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:
If the Fearless Girl "isn't art" because a corporation paid for it and attached an ad, then nothing on network TV has ever been art either.
— Leigh Beadon (@leighbeadon) April 17, 2017
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.