Arturo Di Modica first conceived of the ‘Charging Bull’ as a way to celebrate the can-do spirit of America and especially New York, the attitude that determination and hard work can overcome every obstacle, the drive for success. Taking the artist over two years of labour, it was completed at the end of 1989, weighing over three and a half tonnes and measuring 18 feet. The American spirit was captured in the artist illegally positioning his work under the Christmas tree on Broad street, a gift to New York and the rest of the world. Later, Charging Bull was given a permanent location outside the Bowling Green, as a talisman for Wall Street traders.
Last month, however,’ Charging Bull’ was given company in the form of ‘Fearless Girl’. Though dwarfed in size by ‘Charging Bull’, the new 4 foot addition stands unflinchingly with hands on hips, staring the bull down. The statue was commissioned by State Street Global, to represent “the power and potential of having more women in leadership.”
Widely praised as a symbol of female empowerment, ‘Fearless Girl’ was announced to be on display until February 2018, thanks to a 28,000 signature petition.
That was too much for Di Modica. The artist said that ‘Fearless Girl’ was an insult to his work, subverting the sculpture’s meaning, which he defined as “freedom in the world, peace, strength, power and love.” At a news conference on 13th April, the artist and his lawyers demanded that ‘Fearless Girl’ be moved somewhere else, “None of us here are in any way not proponents of gender equality,” said one of Mr. Di Modica’s lawyers, Norman Siegel. Because of ‘Fearless Girl’, Mr. Siegel said, “‘Charging Bull’ no longer carries a positive, optimistic message,” adding that Mr. Di Modica’s work “has been transformed into a negative force and a threat.”
‘Fearless Girl’ has not been without criticism, most commonly in the form that the commissioned work is an attempt to capitalise on a fraudulent form of feminism. The lawyers accused State Street Global of commissioning ‘Fearless Girl’ as a site-specific work that was conceived with ‘Charging Bull’ in mind, violating Di Modica’s legal rights by issuing permits allowing the four-foot-tall ‘Fearless Girl’ to stand across from the bronze bull without the his permission.
I don’t know much about art, but I hope I know a little about perspective. Sometimes the thousand words told by a picture need to be examined from further back, or closer up, or with our heads tilted and our eyes narrowed to perceive what might not initially be apparent.
So it’s been with me and ‘Fearless Girl’. At first glance, my heart soared. What a wonderful image of strength and courage, a tiny David to a Wall Street Goliath! I hadn’t seen the bull before; my few New York wanders hadn’t led me past him. I didn’t know what he was meant to represent, so I took him and his little adversary at face value. Fighting as hard as we do in Ireland for women’s rights, and watching in dismay as those of our U.S. sisters are being rolled back, the smaller figure’s defiant stance made for an emotive sucker punch. Yeah! You go, little bronze girl!
[pullquote]The Dream-pushers never mention systemic racism, sexism, ableism or poverty cycles. But there’s the bull; charging away at the naysayers. Everything is possible in America! Land of the free! Except we know that that’s not strictly true.[/pullquote] But when we take a few steps back, ‘Fearless Girl’s’ intentions are less clear. There have been roughly one million thinkpieces on this and at the end of it all I’m falling on the side of those not convinced she’s one of us. Full disclosure, I’m ok with a certain amount of corporate feminism: if someone with money is helping those of us without to spread a good message – even if it means some gain to them – alright, I’ll take it. I’ll grumble privately, but it is still of some benefit. When things become cool, gain cultural currency, corporations want a slice. So defiant feminism is cool right now. That’s no bad thing.
The bull wasn’t, we hear, originally intended to be a capitalist symbol, but one of can-do energy. A celebration of The American Dream. Here, he’s not entirely innocent either: it’s is now perfectly clear that The American- “work hard and you can achieve anything” -Dream was only possible for some, ruthlessly rigged and stacked against others. It was a myth. If you didn’t have the white picket fence, two kids (one of each), apple pie cooling on a windowsill and at least one car in the driveway, it was because you weren’t dreaming big enough and working hard enough to achieve those dreams, which America would of course grant you once it saw how hard you’d worked. The Dream-pushers never mention systemic racism, sexism, ableism or poverty cycles. But there’s the bull; charging away at the naysayers. Everything is possible in America! Land of the free! Except we know that that’s not strictly true.
[pullquote]What we really need is for the girl to mount the bull, have him rear up and gallop away from Wall Street altogether, standing instead with those fighting oppression in America and around the world.[/pullquote] The ‘Fearless Girl’ was commissioned by a corporation and the bull is beloved of similar institutions. They are more alike than they are not. What is wonderful, though, is how provocative art has been and will be in this time of resistance and ongoing discussion of equality. And we need a touch of realism, however reluctant we might be: artists need benefactors. Money will always be involved. The passion of an artist not wanting the meaning of his or her work reinterpreted is admirable. If the man behind the bull really believes that everyone ‘can’, however, might he not already have been questioning his work’s positioning, and those motivated by it, before the girl’s arrival? Just a thought.
What we really need is for the girl to mount the bull, have him rear up and gallop away from Wall Street altogether, standing instead with those fighting oppression in America and around the world. Even the mini-industry that’s grown up around discussing these two deprives them both somewhat of the power to critique the monolithic systems from which they’ve both arisen. Someone please interpret that in bronze. I don’t think it would be pretty.