Public Art is Bad Art
Many say that they LOVE public art, but I'm almost certain that most are lying because I don't see many people buying abstract squiggly forms, metal trees or giant genitals for their own front lawns. Since the quality of art is subjective, there are only two ways to tell if art is good. 1. An individual is willing to buy it or 2. You take the effort to make it for yourself. The qualification is that just one individual, somewhere in the world, actually wants to invest time or money into the creation or acquisition of the piece. The public square might be the only place where unwanted/bad art is found. I might go as far as to say that the existence of public funds for art IS the cause of bad art in the world!
I'll explain why this is...
Public Funds for Art Stifles the Artistic Process
When an artist is inspired, they create their best work. They are motivated to communicate their deepest feelings, passions and thoughts in words, song, image, form or story. They focus on presenting the highest quality work for their audience to carry their message. The art is important enough that the artist might sacrifice their personal money, time and energy to create it. If they do not have the resources to create the work, they petition for private commissions. If a patron has evidence that the artist is skilled enough, and is inspired by the work themselves, they might pay the artist to produce it. After the work is completed the artist decides if it is good or not.
Another kind of commissioned art is when a non-artist is inspired but needs a skilled artist to carry out the production. In this case the client decides if the work is good or bad.
Public Funds for art distort this artistic process of genuine inspiration. With public art, where does the inspiration come from, and who decides what is good or bad? The answer is that public art does not come from inspiration.
If the inspiration comes from the artist, why did they not value the idea enough to pursue its creation by commission or by their own efforts? I can only assume that they didn't because the idea wasn't worth the effort...or worse, and more likely, they were never inspired to begin with - until the thought of public loot was added to the equation.
If the inspiration comes from the client, in this case "The Public", how can it be determined if the resulting work is good or bad when there are 100,000 opinions involved? (How is it even possible to have public inspiration?). The artist will most likely look externally to try to meet the diverse expectations of "the public". This is why the resulting public artwork tends to be trendy, pretentious and uninspiring.
Public Funds for Art Distorts Value Judgments
Is the art worth producing or buying? This is a question that an artist or a patron must ask themselves. If the art is desired, then how much? Because value is subjective, a pile of dirt may be very valuable to a landscaper, but totally not valuable to a restaurant owner. The monetary value of art is a judgement that cannot be made without both the patron and the artist discovering a mutually acceptable price. If no one is willing to sacrifice to produce or acquire the art, it is literally worthless.
The problem with publicly commissioned art is that city council members are shopping with other people's money. They are not personally sacrificing or feeling the weight of the cost. Any offer they might give would be based on arbitrary conceptions. They cannot properly judge the value, leaving the artist with no way to negotiate fairly and receive push back from market forces. This is why the resulting public artwork tends to be overpriced.
An important skill in good economic evaluation is to be able to "see that which is unseen". Example: We might love the public stages, galleries, and some might even pretend to like the sculptures, but we can only imagine what we have missed out on, if these public funds were allocated differently. I believe the funding of art, and even the funding of public venues for art, have distorted the market so much that artists and businesses that would be more innovative and less expensive in bring us higher quality art have been drowned out by a tax funded monopolistic force.
Help Good Art and Help the Public
What have these unattractive and overly priced public displays done for the public's perception of fine arts in general? I believe it has done harm. The kinds of art that are consumed and enjoyed the most are the arts that are not publicly funded (Film, Advertising, Music, Clothes, Graphic Design, Interior Design, Architecture, etc.). These are the things that the market loves to consume. Artists in these areas create an abundance of work, can make a good living and are even adored by fans.
By attempting to help the art culture with public funds, I believe city councils, and those that support public art, have actually damaged a strong, genuine culture of artists and art lovers that we will never know as long as the trend continues.