Statue Ethics Stand-Off: “Charging Bull” vs. “Fearless Girl”

The Wall Street art ethics controversy pitting a nearly 30-year-old sculpture of an angry bull against the upstart statue of a defiant little girl has fascinating cultural implications. The ethical solution to the confrontation are simple and undeniable, however, though the legal issues a bit less so. “Fearless Girl” has got to go.

Arturo Di Modica created “Charging Bull” in response to stock market travails during the late 1980s. The three-and-a-half-ton sculpture was placed near Wall Street in the dead of night,  and was embraced by the financial ditrict and New Yorkers as iconic public art. The artist copyrighted and trademarked his work, which he has said was meant to symbolize “freedom in the world, peace, strength, power and love.”

I don’t get the love part, but okay: the point is that the bull is a positive metaphor, not a sinister one.

The “Fearless Girl” statue was positioned this year, the night before International Women’s Day, in a direct stand-off with the bull. It had been commissioned by State Street Global Advisors, a financial firm based in Boston, as a public relations and advertising move and classic virtue signalling. State Street Global’s home page trumpets the new statue’s message of “the power of women in leadership” and uses it to urge “greater gender diversity on corporate boards.” The metal girl’s  cynical and self-serving origins don’t seem to bother the work’s fans though.

The problem is that the message of “Fearless Girl” requires the participation of the bull to make any sense and to have any power at all. Otherwise, it might as well be Pippi Longstocking.  In essence, the new statue appropriates Di Modica’s work, and violently alters it. The artist is a furious as a charging bull that what he intended as a symbol of capitalist power and national vigor has been transformed into a sexist representation of male domination. Di Modica and his lawyers demand that the statue be moved away from its bull-baiting position, arguing that State Street Global commissioned “Fearless Girl” as a site-specific work conceived with “Charging Bull” in mind. It thus illegally commercialized  Di Modica’s statue in violation of the artist’s intent and copyright. They also claim that the city  violated the artist’s  legal rights by issuing permits allowing the four-foot-tall tyke to face off with the bronze bull without the artist’s permission. Letters to the Mayor DiBlasio, Ronald P. O’Hanley, the president and chief executive of State Street Global; and Harris Diamond, the chairman and chief executive of McCann Worldgroup, State Street Global’s marketing agency demand the removal of “Fearless Girl” forthwith.

Ethically, “Fearless Girl” doesn’t have a leg to stand on.

A group of New York Times readers, greatly in the minority (the accompanying pro-“Fearless Girl” letters make  an excellent Rationalization List challenge; boil them down, and what you get is “we like the message the misappropriation sends, so screw the artists rights) , collectively made the impenetrable case that “Fearless Girl” is defiling an original art work, and is being tolerated and cheered because people like the simple-minded  message she is sending, so ethics is secondary. They wrote..

  • I think he is in his right to have his work not be shown in a context that he never intended. It distorts the message the artist is articulating. He is absolutely right to protect his work. I can see how the knee-jerk politically correct police can’t grasp this concept.”

— Richard Marazzi, 45, Toronto

  • “I’m sorry, but this statue is an advertisement. For a product. Period. It has no right to be on city land for free. I think that is the most important issue at stake.”

— S. Winfield Hanson, 34, Washington

  • “This is about art and it is incredible that we are so willing to change the art of the past without a second thought. I’m not sure how this became a gender issue at all.”

— Alexander Fick, 27, Kansas City, Mo.

  • “The placement of the girl figure is clearly, inarguably designed to interact with the original artwork, and to impose a meaning on that artwork that was never intended by the sculptor. Whether it hangs in a gallery, or in a public space, the artist’s work is still their own.”

— David Larson, 62, Santa Fe, N.M.

  • “The artist is right: It detracts from his work, and ‘Fearless Girl’ is an ugly little nod to political correctness that makes no sense whatsoever on Wall Street.”

— James Haynes, 72, Blue Lake, Calif.

