No, The Wall St. Bull Sculptor Doesn't 'Have A Point'

from the nope dept

Last week, we wrote twice about sculptor Arturo Di Modica and his claim that the “Fearless Girl” statue, that was placed last month in front of his “Charging Bull” statue, violates his rights. As we explained, in detail, he has almost no legal case here. His letter to New York City argues three possible claims of action — all of which would almost certainly be losers in court (as we detailed in that last post).

However, I still have seen a bunch of people arguing in support of Di Modica, claiming that he “has a point.” Many have pointed to a blog post by Greg Fallis that is literally titled “Seriously, the guy has a point.” Others have raised other issues in discussions I’ve seen (and taken part in…) on Twitter and Facebook. I still don’t think he has any point at all, but I wanted to do a post addressing each of the key issues I’ve seen raised, and explaining why I think they fail as legitimate arguments.

Fearless Girl is an ad

I had debated mentioning this in the first post (and only obliquely noted that “there have been some criticisms” of Fearless Girl), but decided it was really meaningless. But people keep bringing it up, so let’s address it. Yes, the Fearless Girl statue is an advertisement of sorts. The whole thing was created and financed by State Street, a massive investment firm, with help from McCann, one of the giant ad agencies. And a big part of the criticism is that State Street has a “gender diversity index” whose ticker symbol is SHE, focused on tracking the performance of “companies with the highest levels within their sectors of gender diversity on their boards of directors and in their senior leadership.” And Fearless Girl has a plaque that says: “Know the power of women in leadership. SHE makes a difference.” Many have, quite reasonably, argued that (especially given the capitalization of SHE) Fearless Girl is just an advertisement.

And the response to that should be… so what? As we’ve pointed out for many, many years, all content is advertising in some sense. It may be advertising for the artist. It may be advertising some idea. It may be advertising a theme. Di Modica’s bull was “advertising” the resiliency of American capitalism. Just because it’s advertising doesn’t mean it’s not artwork. And even advertising can have a positive social message. So, the claim that it’s “advertising” doesn’t really impact anything here. Yes. It’s advertising. So what? It’s also still art, and was created by a real artist whose own work and talents are unfairly diminished when you say that it’s not art just because someone paid for it and it advertises something else. Or as our own Leigh Beadon points out:

Some are arguing that because there’s money involved, that somehow changes things, but I don’t see how. After all, the bull itself celebrates money and markets, so if you’re suddenly arguing that money is bad, well, then… I’m not sure how that supports the argument that the artist has a point.

It uses the only copy of Charging Bull

This is the argument I’ve heard most often after the “it’s an ad” argument, and I’d argue it’s more persuasive, but still not very persuasive. The argument here is that, unlike a remix or standard appropriation art, where the original work remains untouched, the placement of Fearless Girl effectively incorporates Charging Bull such that Charging Bull can no longer be separate from Fearless Girl. If you are to accept the idea that putting another artwork near an original piece of artwork can never be allowed, even in a public place, and even if the latter piece incorporates the original to comment on it… well, you’re going to run into a lot of problems pretty quickly. Because then you’re arguing two things that are pretty difficult to justify: (1) that an artist should get absolute control over any other works near his or her own artwork, and (2) that artwork is defined by what is around it and so the context can never change.

Both things seem unjustifiable. On the first point, what if, instead of the Fearless Girl statue, someone created a placard (an artistic placard) protesting what they believed was unfair sexism on Wall Street and stood next to the bull? Would that lead to the same outcry that this somehow “diminished” the Bull? Or imagine a world in which an artist could force a museum curator — or a private collection owner — to not display some other artist’s artwork next to his or her own, because the juxtaposition of the two pieces was deemed by the artist to be unflattering? Most people would think that is crazy. How one puts up a piece of artwork, and what pieces are put around it, are the decisions of those who control the physical pieces and have the rights to display them. Here, Di Modica dumped his bull on the streets of New York, and New York now has possession of the physical statue. It can decide how to display it.

Plenty of museums use the careful placement of different works to create juxtaposition and even direct criticism or commentary. It would be crazy to think that an original artist could bar any of that.

