Saturday, July 30, 2005


But elephant dung is great!

The Tate was accused yesterday of snubbing one of Britain’s foremost collections after it rejected a gift of 160 paintings that had been given pride of place at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. Its director, Sir Nicholas Serota, said that the works did not deserve to be in a national collection, even though their five-month exhibition last autumn drew thousands of people to the Walker, one of the outstanding collections of fine art in Europe and part of National Museums Liverpool.

The works were painted by the Stuckists, an international group of artists founded in 1999 to promote traditional artistry, looking to the Old Masters for inspiration. Experts said that the artists had “inaugurated the rebirth of spirituality and meaning in art, culture and society”, with their works worth £500,000, but the Tate was less than impressed.

Sir Nicholas wrote to the Stuckists, who offered the gift: “We do not feel that the work is of sufficient quality in terms of accomplishment, innovation or originality of thought to warrant preservation in perpetuity in the national collection.”

Charles Thomson, co-founder of the Stuckists, called the decision “a massive snub”. Noting the exhibition’s success, he added: “It shows the Tate is completely out of line with the rest of the country and the public, whose money it spends on things the public don’t want.” He recalled how the Contemporary Art Society, the art charity, had difficulty persuading the Tate to take a Picasso in the 1920s and a Henry Moore in the 1930s. “The Tate . . . rejected Modernism and artists such as Matisse and Picasso . . . Now it has lost the nation the prime works of an international movement founded in Britain.” Mocking the decision to award the Turner Prize to Martin Creed — “someone who switches a light on and off in an empty room” — he also poked fun at recently acquired canvases studded with elephant dung by Chris Ofili. “Excreta seems particularly welcome,” he said.

The Stuckists were confused by a passage in Sir Nicholas’s letter which said that he wanted to ensure “the Tate archive, as the national record of art in Britain, properly represents the contribution of the Stuckist movement to debates about contemporary art in recent years.” Mr Thomson said: “He wants to record our thoughts, to hear what we are saying, but will not allow the public to see our work.”



Unless you drink two litres of water a day, your body won't be properly hydrated. People in the west consume far too much salt, increasing their risk of high blood pressure. Non-organic foods are covered in harmful pesticides. The incidence of obesity would be drastically reduced if only we stopped gorging on Big Macs.

Many people would regard all of the above claims as true. After all, they are repeated incessantly in the media, by health officials and in general conversation. They have become nuggets of wisdom that shape our understanding of the relationship between what we eat and the healthiness of our bodies. So they must be true, mustn't they?

Well, not according to the authors of a bold new book: Panic Nation: unpicking the myths we're told about food and health (John Blake). Edited by two biochemists, Stanley Feldman and Vincent Marks, it sets out to demonstrate that, when it comes to food, we are collectively the victims of an incredible amount of hogwash.

The basic problem, according to the authors, is that our society is in thrall to the "precautionary principle". Ours is a worse-case-scenario mentality whereby any small or medium-sized risk is converted into a portent of near-certain catastrophe. Relatively trivial dangers - such as the recent Sudan 1 scandal - are magnified out of all proportion. Food is a natural focus for scaremongering, since it is common to everyone. According to Feldman and Marks, this is why so many of us believe that the food we eat is killing us, even though life-expectancy is longer than at any time in human history.

It is hard not to concede that they have a point. The tone of the book may be trenchant, but the arguments are sensible and even-handed. The authors do not deny that the food we eat affects us, or that it is important to eat healthily. What they do say is that our ability to look rationally at the issues is hampered by the prevalence of all sorts of myths. The chapter on junk food is particularly thought-provoking. The term "junk food", it is suggested, is an oxymoron, since if a substance has nutritional value, then by definition it cannot be junk. Fat is fat, whether it comes from processed ground beef or from an Aberdeen Angus steak. Big Macs may not be good for you, but they are not outrageously unhealthy either: in fact, they contain roughly the same calories as a Safeway tomato, chicken and basil salad.

Fine, but does this matter? Is it really a problem if we exaggerate the danger of Big Macs? Well, Feldman and Marks would retort, it does matter, because it changes the way we view an issue such as obesity. At present, the responsibility for obesity is placed squarely at the door of a group of foods that we arbitrarily choose to label "junk". If these foods were banned, or at the very least taxed, then obesity would disappear. In fact, the issue is more complex. A number of factors cause obesity, among them exercise levels, metabolism and diet. Whether or not a person habitually visits McDonald's may not be all that important.

The book makes other provocative claims. Pesticides are not present in large enough quantities to be remotely dangerous. The virtues of organic food are largely mythical, as are the hazards of GM. And as for fluid intake, it seems that you can safely put that bottle of mineral water away. Of the two litres the average person requires daily, half is provided as an inevitable consequence of the food they eat, and the rest by two cups of coffee and a glass of beer.


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