Right, right, correct, true, and right. There is no “one the other hand” with this issue. The Mayor, a predictable knee-jerk progressive shill, tweeted that “Men who don’t like women taking up space are exactly why we need the Fearless Girl.” What an ass this man is. Whether we need the message or not, it is neither fair nor respectful of the artist to use and distort his artwork to send it. Slate sees right through Di Blasio, which isn’t hard, though it is rare and refreshing to see that publication call BS on progressive posturing:

“This is a blatant mischaracterization of Di Modica’s very valid argument that the city is altering his artwork—and potentially damaging his reputation—by adding another sculpture in direct conversation with his work without his sign-off. But de Blasio seems intent on pushing Fearless Girl as a corrective to the sexism on Wall Street and everywhere, seizing an opportunity to burnish his administration’s feminist bona fides on the tails of the Women’s March and its attendant activism.”

Legally, the issue is a bit more murky. The Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 protects artists from having their works “destroyed, moved, or altered” under specific circumstances but does not apply to art  created before the law was enacted. That’s for the courts to decide. No artists would want what happened to the bull to happen to an artwork of theirs, however. It’s wrong, and artists know it’s wrong. For social justice warriors and commercial enterprises seeking publicity, however, right and wrong don’t matter.

For them, the ends justifies the means, and art be damned.



Filed under "bias makes you stupid", Arts & Entertainment, Business & Commercial, Ethics Alarms Award Nominee, Gender and Sex, Government & Politics, Law & Law Enforcement, Marketing and Advertising

52 responses to “Statue Ethics Stand-Off: “Charging Bull” vs. “Fearless Girl”

  1. Isaac

    The new Progressive Left needs villains to fight, since their entire schtick is LARPing as heroic rebels while being utterly useless in reality.

    If there are no actual villains around, they will MAKE some imaginary ones, out of unlucky innocent people. The slander and ruination of good citizens is a small price to pay for making progressives feel good about themselves. This is an excellent example of that.

  2. Wayne

    The is tantamount to placing statutes of Franco and the pilots of the Condor Legion smiling across from “Guenica” in the Museo Reina Sofía. Of course the Spanards would never put up with it.

    • Pennagain

      I was trying to find the right comparison, Wayne, but the Nazi blitz bombed town of “Guernica” having to face its attackers does it very well, thanks.

  3. In ethical terms, this seems like a “slam dunk.” Without the bull, the artist and artwork of the posturing girl would leave us scratching our head. To take the artwork of another artist, whose message in creating the bull was clearly articulated and is now being, not only muted, but radically changed, because it now serves as part of a message for another artist, seems like a form of artistic theft and intellectually dishonest.

    In legal terms, this is a very slippery slope. If the courts decide that The Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 does not protect the works of artists created before the act, then we should not be too surprised to see similar “artistic” creations using the public artwork of other artists manifest themselves in the near future–especially in localities where government officials believe such actions serve a greater good.

    So–in the extreme, could Mr. Di Modica remove his artwork because it no longer represents the message it was intended to send? If so; would the mayor seek to commission the “Fearless Girl” artist to replace the bull?

    • This mayor? Sure he would. They need someone to pay to move the bull, leaving the little girl petulant and pointless; it is not a free standing artwork
      Wait…can a statue be a stalker?

      • Emily

        “They need someone to pay to move the bull, leaving the little girl petulant and pointless; it is not a free standing artwork.”

        …I think that sounds like a timely and telling piece of art these days. And in this case, entirely fair.

      • philk57

        It seems like all you would need to do is turn the bull around so that the little girl is not facing off against the bull. Of course, that would be a bit of tit for tat.

      • “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

  4. I concur on all points, but I’m also boggled that blurry-minded romantic people think this statue sends any sort of positive feminist message. Unless the girl statue has the skills of young Manolo from The Book of Life, the only message I’m getting from the “Fearless Girl” is this:

    “That stupid human child is about to get gored and/or trampled by that huge animal, and she’s looking down her nose at it.”

    Of course, the major political parties do tend to believe emotional brute force will solve their problems, while dismissing ingenuity and finesse. It only fits that the liberals would portray “fearlessness” as implicitly triumphant.