As for the second point, we don’t have to look very far to see how silly it is: Di Modica himself placed the bull in the street in front of the NY Stock Exchange, specifically making a point about that particular financial market. He was commenting on the NY Stock Exchange and the fact that it represents a form of capitalism and free markets (whether or not you agree with that is beside the point). And yet, NYC moved Charging Bull around the corner. It is no longer directly in front of the NYSE, but people still get the context and they understand the intent.

I’ve seen people arguing that if Fearless Girl were removed to somewhere else it wouldn’t make the same point, but that’s not necessarily true. People are not dumb. They can understand context. And they can see how context changes. The Bull moved from the NYSE to a nearby park, and yet people still recognize that Charging Bull is commenting on the stock market and the Wall St. ethos. Yes, it helped where it was initially placed, but the mythology around the placement has stuck with the Bull. The same is likely true for Fearless Girl. Were it — or the Bull — to now move, many people would still remember and recognize the initial juxtaposition, and understand the intent (again, even if it was an ad).

But Fearless Girl changes Charging Bull’s meaning

I’ve seen this from a few people, arguing that the artist must have some right of “control” over the meaning of the statue. But that’s just not the way it works. This is a similar argument that we’ve seen in lots of copyright disputes over the years — especially cases involving fair use. People seem to ascribe a somewhat mythical concept of “control” or “control of message” that an artist can have over their artwork. But that’s never been true. Once a work of art is released to the public, the public interacts with it and interprets it and that’s wholly outside the control of the original artist. Sometimes, over time, people’s impression of a work of art can change drastically — from bad to good or from good to bad.

Indeed, that’s a big part of art. Art is barely art if there’s no reaction to it. The reaction itself is a large part of the art, and that reaction is not dictated by the artist. Sometimes that reaction is just how people see things. Sometimes that reaction is in how it inspires others to create other works. Art is often defined by the reaction to it. And here, if that reaction changed, that’s just a part of the nature of art and culture and society and how those things interact. Over the years, for example, there have been debates about the artistic value of works that supported, celebrated or were associated with bigotry. And there have been protests against them. But that’s allowed, because people are allowed to react to art how they want, and sometimes their reactions can impact how others see things as well. Some people who grew up with the Confederate flag as a symbol of the south have grown over time to realize the racist connotations it can hold. Should we not allow people to raise those issues and get people to rethink their support of that flag?

Control in art is an illusory concept: people insist it’s there, when it really is not. An artist has control over the artwork while they’re working on it and before they’ve released it to the world, but once it’s out there, once it’s become available to interact with the reactions of the public, control is lost. And that’s a good thing. It’s that loss of control that makes art art.

You may not like Fearless Girl. You may not like Charging Bull. You may not like capitalism or advertising — or maybe you do. You may like control. But the simple fact is that none of the arguments that Di Modica and his supporters are making make much sense in the grand scheme of things. The bull can survive Fearless Girl and so can Di Modica.

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Comments on “No, The Wall St. Bull Sculptor Doesn't 'Have A Point'”

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106 Comments
orbitalinsertion (profile) says:

I can’t help but think of this in terms of literature, but it happens in every art form: Sometimes a work is entirely a commentary on another work. Books, they may not be next to each other in a library, given the filing system, but in a bookstore they may. But physical proximity is not terribly relevant. The fact that a thing exists and people know about it is enough.

So Joe Haldeman should never have been allowed to publish The Forever War, right?

As to advertising, well omg you got advertising in my propaganda. Fainting couches for everyone!

Anonymous Coward says:

If the Fearless Girl “isn’t art” because a corporation paid for it and attached an ad, then there is very little art anywhere in the world. The artistic accomplishments of the Renaissance, for example, happened because the catholic church and the business leaders of the day had excess income, and decided to use that income to pay artists to create works of art that the church and businessmen could then show off to prove how awesome they were. So no art was actually created.

Anonymous Coward says:

Mike the problem with the fearless girl and why your guy with placard argument is weak is that the Fearless girl was made to look as an extension of the Charging Bull. The girl was done in a similar style as the bull. There is no problem with statues being near each other normally, but when you can not distinguish what is original to the artist you are diminishing their art. Copyright is for the promotion of the arts and sciences as you so often say, but if I am the artist who created this how am I encouraged to create more by this move if they allow the canvas of my creation to be changed so blatantly. Why should I sculpt more art for people to see if they will copy my style right next to it to change the point I was getting across.

