Charging bull, fearless girl

No, that is not the title of the sequel to the hit film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It refers to the artistic controversy over the recent addition of a statue of a young girl staring down the famous charging bull statue on Wall Street.

The artist who made the original bull statue is crying foul, saying that the addition destroys the meaning of his work.

“The girl is standing there like this in front the bull, saying, ‘Now, what are you going to do?’ ” the bull’s sculptor, Arturo Di Modica, said at a news conference Wednesday, according to CNN.

He maintains that Fearless Girl — sculpted by Kristen Visbal and commissioned by the firm State Street Global Advisors, which intends to call attention to a lack of women leaders on Wall Street — at once distorts the intent of his statue from “a symbol of prosperity and for strength” into a villain, and does so for the firm’s own commercial gain.

The statue of the girl was to commemorate International Women’s Day and went up last month with a temporary permit that was to have ended on April 2 but the permit has been extended until 2018. I had been under the impression that the bull had been commissioned by Wall Street and had been there for a very long time. But I was wrong.

Di Modica himself plopped his 3 1/2-ton bovine beneath a Christmas tree in front of the New York Stock Exchange in December 1989 without a permit. The Italian immigrant intended the work to bolster American traders’ spirits after the stock crash of a few years before — though the NYSE, it must be said, was not pleased with its holiday gift, hefting away the bull by the end of the day.

The Charging Bull eventually found a home two blocks away, at its current resting place just south of Wall Street.

While I like the symbolism of the girl challenging the bull, I have to agree that Di Modica has a point. Adding a new statue in close proximity to the original one, especially if it has been deliberately designed to relate to it, does distort the original artist’s conception of the piece. People who do not know that the girl was added later and think that both were one conception will draw different conclusions about what the ensemble is saying.

Simply placing new art in juxtaposition to an existing one is not the problem. Galleries do it all the time. But usually there is no obvious connection between the two works, so each one is viewed independently of the other. In this case, the two statues were not in some sculpture garden where one expects to see different items and views them as independent. In this case, the statue of the girl was placed deliberately to reference the first. It would be like if an art gallery placed right next to a Jackson Pollock painting another one that showed a child flicking paint in the direction of the Pollock. That would seem wrong somehow because then you are adding commentary to the Pollock, rather than letting the viewer make their own sense of the painting.

[By the way, those who saw Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon will recall that no tiger or dragon ever appeared in that film. I never did figure out what they were supposed to symbolize.]


  1. blf says

    Yes, the girl does “distort” some interpretations of the earlier “art”.

    So what?

    Did the earlier “art” not distort some interpretations of the even earlier surroundings?

    Which, in turn, could be recursively applied to each building and the like until you return to a mostly-wild Manhattan Island — The disaster that is New York City distorts, quite massively, the original “natural” interpretation and state.

    A real, and far more realistic, “disruption” of the “art” would be blowing it up. The girl is just a legal sideshow.

  2. jrkrideau says

    The charging Bull
    “a symbol of prosperity and for strength”

    What? If anything, I’d always interpreted is as a symbol of rampant capitalism, looting and general mayhem.

    I have to agree that Di Modica has a point.

    No, he made a very deliberate political statement in support of vicious, immoral, and incompetent capitalists and he and they are being challenged. Good.

  3. brucegee1962 says

    If the girl was going to be up permanently, I think the artist would have a good case.
    But if she’s just going to be there for a year, then…meh?
    Right now, she’s drawing a lot of attention and interest to both statues, as well as Wall Street generally and women in finance in particular. I don’t see what he gains by raising a fuss, except cynically the fact that he’s attracting yet more attention to his artwork.

  4. cartomancer says

    That the bull was sculpted by an Italian put an interesting slant on the piece. The bull is a very ancient symbol of Italian pride and national feeling, going back to pre-Roman times. In fact, during the Social War of the early 1st century BC Italian cities minted their own coins showing the Italian bull trampling the Roman wolf to express their solidarity and opposition to Roman political and economic hegemony.

