Ever wonder how taxi drivers get away with driving so fast? I was pondering this fact(oid) again the other day after reading Gemma Tipton’s article on public art in Saturday’s Irish Times – unsurprisingly, some people are bothered about local authorities putting money into public art at the same time as reducing other services.
My thinking ran something like this. The level of road deaths in the Republic of Ireland is shocking and quite easy to reduce (I think). All you have to do is enforce speed limits. The government and the guards have outdone each other over the past decade or so in finding ways of delaying implementing any sensible enforcement. Why? I suspect the answer is Bhutanesque: in the Republic we elect populist governments whose aims and ideals tend to be highly flexible; they don’t seek to maximise things that seem to make logical sense – enforce speed limits and fewer will die – but rather try to maximise ‘gross national happiness’. If they can do the latter, they get re-elected; if they don’t, an interchangeable set of other politicians will do so in their place.
Car accidents make, at a guess, less than 1% of the population unhappy every year; rigorous enforcement of speed limits would make a lot more people unhappy, though obviously in a different way.  You can feel the difference a bit yourself if you happen to be a driver and you pass a speed-camera sign – for a while after you have feeling of being observed, and it’s not nice. I find the extra version of this you come across Northern Ireland even more big-brotherish and back-of-the-neck unpleasant: you’re told your entry and exit time over a certain stretch of road is being monitored, so you’d better watch your speed.
Has this got anything at all to do with art? Believe it or not, yes. Both the enforcement of speed limits and the presence of public art are part of our social environment. They impact on our attitudes to the society we live in. If I see that the society that I live in officially supports the arts – public art being often the most visible example – then I will think about where I live in a certain way; in my own case I’ll be happier about the society in which I live than I might otherwise be and, almost paradoxically, the actual quality of the public art may be secondary.
There are lots of things out there that affect how we feel about our society and also how our society presents itself to us and to outsiders. We don’t enforce speed limits too rigorously, so maybe we’re a bit happy-go-lucky; we allow money to be spent on public art, so we think the arts are important. It’s all messages, to ourselves and to others.