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.