Charging Bull’s Artist Doesn’t Understand Public Space

Few urban public art installations in recent history have attracted as much controversy as the Financial District’s “Fearless Girl” statue. Funded by State Street Global Advisors as part of a larger publicity push to get more women onto corporate boards, the popular installation was intended to run for about a week, but has since been extended, by popular demand, until 2018. There are even petitions, which are attracting significant support, that are advocating making the petition permanent

Others, however, have taken issue with the statue. Some, for example, consider it problematic for the girl to be facing off against a symbol of the American economy, while others have wondered why a girl is depicted, not a professional woman. Provocative art almost always draws these kinds of reactions, especially pieces that are meant to comment on socially relevant topics; the fact that these conversations are taking place should be viewed as validation for the power of art and sculpture in the public sphere.

One source of opposition, however, was unforeseen. The author of the “Charging Bull” sculpture has harshly criticized the new installation for fundamentally altering the meaning of his artwork. He has demanded that the city remove “Fearless Girl” and threatened legal action.

USA Today provides a summary of the situation:

Speaking at a Manhattan news conference Wednesday, Arturo Di Modica, 76, said he installed the bull in front of the New York Stock Exchange in 1987 as a symbol of America’s resilience following the stock market crash that year. The city later relocated the sculpture to a small public park nearby.

“The bull represents strength,” said Di Modica. “The strength of America, the strength of the market.”

In the years since, “Charging Bull” has become one of the city’s most popular attractions, drawing tourists from all over the world.

“Fearless Girl,” with hands confidently placed on hips, was installed in front of the bull on the eve of last month’s annual commemorations of International Women’s Day. Boston-based State Street Global Advisors has said it commissioned the new artwork as part of its call on behalf of the more than 3,500 companies that benefit from its clients’ investments to ensure that corporate governing boards feature diversity.

Created by artist Kristen Visbal, the new sculpture virtually overnight became a new symbol of a lack of gender diversity and equality on Wall Street and in other U.S. workplaces.

Now, along with flocking to Di Modica’s creation, tourists also vie to take selfies with “Fearless Girl,” and other photos that showcase the young beauty staring down the beast. A petition from change.org also attracted thousands of signatures that asked for “Fearless Girl” to remain permanently.

By March 27, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio agreed that the “fearless girl” statue would remain on Department of Transportation property as a part of a municipal art program through February 2018.

Many hailed the announcement. But not Di Modica. He argued that “Fearless Girl” was part of an advertising campaign that altered the artistic message behind “Charging Bull” without his permission. Additionally, his attorneys said the new sculpture infringed on a trademark and copyright held by Di Modica.

“What they did, it’s a negative,” Di Modica said of the new message conveyed by “Fearless Girl.” Now, the message is “I’m here, what are you going to do,” he said.

Attorneys for Di Modica said a plaque initially placed with “Fearless Girl” demonstrated the commercial nature of the new installation. The plaque stated: “Know the power of women in leadership. SHE makes a difference.” The “she” in the message referred to the financial trading symbol for a State Street Global Advisors exchange-traded fund.

By positioning one sculpture near the other, everything changes, to Di Modica’s detriment, said attorney Norman Siegel, former head of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

On it’s face, Di Modica is right, the presence of an additional statue changes how people will view his work. “Fearless Girl” derives its meaning from the presence of the Bull, and the two are clearly meant to be viewed in tandem. Di Modica’s statue has evolved in meaning, due to the presence of another statue.

And that’s ok.

Any artist who designs work for urban public spaces must embrace a “living view” of their work. The art will interact and evolve alongside the community around it. It simply isn’t realistic to expect the original intention of the artist to remain paramount when a work of public art lays at the center of a public square for dozens of years. Society changes, and so will its relationship with public cultural symbols and sculpture.

This is especially true given that Di Modica’s statue only achieves the author’s intention by virtue of its close proximity to Wall Street, an ironic twist to his argument against “Fearless Girl.” The installation would have an entirely different meaning if located in Kansas City or Houston. The “Charging Bull” only works because of the specific community that houses it.

And this is precisely why Di Modica is so wrong.

It’s extremely naive to expect a community, especially one as dynamic as New York’s Financial District, to remain static forever. The public space that houses the “Charging Bull” belongs to the people of New York and, therefore, citizens must be able to interact with it as their own, not as the property of a private citizen. Gender equality is a topic that is very much at the forefront of the conversation on Wall Street, and beyond. It’s not inappropriate for public space to exemplify that, for that is a central function of the public square. Di Modica should know this.

I will concede that I am not privy to the legal arguments at play here. Di Modica technically provided the statue “on loan” to the city of New York, and may very well have grounds for a lawsuit depending on the terms of his contract with the city, but he’s certainly wrong from a civic perspective.

It’s not anyone’s right to preserve a certain interpretation of artwork that’s located in a public square. By encouraging discussion around a socially relevant topic, this public space is accomplishing a key part of its mandate to the people.

Featured Image provided by Anthony Quintano on Flickr. 

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