    …Actually, now that I think of it, this statue is a spot-on representation of liberal arrogance, and arrogance in general. Gratuitously casting an adversary in a bad light, taking them on unprovoked in a head-on battle that cannot possibly be victorious, and expecting them to be defeated by pure scorn.

    I’m not saying that there aren’t powerful forces in the world that need to be defeated, but as a facilitation user (tactics and strategy), I am supremely irked when people suggest that determination is the sole necessary asset for doing so. This statue is a great self-indictment even if we accept the reinterpretation of the Charging Bull.

    • Steve-O-in-NJ

      Well put, EC. There is a certain moral certitude that seems to be unique to the left, although perhaps I am the wrong one to deliver that message, since as someone who scorns the left myself I am the messenger that affects the message. Maybe this certitude is drawn from Gandhi’s quote that first the other side ignores you, then they threaten you, then they fight you, then you win, appropriated by the left long ago.

      Every so often US forces, either at their bases or on visits like Fleet Week have been targeted by so-called plowshares actions by the remnants of the movement that followed the now long-dead Philip Berrigan. Those actions accomplished nothing beyond simple and easily cleaned up vandalism, but, to read the accounts on sites created by places like Jonah House, which was the not-so-esteemed Mr. Berrigan’s base before cancer ended his career in 2002, they have known nothing but a string of great victories disarming the west. Every year the Smedley Butler Brigade of the Veterans for Peace, a thinly veiled group of anti-war, anti-government, far-left crackpots who abuse veteran’s status to give themselves “instant” credibility, attempt to petition or litigate their way into a time slot in which they can upstage the otherwise decidedly martial St. Patrick’s Day/Evacuation Day Parade in Boston. Every year they fail, but they still claim a moral victory. Every Memorial Day weekend a few Pax Christi types, another group of far left idiots who abuse something good to give themselves moral cover, stand outside the entrance to Jones Beach, LI, which marks the weekend with one of the biggest airshows on the East Coast, trying to preach to those who’ve come to see the Thunderbirds and Blue Angels do their thing. Every time they get ignored, and the show proceeds as planned, 10-5, yet they claim they won some kind of victory just by getting the message out and attempting to horn in on an event they had nothing to do with and whose organizers and attendees weren’t interested in hearing their message.

      This is that same mentality taken to a more permanent level. Poured blood and slightly scratched paint are one thing. Annoying leaflet distributors who you can just say “no thank you” to and pass by are one thing. Permanent defacing of art that changes the meaning of the original piece for the sake of advancing an agenda that the original artist did not have in mind is stealing, both from the original artist and from the viewer, who now sees something altogether than the initial artist envisioned.

      I have to say that this also sets a very bad precedent. The elimination of good art in favor of the shapeless, awkward, and meaningless was one of the steps toward weakening the west in the original communist handbook. That seems to have failed, since most folks can see shapelessness, awkwardness, and meaninglessness for what they are, and do genuinely get offended at artists who try to be as disgusting as possible. The next step appears to be turning art into a battleground of values.

      Here in the northeast, where there is still a very strong Italian American population and identity, the discoverer of America is ubiquitous. I can think of at least two statues of Columbus in Manhattan off the top of my head, one in Central Park, one at Columbus Circle, and I’m sure there are more in the Five Boroughs. At least half a dozen cities and towns right across the river, including the relatively large cities of Newark, Jersey City, and Hoboken, have old Chris rendered in stone or bronze in a prominent place, shading his eyes as he looks for the Indies, or with steady hands on the wheel of the Santa Maria, or with sword or flag in hand as he steps ashore to lay claim to the New World. Should we all wake up one morning to find him, wherever he may be, being faced down by a bronze or stone Indian, challenging his claim?

      In Chambersburg, PA, one of the few towns in actual Union territory that was attacked and burned by the Confederates, a bronze Union soldier faces south at port arms, as if to say “never again.” Would it be some kind of bold statement if one morning there was a Confederate raider facing him, torch in one hand, pistol in the other, as if to say “the South shall rise once more?”

