Update (Feb. 4, 2021): After a months-long legal controversy, the zoning board of Kinderhook, New York, voted unanimously in favor of Truth Be Told, acknowledging that it qualifies as an artwork and is thus protected under the First Amendment. In May, the work will travel to the Brooklyn Museum, where it will be displayed on the outdoor plaza near the entrance to coincide with an exhibition of contemporary works from the permanent collection. The story below, originally published on Nov. 16, 2020, recounts the controversy in its early stage.
Nick Cave has spent more than three decades addressing issues of race within his work. The 1992 Los Angeles Riots, spurred by the beating of Rodney King by police, galvanized the Chicago-based artist into creating his signature Soundsuits—bright, enveloping costumes made of everyday objects that obscure the wearer’s gender, race, and class. “George Floyd was another tipping point for me,” Cave tells the New York Times. “It made me question my own practice. Is my work purposeful enough? Why does this keep happening? How can I do more? I’ve been working against this problem and for this issue my entire career and am more committed to it than ever. We need to be talking about it.”
His latest work, on display at Jack Shainman Gallery’s offshoot in Kinderhook, New York, aims to do exactly that. Called Truth Be Told and part of the gallery’s “States of Being” social justice initiative, the installation features its eponymous phrase displayed across the facade of The School, the 1929 red brick building that houses the gallery, in 25-foot-tall black vinyl letters that stretch nearly 160 feet long. Cave intended Truth Be Told to start conversations about systemic racism and police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, which sparked a wave of racial justice protests over the summer. “The statement is a pointed antidote to a presidency known for propaganda that disguises truth and history to present racist and nativist ideology as patriotism,” reads a description of the artwork on Jack Shainman’s website. “It’s also open-ended, intended to spark questions surrounding personal interpretations of truth and integrity.”
Instead of starting conversations about race, Cave’s artwork has stirred up controversy about whether or not the text-based work technically qualifies as a sign and thus violates local building codes. Residents and officials of the sleepy Hudson Valley village want it removed, which Cave views as an “indication of where people stand.” (Columbia County, home to Kinderhook, went blue in the 2020 election.) The gallery argues that Truth Be Told’s public display is protected by the special use permit that the School was given when it was founded, but Kinderhook officials aren’t budging. They note that the artwork’s big black letters cover the building’s windows and doors, which allegedly creates a fire hazard. Shainman’s attorney, William J. Better, isn’t buying that explanation—he points to plastic Halloween decorations as being much more flammable than the 3M vinyl that Cave used for the letters.
“We’re actively contesting the village’s assertion that this work is signage and not art,” Shainman said in a statement, describing the town’s flammability argument a red herring. “The School is a place of cultural enrichment for the community and has permits to show artwork both inside and outside of the building. We have never before dealt with issues of censorship.” He’s admittedly perplexed by the case: “We’re not sure if these claims have to do with the content, size, or aesthetics of the installation, but the idea that a certain group of people has the authority to decide what is art, what can and cannot be shared, and how, is especially resonant.”
Though the gallery is liable for a $200 fine every day the work remains installed after October 23, when the city’s building department issued an order for its removal, Shainman has no intention of taking it down before the planned end date of January 31. “The gallery had to go to the city and ask permission. I’m like, just fucking do it,” Cave tells Curbed. “Like John Lewis said when he said ‘good trouble,’ to me, it’s about that. You don’t need fucking permission. It’s an art gallery, a place of expression. Go for it.”