraction" and "Beverly Hills Cop II" helped make it a record-breaking season for Hollywood.
Singer Whitney Houston started the year off hot and finished it the same way, winning five American Music Awards in January and ending up with 1987's No. 2 pop single, "I Want to Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)." Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam's "Head to Toe" topped the pop single charts.
The year's cultural agenda was filled with events reflecting the loosening of Soviet strictures on the arts and the warming of U.S.-Soviet relations.
The Soviet Union's glasnost program may have stirred debate regarding its political ramifications, but its effect on the arts was apparent.
The Soviet state-controlled art establishment rejuvenated artists and works that had been scorned for decades. The Soviets got to see the country's first exhibit of the exuberant, hallucinatory paintings of native son Marc Chagall. The works of Vasily Kandinsky and other avant-garde artists of the 1920s were shown in Leningrad and Moscow for the first time in more than 50 years.
In literature, Anatoly Rybakov's novel about the Stalinist era, "Children of the Arbat," surfaced in a literary journal. Plans were made for publishing other works the Soviets once condemned as dangerous or morally repugnant, including the poems of 1987's Nobel laureate, Joseph Brodsky, who left the Soviet Union in 1972.
The symbolic peak of the Soviets' cultural year may have occurred in Washington, where pianist Van Cliburn came out of retirement to play for Gorbachev at a White House reception. Soviet television showed the Kremlin chief singing a ballad with Cliburn, who won Moscow's Tchaikovsky competition 29 years ago.
Back in the Soviet Union, jazz artists Dave Brubeck and Pat Metheny kept audiences jumping. And Billy Joel threw a temper tantrum on a Moscow stage, overturning his piano, because he felt his camera crew was not filming enough of him and the audience was reacting too coolly to his performance.
Relations between East and West Berlin remained uncomfortable, but both sides of the divided city staged lavish celebrations to mark the city's 750th anniversary and its one-time pre-eminence in the arts. The West's celebration included three nights of pop music played so near the Wall that East Berlin youths rioted when police prevented them from coming closer.
Chilean novelist Isabel Allende offered a bleak political panorama in her "Of Love and Shadows," which centers on the discovery of a cache of bodies--a scene reminiscent of Chile's political upheaval in the 1970s.
In South Africa, artistic ventures challenged the apartheid system of racial separation.
For the first time in that country, a black actor, John Kani, played the lead role in "Othello." The musical "District Six" was the hit of the season, attracting multiracial, standing-room-only crowds in Cape Town for its spirited, bitter story about a mixed-race neighborhood that was razed after the area was declared to be "whites only."
Meanwhile, in the United States, two South African plays were warmly received by critics and theater audiences--"Asinamali" and "Sarafina"--as was Richard Attenborough's sweeping film portrait of black activist Steve Biko, "Cry Freedom." The movie, which emerged as a strong candidate for the Academy Awards, was allowed to be seen uncensored in South Africa.
American audiences were reminded of an earlier cultural thaw with the debut of the opera "Nixon in China." Reviews were mixed, but critics pronounced it exceptional for its balanced and humane depiction of world leaders and praised Peter Sellars' startling staging, which included an airplane landing on stage. Elsewhere in opera, Egypt had two grandiose stagings of Verdi's "Aida"--one at a 3,400-year-old temple at Luxor and the other on a vast stage at the foot of the Giza pyramids. They were billed as "The Cultural Event of the Century."
By contrast, China's cultural events were subdued compared to other years. The campaign against "bourgeois liberalism" following student demonstrations appeared to have discouraged artists from breaking new ground. The American musical "The Music Man" turned out to be one of the top events of the year in China.