Anyone who doubts the importance and power of public art should watch the standoff taking place near Wall Street between Charging Bull and Fearless Girl.
In you haven’t been following the controversy, a small bronze sculpture of a defiant girl, her hair in a ponytail, was placed in New York’s Financial District on March 7. She appears to be staring down the big bronze bull that has stood there since 1990.
State Street Global Advisors commissioned Kristin Visbal’s statue of the girl as an advertisement for an index fund that promotes gender diversity in business. Like the bull, the girl quickly became a tourist attraction and symbol for many passions and causes.
Arturo Di Modica and his lawyers called a news conference Wednesday to denounce Fearless Girl as a copyright infringement that distorts the meaning he intended for his bull as a symbol of “freedom in the world, peace, strength, power and love.”
Without permission, Di Modica installed his bull outside the New York Stock Exchange in December 1989. Police impounded the statue until its popularity prompted city officials to allow it to be placed on “temporary” display nearby in a public plaza at the foot of Broadway.
Although Di Modica described the bull as a “gift” to the people of New York, he retains ownership and a copyright and trademark that he has aggressively enforced. But he does not control the public space where his bull is displayed — or how others interpret it.
Fearless Girl also has a “temporary” permit. It was installed in time for International Women’s Day on March 8 and was supposed to have been removed April 2. But because of its popularity, city officials decided to keep it up until at least next February.
Petitions on Change.org to make Fearless Girl permanent have gotten more than 40,000 signatures. I wouldn’t be surprised if the girl gets the same “temporary” status as the bull, which is now entering its 27th year.
I hope Fearless Girl stays, and not just because Di Modica’s objections are, well, bull.
Public art can be powerfully symbolic, meaning different things to different people. That symbolism isn’t up to the artist, but the viewer. And symbolism can change over time as society changes amid new circumstances and challenges.
An example of that is playing out now in Lexington and other Southern cities with century-old Confederate memorials. Some people see them as symbols of history and heritage; others as symbols of white supremacy, oppression and intimidation.
Fearless Girl already means different things to different people.
The artist and investment firm intended her to “send a message” about business diversity and gender equality. The statue also has been embraced by women who turned out in historic numbers to protest the inauguration of President Donald Trump and his treatment of and policies toward women.
In response to the bull artist’s complaints, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said: “Men who don’t like women taking up space are exactly why we need the Fearless Girl.”
But some critics have dismissed Fearless Girl as “corporate feminism” intended to distract attention from allegations that State Street fleeced customers. Others complain that the statue trivializes women’s issues.
Charging Bull’s symbolism also has evolved over the years. When installed after the 1987 stock market crash, it became a popular symbol of the enduring strength and power of Wall Street and, by extension, American capitalism.
That symbolism changed after the financial collapse of 2008, which saw Main Street suffer a lot more than Wall Street. We now hear a lot of debate about wealth inequality, the power of big business and its influence on government and politics.
Occupy Wall Street protesters in 2011 depicted Charging Bull into a symbol of greed. Police guarded the statue against possible vandalism and kept it off-limits to tourists nearly three years.
Public art at its best helps enable difficult but important conversations. In addition to raising issues of gender equality, Fearless Girl symbolizes the need for “little people” to keep big business in check, to speak truth to power and to stand up to bulls — and bullies — when they run amok. Her confrontational presence gives us a way to talk about the strengths and weaknesses of capitalism, not just glorify it.