    One wonders quite how they would feel seeing their beloved Italian bull used as a symbol of just that kind of political and economic hegemony two thousand years on…

  5. says

    I don’t know, Mano, if you’ve seen Amanda Marcotte’s take on this. Hers is that the girl taking on the bull is actually not very good symbolism and points out that society seems to be OK with girls being fearless, but not so much once they grow up and become women as well as how the symbolism can make it seem like it is up to women to take on sexism in society when it should not be.

  6. says

    That he originally put the bull there illegally does negate his legal arguments as far as I’m concerned.

    And he’s worried the bull will be seen as a villain? It’s a little too late for that.

  7. Jackson says

    That would seem wrong somehow because then you are adding commentary to the Pollock, rather than letting the viewer make their own sense of the painting.

    Ha, and if there is one thing that the government should be used for, it’s stamping out public commentary on public art.

  8. says

    I am reminded of an anecdote Isaac Asimov wrote (somewhere in all his writings, and I’ve been unsuccessful finding it, so you’ll have to deal with my paraphrasing and misremembering):

    Asimov was at a lecture in which a professor of literature was discussing the “meaning” of one of Asimov’s works. At the end, Asimov stood up and said that that wasn’t what it meant at all. “Why not”? asked the professor. “Because I wrote it!”

    “So what makes you think that you know all of the meanings of it just because you wrote it?” And on thinking it over, Asimov agreed.

    So, just because he made the bull statue, what makes the artist think he owns all the meanings associated with it?

  9. says

    Art is cultural remixing. As such saying “don’t remix my remix” is incoherent.

    If I were the artist who’d done the bull I’d be happy it was still there, and still provoking reactions.
    If I were the artist who had done the girl, I’d have done her as more mature and wearing a business suit.

  10. Dunc says

    Pro-capitalist artist shocked that capitalists are capitalizing on his art. I’d say that Di Modica has just received a lesson in how capitalism works…

  11. says

    So, just because he made the bull statue, what makes the artist think he owns all the meanings associated with it?

    Good point: we can never see ourselves in our broader context, because we are part of the picture.

  12. Steve Morrison says

    Okay, the Asimov anecdote mentioned @#9. Here is how Asimov told it in the first volume of his autobiography; the dates are for the year 1950.

    On returning, I found a letter from one Gotthard Guenther, who was lecturing on science fiction at the Cambridge Center of Arts. The first lecture was on October 3, and I decided to attend.
    I took a seat well in the back without making myself known, and I had not yet reached the stage where I could be recognized offhand. I could therefore listen in welcome anonymity.
    Guenther, it turned out, was a German—a Prussian, in fact—and spoke with a thick German accent. He was, however, by no stretch of the imagination a Nazi, but was indeed a kindly and sweet gentleman, and utterly other-worldly.
    Yet he still had a peculiarly Teutonic notion of the mystical value of soil. He felt that civilization was a product of the Old World and could not flourish indigenously in the New. (When someone raised the question of the Incas and the Mayas, he dismissed them with a wave of the hand.)
    Therefore, he maintained, when Old World civilization was transplanted to the New World, a distortion was introduced and one of the ways in which this distortion was evidenced was by the peculiar American invention of science fiction, which was not to be confused with earlier European ventures in the field (Jules Verne, for instance). American science fiction turned Old World values upside down.
    Take, for instance, he said, the story “Nightfall” by Isaac Asimov. (At this point, I shrank lower in my seat.) It dealt with stars as instruments of madness, whereas in all Old World views of the universe, the stars were seen as gentle, benign, and friendly.
    He continued to describe the manner in which “Nightfall” reversed or distorted common views and, in general, built up an interpretation of the story that had me gasping.
    When the lecture was over, members of the audience flocked around him, and I waited patiently. When I was the only one left, I said, “Dr. Guenther, your analysis of ‘Nightfall’ is all wrong.”
    “Well, that is a matter of opinion,” said Dr. Guenther, smiling gently.
    “No, it is not,” I said forcefully. “I am certain you are wrong. Nothing of what you said was in the author’ mind.”
    “And how can you know that?”
    That was when I let the guillotine blade fall. “Because, Dr. Guenther, I am the author.”
    His face lit up, “You are Isaac Asimov?”
    “Yes, sir.”
    “How pleased I am to meet you.” Then he said, “But tell me, what makes you think, just because you are the author of ‘Nightfall’, that you have the slightest inkling of what is in it?”
    And of course I couldn’t answer that question because it suddenly became clear to me that there might well be more in a story than an author was aware of.
    Dr. Guenther and I became good friends after that, and on October 17 I gave a guest lecture to his class.