Wyrm (profile) says:

Re: Response to: Anonymous Coward on Apr 18th, 2017 @ 11:08am

Ah, the dreaded “they copied my style” argument. Your point is not weak, it’s non-existent.

Copyright protects copying ab exact expression. Not an idea, but a style. An expression.

The Fearless Girl doesn’t copy anything and doesn’t alter the Charging But. It’s a new piece of art, in the same style, that is placed next to the Bull. It’s providing new context, new meaning, but doesn’t change the original Bull.

No point for the artist, even less so when he just dumped the Bull in a public place without authorization even less a contract to keep its context “intact”.

Anonymous Coward says:

The guy does have a point. The point is actually quite obvious, and if you don’t see that you are stupid.

His only problem is that he doesn’t have a legal point.

If you are going to write another article about this, add in that some feminists are saying that the girl is bad because it points to women standing up for themselves, which takes the blame off of our misogynistic, patriarchic system bla bla bla bla bla…..

Leigh Beadon (profile) says:

Re: Re:

*The guy does have a point. The point is actually quite obvious, and if you don’t see that you are stupid.

His only problem is that he doesn’t have a legal point.*

Yes, and instead of simply expressing his opinion on the matter, he hired lawyers and got them to write up a legal argument for why believes he has a right to have the statue forcibly removed.

So whatever legitimate personal point he may have been able to make, he chose not to do that – he chose to turn this into a legal argument with widespread implications for the world of art. That’s on him – and now he officially does not have a point.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

I am not sure about that Leigh, I never knew who this guy was or the backstory of being gorilla art. After Fearless Girl went up, I still didn’t know.

After his lawsuit, I know him and the backstory. If he has spent any money on legal fees, the publicity from this more than covers it.

I can file a lawsuit, anyone can, what is the big deal?

Now he has 2 points, neither of them legal, but still valid.

Leigh Beadon (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I’m not really sure what you’re saying, or what distinction you’re trying to make.

His two points are: “here are two reasons that I have the legal right to remove the Fearless Girl, and be awarded monetary damages”. What separation am I supposed to be making there between “legal” and “valid”? It’s a request that is both ridiculous under the law and, IMO, wrong under the spirit and purpose of public artwork.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

All he has done is “threatened” a lawsuit. In doing so, he has generated a lot of publicity for himself. Maybe his motive is less lawsuit (since he would obviously lose) and more publicity.

How many people here knew who actually created the bull before he came out and threatened a lawsuit?

So now he has accomplished two things without spending any money, he has made people aware of himself as the creator and he has gotten a lot of coverage that gets his point of view out in the mainstream and has people talking about him and his art.

What I am trying to say is who cares about the lawsuit? He hasn’t filed one yet, and I bet he won’t.

jupiterkansas (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

He could have also spoken to the press, made a film about it, launched a protest, or done any number of other perfectly valid ways to draw attention to the problem without making a legal issue out of it.

A real artist might have come up with something else to add to the situation to comment on it even further.

frank (profile) says:

Re: I don't agree with his point...

It’s true: the girl changes the meaning of his statue. But he doesn’t have a point.
Why should he complain over the use of his work? How about the Original artist of this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Duchamp_Fountaine.jpg

Why should some arty farty artist be able to claim a toilet as art, and this guy won’t let others do it to him?
The copper-miner had no right to stop him making a bull from that fine ore, while they liked wire more.

Why should artists be better than anybody else in this world?

Anonymous Coward says:

Contrary to most of the OMG! stories I’ve seen in the press about this issue, the first thing I thought when I saw the picture was “What a stupid girl that would have been.” I grew up in farm country, not a big city, so it gives me another point of view. That bull would have just gored and trampled her and thought nothing of it. It’s obviously politically incorrect, but politics is all about denying reality to get your agenda through and that bull doesn’t give a damn. Neither should you when you’re about to get gored by cattle.

I understand the artist’s breathless “OMG! They ruined my art!”, but I think the message isn’t one of defiance. It’s one of monumental stupidity.

jonr (profile) says:

Compare to architecture

To see how ridiculous the artist’s argument is, envision the Charging Bull as a building. By his argument, if I were to build another building nearby, I’d be infringing on his copyright. But in architecture, it’s almost expected that a well-designed building will “comment” on nearby buildings. Sometimes this means echoing elements, sometimes it even means a playful parody of some aspects of the existing building.