      Not too far from the Freedom Tower stands the statue of America’s Response, an American Special Forces soldier on a horse, as though charging through Afghanistan, put up 10 years after 9/11 to honor the Americans who fought the war on terror. Is he supposed to one day find himself facing a Taliban fighter, or maybe a student activist bearing a sign that says “Bush lied, people died?”

      Do we put up the Rosenbergs opposite Truman? Abby Hoffman flipping the bird opposite the Vietnam vets? A slave woman opposite Thomas Jefferson? Where does this need to not just challenge but deface every memorial or honor someone might not agree with end? Is it just another way to scrub the public square clean of anything that might disagree with progressive values? I think we all know the answer.

    • Wayne

      Perhaps, they could give the fearless girl statue a “Running of the Bulls” outfit with a newspaper in her hand ready to swat the bull. Nah, probably not a great idea.

    • Well stated, EC. Good points, all. Especially about liberal arrogance. Where life imitates art, watch the reporting on the Pro-Trump and anti-fascist (whatever that means) demonstrations in Berkeley this weekend. Antifas (again, whatever that means) protesters engaged what are reported to be white supremacists, and suffered mightily from what I gather.


  5. Inquiring Mind

    ABC’s Speechless had a great episode, “I-n-s-Inspirations” – where the caretaker of a disabled teenager used the teenager to get special treatment in a number of cases – angering the teenager, who accused him of “stealing his voice.” It being a sitcom, the caretaker and teenager patched things up (with a driving lesson), but it illustrates the principle.

    As things stand right now, Di Modica’s voice has been hijacked by “Fearless Girl.” Deliberately so, and those who are obliged to protect Di Modica’s copyright and trademark are instead aiding and abetting that hijacking. Indeed, Bill de Blasio has said that Di Modica has no right to maintain the integrity of his creative voice because of the “progressive” message behind “Fearless Girl” – and that as a result, Di Modica’s voice will be hijacked for another 10 months in this “social justice” cause.

    Sadly, the Elaine Photography case has already made it clear that for some artists, the power of state will be used to hijack their creative voices in the name of “progressive” causes, labeling it the “price of citizenship” or something like that.

    As someone who writes for a living, as someone with a creative voice (I do some creative writing when I have spare time), I look at what is happening to the proprietors of Elaine Photography, Masterpiece Cakes, Sweet Cakes by Melissa, and Arlene’s Flowers, and I worry greatly about the successful efforts to use the power of the state to hijack their creative voices (namely, by punishing them for declining certain engagements).

    Those proprietors, as well as Di Modica, all have the right to not have their voice hijacked. Already, some hjiackings have succeeded. How many other voices are being silenced by the threat of having them hijacked? We may never know, but one is too many if we are to truly say we value freedom of speech in this country.

    It appears that Di Modica’s only option at this point is to sue State Street Global Advisors for copyright and trademark infringement, and to add de Blasio and New York City as well for abetting it. I hope that suit will succeed, but given how all too often “social justice” trump real justice, I fear that it won’t, and the Left will be on its way to winning its War on Free Speech.

    • philk57

      Thank you for articulating this. In the past, when I have tried to do so, I have been called out for being against equal rights or even been called homophobic. That isn’t my position at all, but I am concerned about the cultural corruption that takes place when those voices are silenced by angry social justice warriors.

  6. deery

    I don’t know. I hear your points, but isn’t the artist’s case significantly weakened by the fact that he illegally dumped his statue off in front of the NYSE, and the city moved his statue to a park several blocks away? His original vision for his guerilla art piece has already been compromised. Plus, ethically, the sheer gall of the artist complaining about artwork that he set up illegally being compromised by another piece which actually did bother to get the permits seems a bit questionable.

