Letters: Who knows what's good art? Or bad?

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David Lister writes about his horror on learning that some critics don't think Damien Hirst's work is art (Arts, 7 April). I have to agree with him. The only way to describe the work of Hirst and others of his ilk is "art".

But it must be admitted that a great amount of nondescript stuff ends up in the same pile. Most things, it seems, that have the faintest whiff of culture are described in the same way.

In other words, "art" has become a meaningless, even a pejorative term, making it immune to serious criticism but, by the same token, depriving its progeny of any authentic expressive force. It cannot be bad; it cannot be good.

Yet when Lister refers to the visual arts' history of "championing bohemianism, experimentalism, radicalism and rule-breaking" he appears to think that these progressive artists must be entirely unfettered and free. Wrong. There are plenty of rules.

To be avant garde now you must avoid directness and honesty about your subject matter and choose a form/material/approach that defies expressive manipulation, let alone transformation.

Oh, and you'd better consider how you want to present yourself. Are you a Tracey Emin? or a Damien Hirst? If neither, cultivate some serious weirdness or victimhood; always goes down well with the public.

Martin Murray

London SW2

Chris Thomas writes about Damien Hirst (letters, 3 April) to remind us, with some irony, how his children's careers may have been crucially affected by a parental decision that they could do without a spirograph paint machine.

In the same issue, we learn that Daniel Bartlam might not have killed his mother had he not been allowed, from the age of eight, to sit absorbing violent videos (John Walsh). Of what consequence is it that the same generation fills the Tate Modern every day to gawp at Hirst's shark and skull art?

Nick Clark reports Hirst as saying, "The goal has always been to make art. Making money is a very happy by-product". Indeed. Hirst adds, "I'm one of those lucky artists that have made money in their lifetime", implying that his products are enduring as are those of van Gogh, Rembrandt or Michelangelo.

But the express intention of nihilism in Hirst's work is to convey the futility of life, the finality of death and the universal absence of any given values corresponding to the hopes and aspirations on which, until now, all human civilisations have been built. They have been so built precisely because human life is a matter of corporate evolution through time: all evolutionary movement prior to the appearance of homo sapiens depended on the unitary being of each successive species,

As far as the future welfare of our species and the value of Hirst's creations are concerned, his work is either the product of manipulated technologies or the use of natural artefacts. There are no art inputs of his own beyond a labelling and contextual presentation which ensures the intended nihilistic interpretation. As works of art, it's all crap.

David Kuhrt

Upper Hartfield, East Sussex

Boat Race culprit not fit to mirror brave Suffragettes

I read with some combination of disgust and amusement in your article on 9 April that Trenton Oldfield sees himself in the same vein as the Suffragettes.

On the one hand, the Suffragettes, which means the Woman's Social and Political Union, had a deserved reputation for delighting in causing trouble for trouble's sake and even blew up part of David Lloyd George's house. More moderate groups such as the NUWSS considered them society troublemakers. Does Mr Oldfield consider himself to be akin to that?

Alternatively, and in my opinion no less accurately, the Suffragettes were fighting for a cause that only the most chauvinistic of people today would oppose. Votes for women was an issue at the heart of British democracy and those who campaigned for it suffered for it for a long time.

Emily Davison died for her cause, and it was one worth fighting for. Mr Oldfield disrupted and ruined a student rowing race in protest at something the rowers have no control over. The comparison is disgusting.

Nick Saunders

Oxford

In your Boat Race story, you repeat the popular myth that Emily Wilding Davison "threw herself under the King's horse at the Epsom Derby 1913". The still-horrifying Pathe newsreel footage of the incident clearly shows that Miss Davison is standing upright when struck by the King's horse Anmer, one of the back markers.

Although some witnesses claimed that she was attempting to grab the horse's bridle, others thought that she was simply trying to disrupt the race, like Mr Oldfield, or was in fact merely crossing the track to unveil her Suffragette banner, believing that all the horses had gone past. There is little evidence for the idea that she deliberately committed suicide; she had, for example, a return train ticket.

Mark Hone

Bury, Lancashire

Laurie Penny was right to describe Mr Oldfield's actions as being more of a prank than a terrorist plot. But when she says that "ultimately though, nobody died" it's clear that Mr Oldfield's actions put the participants and surrounding safety teams in danger as well wasting police and other officials' time.