Dave Cortright (profile) says:

These artworks are in a PUBLIC area!

Leigh made a point in a comment c212 that is worth re-emphasizing. If you release your work into a public space, it is ludicrous to expect that you can control how others choose to use that space. If he wanted to control the space, he should have rented or bought the location where the artwork was placed.

As it is, the public would be well within its rights to move the statue to another, different public space—say, the bottom of the Hudson River.

But you know what would be even better? Removing every part of the statue, but leave the asshole. I think that would be appropriate given the actions of the creator.

Daniel Audy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Control

I actually genuinely feel sorry for the poor artist. He has a fairly distinct style that you can recognize if you’ve seen Pepe and most people won’t know that he doesn’t support the movement that has appropriated his character and completely altered the association that character has. The irony is that he actually does have legal standing to sue over the use of Pepe but doesn’t because he recognizes that it is an impossible battle that will get him nothing but scorn.

z! (profile) says:

Advertisement??

I find the advertisement argument, um, unavailing.

Advertising only works when the viewer actually knows what is being advertised. Not being a New Yorker, I’ve only seem pictures of The Girl. Until it was mentioned during this contretemps, I had no idea that the statue was either placed by an investment firm or that it might be intended as advertising. Unless you know the origins, it’s "just" another piece of art. Nice one, too.

Heck, even walking by, you’d probably never see the caption.

Advertisement? I think not.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re:

It doesn’t matter if the girl statue wouldn’t have had the same ‘message’ if it was placed elsewhere, if you place your statue on public property you don’t get to whine when someone else does the same, even if it does ‘harm’ the message you wanted to make with your art.

He’s welcome to move the statue to property he owns, in which case he can prohibit people from placing things nearby all he wants, but so long as it’s on public property then the only thing he’s ‘owed’ is criticism, mockery and/or laughter for the hypocritical tantrum he’s throwing.

jupiterkansas (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Considering I haven’t seen the girl and the bull in the same photo, the girl statue by itself looks like a work of art to me and communicates the idea whether the bull is there or not.

And even if it is considered an extension of another work, that doesn’t mean it’s illegal. No law is broken by placing one work of art next to another.

Anonymous Coward says:

Wrong, the little girl statue is using the bull statue

The little girl statues creator is not only using the bull statue for their own needs, it is altering the meaning of the bull statue to suit what they want to portray.

If someone dressed up the girls statue with a swastika or gang colors or whatever, they are transforming another persons work into their own without permission or compensation.

Would the creator of the little girl statue be ok with someone placing a bunch of statues of little boys around her, pointing at her and laughing? Same concept.

Vic says:

RE: "Fearless Girl is an ad"

OK, following that train of thought, what is a “Charging Bull” then? Something that had been dropped on a street and left there some several years ago. Let’s see if we can find an appropriate definition for it… OLD TRASH? If the city has moved the trash to an approved location it should also have the right to add anything else to this location. In a sense, the city has created that new location and should have some kind of copyright on it…

Anonymous Cowherd says:

So, it would be acceptable to put a “Creepy Pervert” statue behind “Fearless Girl”? Because, you know, art?

Then you could put “Homicidal Parent” behind “Creepy Pervert” and finally “Smartphone Filming Guy” behind all of them! Then celebrate all the additional art! Glee!

Or, you know, you could come up with your own artwork instead of taking advantage of someone else’s.

Nah, nothing illegal or litigable about being an artistic parasite, just nothing particularly noble about it either.

Anonymous Coward says:

i’ve seen that bull many times. i used to sometimes take newbies where i worked out on the island on very early sunday morning tours of the city when only us and a bunch of cabbies owned the place.

frankly, i always thought the statue was dopey. all that drama and no reason. as far as i’m concerned, the girl gives the bull a reason to be there and a reason to not look like an everyday, half-asleep bull.

[you who visit the bull be sure to check out the iron fence behind him around the old bowling green. note the ragged ends of the posts. the guys at work told me the fence originally had little sculpted head figures of swell english people atop those ragged posts. got hacked off after gen washington sent the english on to their next project.]