    I’m not sure if artists have the right not to have their works reinterpreted by other things in the environment around them. Museums often set up disparate works together to get the audience to draw other interpretations. One artist may not want his painting next to another’s simply because they both have blue elements, or they both happened to be Spanish sculpturers from the 1850s, or turn of the century women artists, but those are the breaks. I think even if an artist started painting something blue, knowing it might go in the blue room next to another artists work, making the first artist’s painting look dark and broody, I still don’t think there is an ethical breach.

    I just don’t believe there is an ethical duty to ensure that an artist’s work must be interpreted the way that the artist intended, nor a duty by the city to keep the surrounding area from a given work pristine and clear so that there can be no other interaction between a work and its environment. I think that is both impractical and dumb. How far away should Fearless Girl be so that Di Modica is satisfied that it is not infringing on his “original vision”(already compromised) of his work? Should they run any billboards or signs that might be in view of the bull sculpture by Di Modica to also ensure that it lines up with his vision?

    I definitely get why he is possessive of his work. But I think that once placed in public, under a dynamic, shifting environment, a lot of that is out his hands. If he wanted a static environment, he should have placed the bull in his own garden for people to contemplate.

    • No. The location of the artwork is irrelevant, and the city accepted it as public art. (The little girl was similarly dumped.) Its copyrighted and trademarked: the artist does not give up the right to the integrity of his work. Another artist can’t paint it pink, either.

      • deery

        No. The location of the artwork is irrelevant, and the city accepted it as public art. (The little girl was similarly dumped.) Its copyrighted and trademarked: the artist does not give up the right to the integrity of his work. Another artist can’t paint it pink, either.

        Yes, I agree that they cannot touch the artwork itself. But that isn’t the case here. The artist is arguing that nothing else can be placed anywhere near his piece, even if his piece remains exactly the same, so that his original vision (such as it is) could be never be re-interpreted or placed in a different light from what he intended. I don’t see how that could ever hold up, legally, practically, or ethically.

        • Spartan

          As I was reading this, I found Jack’s argument persuasive — but Deery has convinced me.

        • That’s MOT what he’s arguing. He’s correctly complaining that the artwork absorbs his, obliterates it, making it part of a different artwork and making it mean something it was never intended to convey. He isn’t saying that a free standing, independent work that doesn’t intentionally use the bull as an essential would be a problem at all.

          Billboards have issues with this all the time; can you blame them? And can you deny there is a legitimate complaint?

          • deery

            That billboard is hilarious, but a different scenario. Most billboards of this type are commercial speech, and usually have a clause in them to prevent such a scenario pictured from occurring. But should a piece placed in the public square be shielded from other works being placed near it, and thus causing it to be reinterpreted?

            That’s MOT what he’s arguing. He’s correctly complaining that the artwork absorbs his, obliterates it, making it part of a different artwork and making it mean something it was never intended to convey. He isn’t saying that a free standing, independent work that doesn’t intentionally use the bull as an essential would be a problem at all.

            But the Fearless Girl is freestanding. It can be interpreted with his work, or not, but that doesn’t mean that it has absorbed his work. Sometimes them’s the breaks. What if NYC decided to turn that entire area into a sculpture garden. To forestall any politicizing, they decide to just accept the first fifteen applicants for the garden. As it shakes out, the first fifteen applicants are various cattle of both sexes, in different stages of development. Those statues are placed around the original bull statue. Instead of being some big, bold charging bull, the statue now looks like some crazed member of the herd. Can the artist demand that the city remove the sculpture garden so that his statue looks dominating again? To place artwork in public means that the interpretation and context will almost certainly change with time.

            • The little girl is absolutely commercial speech.

              • Deery

                While it’s immaterial in this instance, I actually doubt Fearless Girl is commercial speech. A random observer would be hard-pressed to conclude she is advertising a product, and I’m pretty sure a plaque detailing the particulars of who commissioned a piece doesn’t convert that piece into commercial speech.

                I was just noting as an aside that most commercial pieces have contracts that contemplate the very situation that you pictured above, and usually require some preapproval or notice.

