July 2016 issue culture

The 10 Best Observer Stories of 2016: ‘Isn’t It Iconic?’

The price tag on a new public sculpture in San Antonio renews a 20-year debate over whether a city program creates art — or just controversy.


Editor’s Note: Robyn Ross’ story on “Liquid Crystal,” a San Antonio art installation that has been called both a bold, progressive sculpture and a “$1 million cheese grater,” goes beyond the immediate controversy to ask hard questions about what public art should be. What happens when artwork meant to engage a community ends up alienating it instead? Ross delves into the complexities of the issue and makes us laugh along the way. —Rose Cahalan

Isn’t It Iconic?
By Robyn Ross
Published June 30

Distaste for the work, coupled with the piece’s price tag, led Krier and others to question the utility of Public Art San Antonio, the city program that funded it. (“Great art stands the test of time,” Krier later said. “This is art based on a gimmick. Technology changes so fast; does anyone think that LCD lights will be cutting edge 20 years from now?”) Others questioned why the city chose an overseas artist for the project. Comments on the Facebook pages of local news stations, including KENS 5, suggested other priorities for the money: “Meanwhile our roads still suck”; “Wow they could of helped the homeless living on the streets with some of that money.” On 550 KTSA’s page, a commenter summed up another argument: “Because ‘art’ is subjective, ‘art’ should be supported by patrons, not politicians.”

The debate sparked by “Liquid Crystal” posed the same questions about public art that the program provoked when it began two decades ago. In an interesting symmetry, some of the program’s pilot projects were created for the convention center’s first expansion in the same building where “Liquid Crystal” now stands. But the upgraded convention center is only one site expected to draw a larger and more international clientele in coming years. In response to last summer’s UNESCO designation of the city’s five Spanish colonial missions as a World Heritage Site, and in preparation for San Antonio’s tercentennial celebration in 2018, local leaders say public art should be worthy of the spotlight tilting in the town’s direction.

Read the full story. 

Read more of the Observer‘s Best of 2016.