Nick Cave, "Truth Be Told" (2020) vinyl building wrap 25 x 160 ft, designed in collaboration with Bob Faust (all images courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York)

It was installed in autumn, but I barely made it in time to see artist Nick Cave’s controversy-causing, headline-making, outdoor artwork. And when I got to Kinderhook, NY, in late January, only the cold “truth” of it remained. By then, much of the colossal textual artwork “Truth Be Told” (2020) — whose 25-foot-tall black letters wrapped around the nearly 160-foot façade of gallerist Jack Shainman’s upstate New York outpost known as The School — had been stripped away to commemorate the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday earlier in the week but for its first word: Truth. And the rest was to be torn down within hours.

Nick Cave, “Truth Be Told” (2020) at dusk on January 20,2021

This was after the November elections Cave had intended the artwork’s provocative presence to precede. And it was just before the nearly three-and-a-half hour, surprisingly fascinating public hearing attended (via Zoom) by more than 180 people, many of whom gave impassioned statements on the controversy Cave’s artwork has caused, expanding the conversation to encompass preemptive censorship, racism, horrible holiday lawn ornaments, even what makes a place worth living in.

Against the clean red brick, “Truth Be Told” straddles two floors of the former school Shainman opened in 2013 as a massive upstate exhibition space for his Manhattan-based gallery. The piece went up in leaf-peeping season, but I saw it in its last hours stark against a white sky suggesting snow.

“Truth” was — is — powerful enough to stand on its own.

A viewer walking past the work on January 19, 2021

And that’s because of scale, which in Cave’s vision is perhaps more material than the vinyl of which it’s made. Cave conceived the artwork in the wave of the upheaval following George Floyd’s murder and as “a pointed antidote to a presidency known for propaganda that disguises truth and history to present racist and nativist ideology as patriotism” and “an act of protest, acknowledging the power of words as symbols and organizing forces,” according to the gallery. I argue that the scale is the point, the precise thing demanded by collective fear, need and frustration, so big that only something this large would do. “Truth Be Told” is frustration, writ large.

According to Clark Griffin who heads operations for The School, as that first “T,” “R,” and “U” were being installed, several locals expressed worry to staff that an “M” and a “P” were to follow in support of the 45th president; however, once the rest of the artwork was fully up, no one expressed anything but support of “Truth Be Told.”

And Shainman and his team successfully marshalled that support for Kinderhook’s public hearing on January 25, ironically scheduled just as the final and full dismantling of Cave’s artwork was underway.

From left to right: Jack Shainman and Nick Cave (2014)

All but several of the 40 members of the public who spoke were firmly in his camp, and if nods and clapping are any indication, a wide majority of the other 140 people were too. Additionally, the town received more than 50 letters and emails on the issue and a pro-Shainman petition entitled a “Solidarity Against Censorship” received more than 3,300 signatures (including mine, before I was asked to write about this).

The issue at stake before Kinderhook’s Zoning Appeals Board hearing on Monday was whether “Truth Be Told” is artwork (and thus cannot be regulated by the town since art is considered an expression of free speech protected from governmental regulation by the First Amendment), or rather a sign, banner, or billboard, all of which may be regulated by law.

Both sides were asked to review their positions. First up, the man who started all this: the village’s code enforcement officer Peter Bujanow, a lifelong Columbia County resident new to the job after a failed run for town supervisor. Bujanow stressed that “any conditions affecting any property” fall under rules and regulations that he was hired to enforce; that The School had a “previously forged process” for banners and signs announcing events and exhibitions and for outdoors art that process was not followed here; and that “no one should be above the law.” Upon seeing that “Truth Be Told” was composed of text (and apparently nothing else), for him it met “ the definition of a sign, banner or billboard.”

As the night wore on, Bujanow made several things clear: his devotion to “the blue book that I carry with me that has enormous code,” as he put it (his odd word choice recalling that of a recently impeached president); his seeming lack of interest in a federal document a wee bit above the municipal code; his intransigence (censured at one point even by the head of the zoning board); and a grand sense of self. (Comi-tragically, the code enforcement officer kept his camera off, all night with only a static image of his Zoom ID labeled “CEO” to represent him; the disembodied voice was very “Oh, God!” .)

There won’t be a decision until later this month at the earliest as to who was in the wrong here. On the one side, there is The School, whose staff sent an initial query over to Bujanow about the new work and then decided to proceed after not hearing back for seven weeks (likely after realizing their right to do so). On the other side: Bujanow, who issued a stop work order to The School as the Cave artwork was being installed and attempted to fine the gallery $200 for every day the artwork was up.

William Better, the local land use lawyer Shainman has hired to represent The School’s interests and who has admirably risen to the occasion as a First Amendment advocate, summarized The School’s position: The decision to censure the School in any way regarding its display of Cave’s work “should be negated.”

“Kinderhook defines what a sign is and it also defines what a sign is not” Better said, arguing that “Truth Be Told” cannot be a sign, since it is not an “announcement, direction, or advertisement” that draws attention to something “that is offered elsewhere.” “And according to Kinderhook’s own definition, banners are signs,” Better continued, “So if it’s not a sign, it can’t be a banner.” And billboards, also signs, aren’t allowed in the village regardless.

“If not a sign, billboard, or banner,” then it must “non-commercial speech,” he went on, which is protected and cannot be subject to the “prior restraint” of going through any kind of municipal “bureaucrat” before one is allowed to “display or utter” something. “That’s unconstitutional,” he said.

Later, Better summed up Shainman’s side by quoting a comment made by another local: “‘The code enforcement officer ‘dug himself a hole’ and he continues to dig it.’”