                • Isaac

                  It’s a literal advertisement, devised at the commission of a marketer. With a plaque naming not only the artist but the corporation. If it’s not an ad, nothing is.

    • Greg

      “he illegally dumped his statue off in front of the NYSE”

      He spent hundreds of thousands of dollars making the statue and donated it to the city. “Dumped” isn’t quite the word. I think it would be more accurate too say that he and his friends placed it very carefully under the giant Christmas tree that was standing in the middle of Broad Street that day.

      He gave his gift in a dramatic and unexpected way that must have violated some law or another, since we have so many, although I’m not quite sure which one that would be. (Traffic laws? The street was already blocked to traffic. Trespassing? Disorderly conduct?) Somewhere in the city there must have been a sourpuss brooding about the trivial illegality (Rudy Giuliani comes to mind), but most people thought the bull was great and the way that it was delivered was a little thrilling and a lot of fun.

  7. Chris marschner

    Perhaps a third statue could be commissioned depicting tyranical government standing behind the petulant child giving it protection. Entitle it “Safe Spaces”. Would the Fearless Girl artist appreciate that?

  8. Chris

    I must part with my liberal echo chamber and agree with you on this one, Jack.

  9. I’ve got it. South Dakota should allow a gigantic stone Trump head to directly face Mt. Rushmore, complete with his hand flipping off the Founders. Because it’s empowering and artistic or something.

    • Other Bill

      I think an equivalent satisfactory to the left would be a gigantic Obama head lecturing the dead white guys. It could be called, “Don’t do Stupid Shit!”

  10. Andrew V

    Weren’t these same people outraged when John Ashcroft covered up Lady Justice’s breast?

  11. Alex

    Turn the bull around, raise it on a platform a few feet, move it closer to the girl. Have her wistfully look at the original’s under/back side. I could see a few heads exploding that way.

  12. Well, them there is this interpretation:

    Fallis seems to argue that if “Fearless Girl” were commissioned by a multinational conglomerate for a multinational ad campaign, that “Fearless Girl” is somehow less art than “Charging Girl”. That’s an odd interpretation. Warhol made a Brillo box art – pop art. Why is the nature of the commission any different than an endowment commissioning a musical, a sculpture, a painting, a drawing? Is a rock music album cover not art because it is intended to help promote the band’s music? For instance, Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” is a simple, black cover/background with a prism breaking into the spectrum of visual light. It is iconic. It is commercial. But it is art.

    Same for “Guernica”, or “The Persistence of Memory” or Michelangelo’s “David”. Those works evoke feelings, thoughts; they take known media and use it to express an unknown or make a statement about something. Why would a commissioning a sculptor’s vision of a “Fearless Girl” for an ad campaign diminish what the artist is seeking to express?

    I am on the fence on this one. Di Modica has a right to his artistic vision, creation, and message. Placing “Fearless Girl” in the same place, utilizing the bull’s pavers/borders in the plaza, directly standing her ground against a charging bull significantly alters that message. Instead of reflecting the power of economies, now the Bull is an expression of violence, especially violence against women.


  13. Other Bill

    Sen. Warren weighs in (from USA Today):

    CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Count Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren as a friend of the Fearless Girl.

    Warren, who has stood up to her own angry bulls on Wall Street over banking regulations and taxpayer bailouts, mocks complaints by the sculptor of the iconic Charging Bull in lower Manhattan that the addition last month of a sculpture of a defiant girl, hands on her hips and standing in his path, should be removed.

    “O-o-h, o-o-h, o-o-h, that is so-o-o sad,” Warren says in a mocking voice, then adds: “I think the Fearless Girl is terrific. I hope she stands there until the bull falls over.”

    She’s a menace. And this from a law professor.

  14. Rick A.

    Interesting that Ron O’Hanley once again should be at the center of a debate about ethics. In his final year at Vanderbilt Law School, he had to resign as Editor-in-Chief of the Vanderbilt Law Review because of plagiarism charges and was very fortunate he escaped more severe discipline. Yes, that’s right, he effectively was the CEO of the law review and violated its core ethical principle.

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