Don't believe the hype

A new barter scheme tries to short-circuit the distortion of aesthetic value

What would you do for the following? A melting tehnicholor landscape. A telephone earpiece with tiny squawking birds waiting to ravage the caller's ear. A romantic message about the memories we carry in our souls spelt out in solar panel powered lightbulbs. Three box-lit lit close-ups of an anus perhaps?
  
This is the concept behind Art Barter, an exhibition that is the lovechild of two young curators Lauren Jones and Alix Junta, and which asks what value we put on art. Fifty emerging and established artists have offered their work up to the public in return for . . . well, anything except money.

"In a world where the actual piece of work and its message or beauty often falls second to the hype or price that is attached, we hope to encourage people to value the work themselves, not for the name or price tag attached" says Jones.

For the next three days these fifty -- among them big guns such as Tracey Emin, Mat Collinshaw, Gary Hume and Gavin Turk -- will grace the walls of The Rag Factory, Hume and Emin's old studio off Brick Lane. Their identities are kept anonymous, in order that personal taste is allowed to dictate the value of the work -- at least that's the idea.

But some are a giveaway. Simon Tyszko, who has built a full size replica of a Dakota wing in his apartment in Fulham offers the whole lot, wing and apartment complete with a 98-year lease.  What he is expecting in exchange? "A hamlet in the South of France".
 
One corner of the exhibition is reserved for punters scribbling on "barter forms" with tiny pencils. They are offering anything from home-cooked curries and trumpet lessons to adult-sized giraffe suits or "the fur of 25 minks". 

Artists are not obliged to accept and it remains to be seen whether these noble intentions can have any effect on an industry where notions of value and worth have become so skewed. At best, the popularity and support that Art Barter has achieved could indicate a re-emerging bohemian sensibility among some of Britain's most eminent artists; at worst, it is at least an entertaining experiment for all involved.

Davide Restivo at Wikimedia Commons
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Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.