Fearless Girl, courtesy of Anthony Quintano on Flickr

Fearful bulls and charging girls

The street finds its own uses for things.
- William Gibson

Sorry, artists. You don’t get to decide what your art means to the viewer. The viewer creates that meaning. And, if you create a work that, through circumstance and luck, is important enough to develop cultural meaning, you don’t get to decide what it means to that culture. And if the meaning the public takes from your art isn’t the meaning you wanted them to take… well, tough shit.

I read Seriously, the guy has a point, and wanted to address some of the points raised in that article. The author argues that Arturo Di Modica, the creator of the Charging Bull sculpture, is right to object that Fearless Girl draws its meaning from its proximity to Charging Bull, and changes the meaning of the original sculpture. This is true, but that doesn’t make the objection valid.

Location, location, location

It’s all about the bull. If it were placed anywhere else, Fearless Girl would still be a very fine statue — but without facing Charging Bull the Fearless Girl has nothing to be fearless to. Or about. Whatever. Fearless Girl, without Di Modica’s bull, without the context provided by the bull, becomes Really Confident Girl.
Wall Street, courtesy of Wikimedia

But why is Charging Bull relevant? Why is it a famous landmark? Location, location, location. If it were not in the heart of Wall Street, it “would still be a very fine statue”. But without that context, that’s all it would be. It wouldn’t be famous. No one would care. Charging Bull draws its power and its meaning from its proximity to the most important financial center in the world, and is a commentary on the idea of a “bull market”.

And Fearless Girl? It isn’t powerful because it’s commenting on Charging Bull. It’s powerful because it’s commenting on Wall Street, the same as Charging Bull is. It provides a rebuttal of sorts, a counterpoint.

Di Modica’s argument has been picked up by others as an argument to remove Fearless Girl. It’s unfair, they say, that this new sculpture changes the meaning of the old one.

Um.

This is essentially an argument that Di Modica has freedom of speech and expression, to plant a piece of guerrilla art in a highly public location, but the creator of Fearless Girl does not, because her free speech impinges on another’s free speech. What kind of nonsense is that? The absurdity of this argument can easily be emphasized by flipping some context. Imagine, if you will, that Charging Bull was seen as a negative rather than positive commentary on Wall Street, and Fearless Girl was a positive response. Do you think any of the people loudly calling for Fearless Girl’s removal would be doing so? No, they’d be praising it, and demanding it be protected. The hypocrisy is palpable. Charging Bull presents Wall Street as heroes. Fearless Girl presents it as, if not villain, than certainly something that can be dangerous to the weak, and needs to face resistance. And for those who find this idea wrong or offensive… well.

This argument boils down “I have a right to say something to influence others. You do not have a right to say something else to influence the same people, because it might change their minds.” Put in the context of an overt expression of masculine dominance and an explicitly feminine expression of resistance, and it’s not surprising that people find it both wrong and offensive.

When in doubt, shoot the messenger

Unlike Di Modica’s work, Fearless Girl was commissioned. Commissioned not by an individual, but by an investment fund called State Street Global Advisors, which has assets in excess of US$2.4 trillion. That’s serious money. It was commissioned as part of an advertising campaign developed by McCann, a global advertising corporation. And it was commissioned to be presented on the first anniversary of State Street Global’s “Gender Diversity Index” fund.

So?

This argument is an attack on credibility and sincerity. Since it was paid for by greedy, evil capitalists, it’s really about greedy, evil capitalism, not a legitimate social commentary. This is basically ad hominem. It’s attacking the messenger to discredit the message.

Can’t it be advertising for an index fund and a legitimate social commentary? Is it not possible that the people running the Gender Diversity Index fund are sincere in their desire to promote women and equality?

Everything fixes or destroys itself in the end

After 30 years, we know Charging Bull isn’t going anywhere. Likewise, it’s unlikely that all the howling will lead to the removal of Fearless Girl. The new meaning? Well, that’s the meaning we’re going to have, unless something else happens. Decades, maybe centuries.

These sculptures don’t necessarily mean what they were originally intended to mean by their creators. That’s okay. That’s okay. They mean something. And that’s wonderful.