Pseudonym says:

Uhm...

So let’s be clear on what Fallis is saying: Arturo Di Modica has a valid <i>artistic</i> point.

He is not saying that Di Modica has a valid <i>legal</i> point. He is not saying that Di Modica’s point is more compelling than other points of view. He’s merely pointing out that if you distill out all the unreasonable things Di Modica is saying, he has a few reasonable points in there that are worth saying.

This is normal discourse in the world of art.

Leigh Beadon (profile) says:

Re:

Why should I sculpt more art for people to see if they will copy my style right next to it to change the point I was getting across.

I’d suggest that if you aren’t open to other people commenting on your art in a public space by creating their own, you should NOT be doing guerrilla statue installations on city-owned property. You should stick to getting your work exhibited in galleries where you can reach a contractual agreement beforehand about how you want it displayed.

Besides, the "I won’t create any more art if you do this!" threat is very unconvincing when held up against someone actively trying to have a piece of art censored. Which one of those things is a more concrete, immediate danger to the promotion and proliferation of art?

Leigh Beadon (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

If the city lets you put up your cage, then sure. Why not? Why should the artist get to magically assert his will over space that he doesn’t own and has no right to, where he placed his art without any agreed-upon stipulations about how it must be displayed?

Like I said: if you don’t want someone putting stuff up near or around your art, there are plenty of ways to get it displayed where the owner of the space will allow you a degree of control and input regarding what goes around it that you can agree upon in advance. You don’t get to drop your work in a public area with no permission, then claim you deserve control over the space around the spot where it ended up.

spamvictim (profile) says:

Moral rights

When the US ratified the Berne convention, it specifically excluded moral rights, saying that the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 (VARA) was close enough. VARA forbids changes to a work that are “prejudicial to the author’s honor or reputation.” I don’t see how the girl would do that, but that is the legal thread on which his argument might hang.

In Europe, Moral Rights are an integral part of copyright law. Perhaps he should move the bull there.

Leigh Beadon (profile) says:

Re: Moral rights

Less important than the "prejudicial to the author’s honor and reputation" part is the part that says there must be "distortion, mutilation, or other modification of [the] work"

The critical thing here is that the bull itself was not modified or interfered with in any way. You can argue that its meaning has been modifying, but that’s not what the law requires: it requires that the work be modified.

Allowing an interpretation of "distorted, mutilated or modified the work" that includes situations where the work was not changed or touched in any way whatsoever would be one hell of a legal slippery slope.

Anonymous Coward says:

Most tv programs are supported by advertising or
sponsorship,
eg a program like mad man could be seen as art .
Even some film posters or book covers might be regarded as art .Just because a corporation paid for something does not mean it cannot be art.
Once an artist makes something its then up to the public to react to it.
before the 90s and the invention of the internet most recorded music
was only made with the support of record companys .

Anonymous Coward says:

Are you intentionally misinterpreting every issue with Fearless Girl or just bad at listening to opposing views?

1) The Advertising Issue: Your argument boils down to a sophmoric restatement of Kenneth Burke’s observation that all communciation is rhetoric. There’s a huge difference between rhetoric and corporate advertising. Further, your stance completely glosses over the problem that Fearless Girl communicates a message of standing up to a male dominated industry that glorifies the illusion of the alpha male WHILE ADVERTISING THAT SAME INDUSTRY. It’s an inherently dishonest work.

2) Your arguments about the placement and Changed Meaning. Raging Bull has always had meaning. Fearless Girl is meangingless without Raging Bull. You claim the opposite. Raging Bull has done just fine communicating its message of strength for years. Fearless Girl is just a little kid making a pose without the help of Raging Bull to give it context. Fearless Girl is parasitic. It communciates nothing without Raging Bull’s context.

And I don’t even know what to make of your assertion that the only way art matters is the way people respond to it. That’s just arrogance. There are dozens of ways to interpret art and none of them are superior. Responses to art are important. But so is artist intent. If you don’t agree, try reading Animal Farm without knowing anything about communism and see how far you get.

I actually like Fearless Girl. The way it changes and adds nuance and honesty to Raging Bull is fascinating. But your article is a lackluster statement in the issue.

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