Some strange things have happened on the streets of New York City, but perhaps not many stranger than the current battle between two statues, a battle that has drawn in a number of passionate partisans on both sides.
This has nothing to do with Weeping Angels. And it’s not another case of people getting offended by ugly modern art that doesn’t clearly represent anything. Each of these statues quite obviously represents something real—it’s what they represent in relation to each other that has everyone upset.
However laudable State Street’s intentions, the actual impression made by Fearless Girl is more than a little muddled. Regardless of whose side you or I come down on, this shift in perspective should make us think about the power we give to symbols—whether or not they merit it.Charging Bull, by sculptor Arturo Di Modica, has stood in the city’s Financial District for nearly three decades. Recently, another statue, Fearless Girl by Kristen Visbal, was placed before it—thus creating a whole new scene and offering a silent but unmistakable challenge.
As blogger Greg Fallis observes:
This is what makes it clever: Fearless Girl derives its power almost entirely from Di Modica’s statue. . . . 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.
Fair enough. Art is all about challenge and confrontation, right? It’s meant to shake things up. And many people have found this particular challenge inspiring.
But Di Modica, the sculptor of the bull, doesn’t feel quite so inspired. He’s threatening to remove his statue, claiming that the challenge has altered its meaning unfairly. And it’s hard to argue there’s nothing to Di Modica’s assertion. As Fallis observes, “Fearless Girl also changes the meaning of Charging Bull. Instead of being a symbol of ‘the strength and power of the American people’ as Di Modica intended, it’s now seen as an aggressive threat to women and girls—a symbol of patriarchal oppression.”
Who is right, and who is wrong? Or is there a right and wrong? Art, by contemporary standards, is supposed to be largely subject to interpretation. Still, it’s worth digging down a bit to find out exactly what we’re interpreting here.
Fallis offers a few helpful facts: Di Modica, a Sicilian immigrant, created the bull statue on his own dime after the 1987 stock market crash and set it up in the Financial District as a monument to “the strength and power of the American people.” Fearless Girl, by contrast, was commissioned as an advertisement by a major investment firm, State Street Global Advisors. Originally, she had a plaque with her (since removed) that read in part “SHE makes a difference.” The SHE referred to the NASDAQ ticker symbol for the firm’s Gender Diversity Index fund.
Ron O’Hanley, CEO of State Street, argues that the statue is meant to encourage greater diversity on the boards of companies that his firm deals with, and that its message is not meant to connote “you versus me,” but rather “we’re here together.” Still, the statue’s pose, its distance from the bull, and its very name all combine to represent to the public something very different from the ideas of togetherness and cooperation.
However you feel about subjectivity in interpretation, the battle of the statues can’t help but take on a somewhat different meaning when it turns out to be “corporately commissioned advertisement facing work of immigrant guerilla artist” or even if you just look at it on the level of “statue created by American investment firm staring down American symbol of hope and resilience.” And what about simply taking the two works at face value? As one Facebook friend of mine remarked, a girl who doesn’t have the sense to get out of the way of a charging bull is not the role model she wants for her daughters.
However laudable State Street’s intentions, the actual impression they made is more than a little muddled. Regardless of whose side you or I come down on, this shift in perspective should make us think about the power we give to symbols—whether or not they merit it.
The whole thing reminds me of the wildly popular “Nevertheless, she persisted” meme. It’s a safe guess that Mitch McConnell never dreamed that his explanation of a decision to invoke an obscure Senate rule in a tussle with Elizabeth Warren would end up as a feminist battle cry, featured on everything from T-shirts to throw pillows. (Seriously. There are throw pillows.) As with Fearless Girl, symbolism seems to have been divorced from meaning in the process of commercialization. If you doubt it, ask the next woman you meet sporting a set of mixed metal “Nevertheless, she persisted” stacking cuff bracelets ($60 at Etsy) to explain exactly what caused the confrontation between McConnell and Warren, and what happened during it. Does it matter what we persist in, or does it simply matter that we persist (and that our jewelry says so)?
I’m not arguing that symbols are a bad thing. Not at all. As Christians—people who look to the most brutal method of execution imaginable as a symbol of our greatest hope—we know better. A culture needs symbols, especially when significant portions of that culture are feeling unheard, dismissed, frustrated, and in desperate need of catharsis.
Goodness knows, the cavalier way that many of our current leaders think about, speak about, and act toward women, often without any penalties, has created just such conditions. Many of us are in the mood to fight back against demeaning attitudes and treatment, and symbols are useful in a fight. When understood and used properly, they remind us of what we’re fighting for.
But when they’re not, it’s often because we’ve grown so intellectually slothful that we’re willing to let symbols do all the work for us. Fearless Girl has been up for a while now, but as O’Hanley acknowledges, his firm had to do the follow-up work of actually sending out letters to the companies whose boards they hoped to influence before any actual change happened. On her own, without the letters and the public explanations, Fearless Girl might never have been much more than an artwork that challenges another artwork, leaving everyone confused about the reason for and nature of the challenge.
As for “Nevertheless, she persisted,” has it actually changed one mind or caused one chauvinist to start treating women differently? Or does it just look good on a T-shirt? These things are hard if not impossible to track, but the very nature of the slogan seems designed more to express defiance than to offer enlightenment and effect change.
A fearless attitude is a good thing in most circumstances. But when we don’t know precisely what we’re being fearless about, or why, or how, or to what end, we risk diluting the power of our cause and ending up with nothing but attitude. More than that, when we fail to take the moral responsibility to ask if we’re appropriating someone else’s symbol in fair and wise ways, our symbols may end up working against us instead of for us. And that’s just bullheaded.