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EDITORIAL: ‘Truth Be Told’

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THANK YOU KINDERHOOK! You have managed to distract us, briefly, from the shadow of the virus and the fact-less howls of the present president. All the more reason to welcome the debate over “Truth Be Told.” This must be a sign.

Literally. Village of Kinderhook Code Enforcement Officer Peter Bujanow has determined that the words “Truth Be Told” spelled out in neatly cut sheets of a vinyl material called ScotchCal Graphic Film and stuck to the side of the former Martin Van Buren elementary school on Route 9 prove that the words are, technically, a sign.

You can’t miss it. A broad lawn separates the two-story brick building from the road. The black letters on the facade are 21 feet tall and stretch more than the length of the 161-foot structure.

It’s understandable that Mr. Bujanow, an earnest public servant endorsed on this page when he ran for a town office not long ago, might have mistaken the words for a sign. The building was purchased in 2012 by New York City gallery owner Jack Shainman, who has made the place into a gallery and a storage facility for artwork not currently on display. He calls his Kinderhook gallery The School. In the past Mr. Shainman has attached banners to the front of The School, advertising his art shows inside.

But this is different. “Truth Be Told” is not a sign advertising a show in the gallery. The thought as expressed on the building is the art. And the creator of this work is Nick Cave, an internationally acclaimed artist.

Mr. Bujanow sent a 10-page letter listing all the violations of the village and state zoning codes that apply to “Truth Be Told,” asserting that the artwork lacks a building permit under Sec. 62-3(A), which requires the applicant to state the “value of the proposed work” (sub Sec. 2), a statement of how the alleged sign will be used (sub Sec. 5) and drawings of the work (sub Sec 8).

Wow. These regulations set the bar pretty high. Philosophers have struggled to answer the first two questions about the essence of art for centuries. No need for drawings. Go look.

The Kinderhook zoning code has rules for every type of sign you can imagine. Consider a partial list from Sec. 130-2 of the code: “Sign, business; Sign, illuminated; Sign Directly illuminated; Sign Indirectly Illuminated.” You get the picture.

Nowhere does the law account for a sign that isn’t a sign. It’s a work of art. An idea.

There don’t seem to be any village regulations governing non-signs that illuminate the minds of observers, causing them to scratch their head, or laugh or cry or pause a moment to wonder what the artist means or marvel at a vision shared. And if we have such laws, we should remove them.

But sometimes the law works around the edges, relying on laws intended to protect the public that instead can stifle free expression. In Kinderhook this comes up in Mr. Bujanow’s determination that the vinyl letters of “Truth Be Told” pose a fire risk. Even if the vinyl could cause or sustain a fire on the exterior of a brick building, it’s unlikely any visitors would be in the building. The art is on the outside—the safest place to be in this pandemic.

Culture doesn’t stand still but communities can stagnate. Mr. Bujanow has raised questions about the future of this community, which has invested so much in its cultural heritage. But his is not the last word. The Village of Kinderhook Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) would have to rule on the whether the village wants to permit the 18th and 21st centuries to mingle.

Or not. Maybe Mr. Shainman won’t bother to come before the ZBA. Instead Mr. Cave’s artwork may close without a ZBA ruling, restoring the front wall of The School and disposing (responsibly, let’s hope) of the vinyl letters along with the threat of fire, real or exaggerated.

In that event the ZBA should still plan ways to work with Mr. Shainman and possibly other arts entrepreneurs who might host local cultural events. But the goal is not to adopt new regulations. The goal is to create more exceptions, because no matter how many rules you adopt, true artists will always surprise you.

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