  13. Owlmirror says

    @John Morales:

    The girl may be fearless, but that ain’t gonna stop the bull. Obviously.
    (Soon-to-be-hospitalised girl!)

    In reality, both bull and girl are lumps of metal. The metal bull will not charge; the metal girl will not be injured by it.

    In your imagination, you see the bull charging, and the girl being unable to avoid it.

    In someone else’s imagination, many other things can happen. Maybe the girl will deftly avoid the charge. Maybe the bull will be intimidated and flee, or become submissive and bow. Maybe the girl will do Minoan acrobatics on the bull’s horns and back. Maybe the girl will ride the bull. Maybe the girl will lead the bull whereever she wants.

    Who can say?

  14. Owlmirror says

    @Steve Morrison: Thanks for the additional info. I didn’t remember the anecdote about Nightfall, and only remembered Shakespeare flunking a class on his own works.

  15. lanir says

    I wonder if part of the issue the bull’s sculptor has is the comparative level of detail on either piece.

    The bull is made at a lower level of detail with most of it having a more rounded, almost cartoony feel. Which befits it’s message of prosperity despite self-made catastrophes. He might as well have depicted The Fool from a tarot deck. The next several decades would certainly have supported it.

    The girl is at a higher resolution of detail. Which is kind of necessary. To stick to the same level of detail as the bull, she’d have to be made either too big to be the right comparative scale or so bland as to be almost a ghost of herself. The higher level of detail makes her seem more realistic. This fits the simple message that the female members of the species are capable of the same accomplishments males are. There are exceptions* but they’re rare.

    * If you thought of an exception when you read that and it fits into the category of “things commonly done while clothed” you were probably wrong.

  16. says

    @Steve Morrison. Thanks for digging that up! It’s been a long time since I’d read that and I had no idea where to even start looking for it. (And obviously, while I was a bit weak on the particulars, I did remember the point of it.)

  17. Eric Riley says

    One item missed -- which may change interpretations of ‘Fearless Girl’ is that is is part of an ad campaign for State Street Global Advisors’ index fund ‘SHE’. It is even referenced in the text at the base:

    Of course -- the firm’s intent in putting the statue there may not match the intent of the artist who made the statue, nor the interpretations of those who view the statue.

  18. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    The bull’s artist made it clear that he was crafting a symbol to encourage capitalism generally and stock-trading activity specifically.

    The girl’s benefactors made it clear that they were placing a symbol to encourage capitalism generally, stock-trading specifically, and even more specifically, a fund that helps to counteract sexist bias in corporate leadership and the stock trade.

    Personally, I think other interpretations spring more readily to mind than, “That’s right! Maybe I should buy stock in a company that has a woman as CEO!” But as they are both stock-promotion devices, you gotta wonder where Wall Streeters think the problem is. Even in their world view, particularly in their world view, public art that encourages capitalism ought to be acceptable. Could it possibly be that the Wall Streeters don’t see the statue as the ad that it is? Could it possibly be that the Wall Streeters believe that the statue makes a negative comment on capitalism? If so, what is that comment?

    I think that would be a more interesting topic for an article than what the bull’s artist thinks.

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