Beauty, Blasphemy and Blight

By: Bill Whaley
9 April, 2013

On March 25th, President Obama designated the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument! Whether as residents or visitors, we all acknowledge the special character of the landscape in the greater Taos area. Uncommonly, Taosenos have unanimously supported the preservation and protection of the vast valley, a confirmation of God’s handiwork for some or Mother Nature’s gift of beauty for others. But as we lift up our eyes, we can’t help notice how human beings have blighted the scenery with signs—a veritable example of heresy, blasphemy, or bad taste—depending on your tradition. Many of us feel, like the Navajos, that we want to walk in beauty.

A recent story in The Taos News focused on the Town of Taos’s difficulty with the sign code, a code Taosenos have been struggling with since the establishment of the town in 1934. Sure Spud Johnson of Horse Fly used to write about the problem in his one-man four-page weekly newspaper produced on a foot-operated press in 1938. Now comes the second decade of the 21st Century: a plethora of state and local government signs as well as temporary and semi-permanent displays focus on grotesque and tasteless short-term pleas for safety and “business as usual.”

Former Taos planner, Matt Foster, is quoted in a recent edition of the local weekly, saying, “I really believe that the town is becoming littered with signs.” Further Foster says “it is in the interest of the town to manage the number, type and size of signs so the community does not become “blighted by signs.” In the same article, the town’s attorney Brian James said, “We just don’t have the staff to keep track of this.” We are biting beauty, the hand that feeds our stomachs and our souls.

As readers of this column know, the town had plenty of resources to sanction and otherwise pursue the town’s single protester or sign man. After the town failed to address U.S. Constitutional protections for political exceptions and lost the censorship battle in its own municipal court, the town privatized enforcement and sanctioned the actions of the Tow Truck Gang’s Beautify Taos campaign. Now the sign man says his signs are routinely stolen from their roadside stands by “persons unknown” though we know whom the “persons of interest are.” Perhaps we, too, like the town, can find inspiration in the book of Amos. (Wikipedia: Through Amos, God tells the people that he is going to judge Israel for its sins, and it will be a foreign nation that will enact his judgment.)

Regardless of religious, spiritual, or aesthetic and legal injunctions, the town and state, both prominent politicos and local art sellers continue to ignore the fundamental promise of beauty that has drawn so many to this area. Though folks differ on whether the spirit of beauty or the call of mammon is one’s organizing principle, both contribute to wellbeing. Hence both bureaucrat and entrepreneur have contributed to blight and short-change their own long term success.

Each day when I drive from the old blinking light intersection toward the Town of Taos, I see more “safety” signs, including state, county, and town road signs than I can count on the road leading to and through historic El Prado. As you drive down the hill just south of the historic Plaza, it is not uncommon to see a tacky hand-lettered sign advertising an artist’s workshop or, farther on, a poorly lettered sign decorated with beer logos advertising happy hour specials at a restaurant. The town seems compelled to adorn light poles with faux posters and commercial messages that contradict the spirit of the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument.

By contrast the Centinel Bank, a welcome exception, adorns its landscape and architecture with tasteful displays that commemorates the art community.

Dear reader, a spectre is haunting the community and it’s called “bad taste.” Taste, of course, is like politics; one person’s poisonous public servant is another person’s access to the public purse. Still, if we wish to celebrate the beauty of nature and the creative complexity of the arts, why have we turned the Taos roadsides into an aesthetic nightmare? If we can’t summon civility and officially or voluntarily take down some of these signs, then we should expect the midnight vigilantes of yore to appear per the book and truck of Amos.

Back in the seventies La Cocina layabouts and ne’er do wells, local businessmen, artists, engineers, cooks and bartenders did their community service by removing offending bill boards and blight at night between full moons. Call them the avatars of the Monkey Wrench Gang. Then they walked in the beauty way and celebrated afterwards with Ruthie over a drink and a smoke. It was all so Biblical.

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