Artist Nick Cave Just Won a Bizarre Legal Fight Over Whether His Political Mural in a New York Village Is Actually Art. (It Is)
The town's board unanimously ruled that Cave’s text installation is indeed an artwork.
A months-long controversy involving a Nick Cave installation, building codes, and the slippery line between art and signage has finally come to a close in a tiny New York town.
This week, the zoning board of the Village of Kinderhook unanimously ruled that Truth Be Told, a text work by Cave and designer Bob Faust, could remain on the facade of gallerist Jack Shainman’s upstate New York outpost, the School. It was the first time the village leaders acknowledged the installation as a piece of art.
“I didn’t set out to have this fight, but I will always stand behind my artists and for what I believe to be the greater good,” Shainman told Artnet News. “This victory allows us to move forward with The School’s mission, which is to present important artworks and exhibitions that speak to our moment in time. I am looking forward to continuing to do that in collaboration with the Village of Kinderhook, which is a community of which I have been a part for more than two decades.”
“TRUTH PREVAILED!” Cave added in an Instagram post about the decision.
The artwork, conceived as a rejoinder to the fake news campaigns of the Trump administration, has been the subject of debate in the village since it was installed ahead of election day last fall—but not, ostensibly, for its message.
Kinderhook mayor Dale R. Leiser demanded it be taken down, arguing it was a sign, not an artwork, and was thus not covered by Shainman’s building permits. The village’s code enforcement officer, Peter Bujanow, threatened a $200 fine for every day it remained on view.
But Shainman declined to remove the piece, and the fines were never issued. Instead, the dispute played out over board meetings and town halls, where those against Cave’s artwork called for strict adherence to bylaws and building codes, and those in favor denounced what they said was censorship and racism.
Cave spoke to the latter concerns in an open letter published last month.
“It is ironic that a work promoting truth-telling has been met with distrust and deceit,” he said in the missive, which now has over 3,400 signatories. “They are censoring the words of a Black man in a moment when our country, more so than ever, is divided on the basic principles of fact and fiction.”
A final hearing was held on January 25, where members of the public were invited to weigh in. More than 40 people did so in the nearly four-hour meeting, according to Hyperallergic, almost all of whom sided with the artist.
Shainman’s lawyer, William Better, also invited a handful of high-profile guests to weigh in, including the founding director of MASS MoCA, Joseph C. Thompson, and current president and COO of the Brooklyn Museum, David Berliner.
But Cave and Shainman still faced opposition.
“It’s not a censorship issue, it’s not a racial injustice issue,” Bujanow, the village’s code enforcement officer, said in the meeting, which was recorded and reviewed by Artnet News. Instead, he said, it was about “looking at the material, looking at the building, looking at what the code says.”
“I’m not a policy-maker,” Bujanow added. “I interpret the code as it’s written and enforce it the way I interpret it.”
Bujanow did not respond to Artnet News’s request for comment. Mayor Leiser declined to be interviewed.
Ultimately, the board ruled that Cave’s words were “were displayed as a political message and art for a temporary period of time” and that the town’s code “does not apply to regulate the exhibit as a sign.”
In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day last month, Cave and Faust removed the words “Be Told,” from the artwork, leaving “Truth” to stand alone.
After its run at the School, the artwork will travel to the Brooklyn Museum, where it will be installed on the institution’s outdoor plaza in conjunction with an as-yet-unannounced exhibition.
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