(Left to right) Carlos Vega, Jack Shainman, and William J. Better, the attorney representing The School, participating in a public hearing via Zoom before the Kinderhook village’s Zoning Board of Appeals on January 25, 2021

The School called on several special witnesses. Randall Bourscheidt — a former deputy commissioner of cultural affairs for New York City who was also president of the Alliance for the Arts for more than a decade asked the board to consider that Cave’s work was not a violation of “understandable signage rule” but “a daring work of art.” Joseph C. Thompson spoke of how in his tenure as founding director of Mass MOCA, the museum had never once sought approvals or had interference from any regional municipality regarding its outdoor displays. David Berliner, the president and COO of Brooklyn Museum, which will be installing “Truth Be Told” as part of its spring offering, noted his own background as a real estate attorney and his long experience with all the public outdoor art in Madison Square Park before pointing out that although the Brooklyn Museum’s building is a New York City landmark, museum staff “use the exterior frequently” for displays of all kinds, and are not expected to seek permission from the city to do so.

Their professional expertise was bolstered with thoughtful and emotional testimony from local and regional artists, art experts, art lovers, teachers, lawyers, neighbors, and two girls from two different families who stayed up past 10pm to make their voices heard in support of The School. Cited throughout the night for their own text-based work were artists Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, Ivan Navarro, Mel Bochner, Banksy, Robert Indiana, Tracey Emin, and the Guerilla Girls.

Many of the commenters spoke movingly of  how much The School had expanded their world and brought life and economic value to their town, and expressed outrage at the reputation Kinderhook was getting because of refusing to back down from an early bad call on the part of a low-level municipal employee.

Julie Harrison called The School the “best thing that happened to Columbia County.”

“To have a whole town be talking about what is art and what is a sign is amazing,” Ellen Simpson remarked, but “do we really want a zoning board to make the decisions about what art is and what art isn’t’?”

George Spencer lamented that the thousands of internet links on the coverage of the controversy and the “endless comments about racism, insensitivity, and other outrages” like “exclusion and erasure of people of color” did not leave him with “a warm and fuzzy feeling” and was “leaving the village with a very bad rap.” “I wholeheartedly support Jack Shainman,” Spencer said, “I believe the leadership of the village should get back to the job they were expected to do.”

Kinderhook resident Robert McElligott, a civil and environmental engineer, was one of many to point out that if Bujanow had done even a cursory Google search, he might have dropped an early but oft-repeated claim (including at this very hearing) about the artwork’s vinyl potentially being be fire hazard; 3M’s website lists the vinyl used by Cave “in the most fire-resistant category.” McElligott was also among the many to call out Bujanow for using the fact that The School is located in a historic district to try to extend his jurisdictional reach: “It is art,” he said. It is also temporary, and “it is not a modification of the building.”

A passerby photographing the words “be” and “told” work being removed on the January holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr.,  per the instructions of the artist Nick Cave.

His wife Donna McElligott pointed out archly that during the holiday seasons, residents temporarily install on their lawns and houses what is “clearly not art.” Think: enormous Santa’s workshop scenes and dinosaur-sized inflated “blow ups.”

(Later, in perhaps my favorite comment, a local artist whose name I didn’t catch pointed out that if Nick Cave’s “letters were in white and said ‘Happy Holidays,’ we wouldn’t be here tonight.”)

One of only three African-American commenters (including artist Lisa Corinne Davis), DeWayne Powell, a local real estate agent, said that what Shainman has brought to the area has been “a big selling point” and urged the town leadership to “do what you can now to bend over backwards to accommodate” the work The School is doing. He suggested that the code enforcement officer’s initial bad decisions “got dragged out to censor Nick Cave,” adding “I don’t think the board wants to have the reputation that they are forging.”

One of the most thoughtful insights about Cave’s work came from Rachel Gevlin, who recalled the years when “The School was my school” and is now an English professor. “If ‘Truth Be Told’ is a sign,” she read from a statement she later sent to me, “then it must be a very bad one.” “The meaning of the words is by no means objective or immediately conveyed,” she went on, and the “tense of that verb phrase muddles a clear and direct understanding of its meaning.” In our correspondence, she concurred with what I’d learned myself about the phrase: it is shortened from “if (the) truth be told,” a phrase rarely used before the 19th century but whose earliest use dates to 1592. We agreed that “truth be told” is used, as Gevlin puts it, as “a way of bolstering the truth” of what you’re saying or about to say, and sometimes “to underscore a (not always genuine) sense of reluctance to speak that truth.” 

As a writer, I admired Cave’s cleverness in seizing on this semantic slipperiness. “Truth be told” preserves an idiomatic subjunctive form of the verb “to be” — and a presumptively passive one — implying even that the speaker could be more apt to tell the truth under perhaps different circumstances. (If, say, the speaker weren’t a narcissist, or a liar). But what Cave has achieved (another part of what makes this absolutely, positively art) is to use that blink, that flip, from the subjunctive to the imperative, and back to make a textual work function like a visual one, specifically a lenticular whose images shifts when viewed from different angles. Because in Cave’s artwork, devoid of any explicit truth that it would seem to be introducing or any (con)text other than the political one he intended, the phrase is also pushing that verb “to be” in a different direction: towards the imperative. Cave has made of it an implication, indeed a supplication, of “must.”  At this scale, Cave is calling for the truth to be told, and saying that the truth must out.

Standing there looking up from the snow-dusted lawn of The School, I saw not just the “Truth,” but I saw too all at once what was not, and what could be. 

Laura van Straaten has reported about art and culture from more than a dozen countries for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal Magazine, New York, The Hollywood Reporter, Departures, and many of...