Monday, July 31, 2017

Who pays for nice?


You can tell that holidays in earnest have started in this part of the world because there were delightfully fewer people in the swimming pool today. 

Most of the population is either planning for or actually taking their annual holidays.  Amazingly, this also applies to restaurateurs in this holiday seaside resort!  You would have thought that the one time that people in Castelldefels connected to the tourist trade would not take their holidays was in August, or high season as we call it.  You would be wrong!  I am astonished at the number of locales that take their holidays in August.  I suppose if they have kids then they do not have over many options, but August would seem to me to be the one time when they would not, under any circumstances turn away trade.  But then, I am a teacher and not a small shopkeeper, so what do I know about the real illogicality of commerce?

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My local swimming pool has a contract with a local garden centre to beautify the outdoor area with a profusion of plants.  The children’s playground and café area perimeter have been marked out with a collection of greenery that certainly adds to the quality of the place, but other areas are demarcated with large planters.  These have been planted with plants that thrive (or at least are supposed to thrive) in the semi-arid conditions that are the norm of these parts.  The plants chosen are the succulent (?) fat leafed varieties related to the cactus (I think) the sort of plants that thrive on neglect and can grow and develop with a lack of water as well as the occasional downpour.  I am sure that was the theory, but in practice the plants have yet (generally) to climb above the confines of their boxes.  As I have observed form my seat in the sun, they also have to contend with the occasional flicked fag end and the finger poking obtrusive attention of passing kids.

Today an employee of the garden centre has been turfing out and digging in, replacing the old abused and neglected with the burgeoning pot cosseted new.  As I watch the changing greenery I wonder about the economics of it all.  Does the pool have a monthly contract?  Did they pay a one-off fee?  Is it on an ‘if and when’ basis?  How much are they paying for what is, basically, ignored decoration?  Though, I hasten to add, not ignored by me!

I think that anything that makes my aesthetic experience more enjoyable has my vote.  I like the fact that many roundabouts hereabouts have ‘art’ in some shape or form in their centres.  Not always to my taste, but something which takes away from the monotony of a regular traffic moderator.  The (usually) metallic sculptural forms hark back to a period when austerity was not the only guiding economic power, though one does wonder about the detail of the commissioning of these municipal excrescences.  Given that corruption is the spice that heightens the appreciation of life in these parts, I do wonder how a thorough audit might change the point of view of a casual observer.  After all, most people glance at the ‘sculptures’ and either ignore them or wonder what on earth they ‘mean’ as they drive towards the beach.  Their perceptions might be appreciably different if they knew exactly how much they cost and how they came to be made.

Two cases of ‘public’ art come to mind.  Castelldefels was gifted an imposing circular metal sculpture of grasped hands by Lorenzo Quinn, but there was an almighty row about how much it actually cost to install it in its present location next to the beach.    

The other piece of art that intrigues me is the mural decoration in our local central church.  Who paid for it?  And who, while we are at it, paid for the hideous stage-scenery artificial looking façade on the church to replace the structure rightfully destroyed during the Spanish Civil War?  I have to admit were I Catalan I would never forgive the Roman Church for its hysterically enthusiastic support of the fascists and its bloodcurdling condemnation of the democratic government. 

I suspect that the rebuilding of the burnt church and the painting of the series of murals on the windowless east and west walls (the church faces north) was paid for by the government.  At the moment, I do not know the truth, but I have discovered that there is some sort of publication about the murals available from the Parochial Church House and I am more than prepared to spend 20 euros to find out a little more.  The only history of Castelldefels that I have is in Catalan, so that makes each paragraph painful linguistic deciphering - but this is an on going project, and now that there is a sort-of museum of Castelldefels opened in the centre, there may well be other sources of information now available.

Public art is always problematical.  Complex medical machinery is always pushed next to any street art object in the popular press with the implied suggestion that the money could have been better and more profitably spent.  How, goes the argument, could a twisted free-standing ribbon of metal possibly compare with a kidney dialysis machine?  How could a kidney dialysis machine possibly compare with the helicopter rescue of people on a sinking ship?  How could a helicopter rescue of people on a sinking ship possibly compare with emergency food aid to a population of starving people in sub-Saharan Africa?  And so on ad absurdum.

Someone once pointed out that there was no logical limit to the amount of money that you could pay into the NHS: whatever you give, the NHS could use more.  But there are not unlimited funds and so decisions have to be made, and decisions go on being made up and down the line of finance which mean that absolute judgements about ‘worth’ in spending are virtually impossible to make - but are made every moment of every day.

Erecting crash barriers along a road to restrain crowds wanting to see their successful football team parade the cup that they have won costs money.  That money is from a finite pot, and while the expense might well be necessary and useful it will, of course mean that money for something else will be limited.

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I have a season ticket for the opera in the Liceu.  I pay a lot of money for my (frankly) very good seat, but I am aware that each performance I go to, my payment for the ticket is not the real price of the production.  I know that, as opera is such an expensive art form, my seat has been subsidised by a government grant.

I might, and do say that opera is a vital art form, it is a living sign of the cultural health of a city and country; I might say that life would be infinitely poorer without this art form, that a thriving opera scene in Barcelona is good not only for opera, music and the Liceu, but also for a host of people whose work is directly involved in the production, staging and managing of opera.  I might say that the tourist destination of Barcelona is made richer (literally and figuratively) by the fact that its opera house is one of the most important in Europe; I might say that although the majority of people in Barcelona do not get to see the productions, the economic, social and cultural effects of the shows directly support many more.

A few times a year, here in Castelldefels, we have public firework displays.  I love them and have spend many fruitless years trying to get a decent photo of them.  Now I just watch, open mouthed, and enjoy.  How can they be justified as a public expense?

I could go through a number of possible justifications from supporting local industry (we have a firework factory just up the road) to a necessary tourist attraction in a resort that relies on tourists - but, really I truly believe that fireworks add to the jollity of nations and that is justification enough!
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