He also foolishly endangered himself. Often a mere "prank" can cause huge problems and Mr Oldfield should feel grateful that the State he derides came to his rescue.

Paul Maidment

London SE13

No doubt the "establishment ton of bricks" will descend on the swimmer who wrecked the Boat Race but why do the same old two compete every year? When did Birkenhead or Croydon get to have a go? Is it a final and, if it is, which boats got knocked out in the prelims or did they do away with that inconvenience in 1760, when only the top two schools turned up and all the others were stopped at the gate?

I know he upset a few people but my class were screaming from the rooftops. I just hope he turns up at the Olympics.

Steven Calrow

Liverpool

No way to run a busy GP surgery

I took one of my three children to the GP. I had called the day before to make an appointment but was told there was nothing available until Friday. I arrived at the four-GP surgery at 8.30am and waited for the doors to open at 9am. The first GP started to see patients at 9.45am while the other three started at 10am.

After a 10-minute appointment and a visit to the pharmacy, I was able to begin my working day at 11am. I am left wondering two things. First, is there really anyone in the UK who does not believe that the NHS needs a massive shake-up to get rid of slack practices and an inherent assumption that a patient's time has no value?

Second, who in their right mind believes that a GP practice in central London that cannot even manage to get its doctors to start work at an appropriate time in the morning could possibly manage the task of effectively commissioning services for its patients? Truly I despair.

Caroline Mais

London W2

Fears grow about validity of HS2

It would appear lessons have not yet been learned from previous high-speed rail projects. The National Audit Office report (The completion and sale of High Speed 1) highlights the need to get the details on HS2 right from the outset. In the IET's response to the Department for Transport consultation we made it clear that there were potential flaws in the analysis, several assumptions were made in crucial areas and serious questions have been left unanswered.

The report backs up our concerns because the original HS1 business case was based on journey time-saving benefits and increased rail capacity. The total value of these benefits is not known; the Department for Transport has not yet developed a method to evaluate HS1 project costs against benefits, despite this forming part of the HS2 justification.

Chris Richards

Transport Policy Adviser, Institution of Engineering and Technology, London WC2

Lifelong Lib Dem turns to Labour

Your report that some on the lowest paid will lose more than £3,000 per annum while millionaires gain £40,000 (5 April) gives the lie to the disgracefully dishonest Lib-Dem claim that changes to the tax system will help the poorest. Having worked for the Liberals for two-thirds of a century, including campaigning alongside Vince Cable to win a non-target Twickenham ward in 2006, it is with great grief that I feel morally obliged to endorse my local Labour candidate this year.

At 81, and a liberal, I have devoted thousands and thousands of hours over nearly seven decades working for a false prospectus.

Derek J Cole

St Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex

Model way to train surgeons

I bring good news ("Reasons to mourn the demise of the appendectomy", Leading article, 6 April). Opportunities for surgeons to develop their skills have improved significantly over 20 years. Today's trainees use cleverly designed models and simulators, part of the post graduate training programme. Operations staged include appendectomy, inguinal and femoral herniae, cholecystectomy (gall bladder removal), vascular surgery, general dissection and many more. The UK is the world leader in the supply of these realistic soft-tissue models.

Margot Cooper

Limbs & Things, Bristol, UK

Protect teachers

We get disingenuous statements from the Department of Education such as "website bullying is completely unacceptable", words never backed with action. Parents who write abusive statements or make false allegations against teachers (or knowingly allow their children to do so) on social websites should be prosecuted. The penalty should be the same as that for racial abuse.

Malcolm Howard

Banstead, Surrey

In short, wrong

I was surprised when Clare Short referred twice on Radio 4's Front Row (2 April) to "mongols". The presenter coughed and said he believed the preferred term was Down's syndrome. Clare Short gave a dismissive apology. Had Ms Short used a derogatory term to refer to people of a different racial background, she would have been slated. What does this say about our attitude to people with learning difficulties?

Sue Turner

Nottingham

MPs' pay and say

The Chancellor has said he is happy to consider publishing the amount of tax paid by each member of Parliament. And I dare say he is. But what we actually ought to know is how much tax each MP doesn't pay.

Robert Bottamley

Hedon, East Yorkshire

Fill the bowl

With respect to my old friend Trevor Pateman (letters, 10 April), the recent rainfall is not caused by a mere public holiday, but by the start of the cricket season.

Philip Goldenberg

Woking, Surrey

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