Whether you consider it “a powerful beacon” or “incredibly stupid,” “corporate feminism” or “revolutionary art,” Kirsten Visbal’s “Fearless Girl” statue has been impossible to ignore since it popped up overnight this past March. Placed in a defiant stance before the furious charge of the iconic “Charging Bull” near Wall St. in Lower Manhattan, in a short amount of time the girl has come to represent a spectrum of opinions on feminism, capitalism, art and commerce. Especially since the events of last fall, these issues have been at the forefront of public conversation, and the Girl is the latest iteration of such.
One opinion that’s garnered a great deal of attention (for obvious reasons) is that of Arturo Di Modica, sculptor of “Charging Bull.” Modica considers the girl an “attack” on his piece, and has even retained a lawyer in order to have her removed from the public square. His counsel has said “‘Charging Bull’ no longer carries a positive, optimistic message,” declaring that the original statue “has been transformed into a negative force and a threat.”
To discuss in such concrete terms, through a lawyer or on his own, the meaning of this piece of art is certainly Mr. Di Modica’s right as it’s creator. One can consider the opinion of the maker of a public artwork to be the essential stance. After all, who would know better what a piece of art is supposed to mean?
Unfortunately, that’s not quite how it ends up working. Art, especially visual art, doesn’t carry a proscribed meaning. It’s not a textbook or instruction manual. Every viewer brings to it their own unique set of experiences and ways to understand the world. That’s the beauty of it. A painting as plain as the Mona Lisa, or as busy as a Jackson Pollock, becomes an endlessly fascinating set of questions when one considers all the ways to look at it.
The 20th Century French literary critic Roland Barthes wrote a great deal on this subject in his essay Death of the Author, published in 1967. Barthes found popular reception of art to be too frequently “tyrannically centered” on the opinions and experiences (whether inferred or stated outright) of the creator. He felt that meaning of art is created in the mind of the person experiencing it, not by the person who brought it into being.
Consider the great statues of Greek and Roman antiquity that populate the world’s most prestigious museums. Few would question their value in the context of art and global history. Originally created as exultations of the glory of gods and other mythical figures, so many of them now stand headless and limbless, stunning visual representations of the ravages of time. Should a modern viewer take away from these statues a new found appreciation of the greatness of Athena or Zeus, as they were possibly intended? Even if that’s what this hypothetical viewer does, are they “incorrect?”
Mr. Di Modica, while naturally defensive about the perception of his creation, needs to come to terms with the fact that people’s reaction to the Bull was never up to him. For years before the Fearless Girl arrived, his work was in the public sphere, standing for whatever each individual viewing it believed it stood for.
The origin story of Mr. Di Modica’s “Bull” is an illuminating one. Much like the Fearless Girl, it was placed overnight without notice, smack dab in the middle of the nation’s financial capital. It lasted only a day in its original spot before calls to the police led to it being trucked to an impound lot in Queens. Eventually, public outcry led the New York City Parks Department to find it a permanent home a few blocks south of Wall St. on Bowling Green. Those in charge of keeping order on Wall St. were aghast at the Bull, despite Di Modica’s intentions that it be a tribute to them. Although they were to be exalted by it, they were in fact repulsed. Surely this wasn’t part of his idea of it, either.
Consider the “Charging Bull” on its own face. It’s a fierce, massive creature in the midst of a potentially deadly strike. The statue weighs over 7000 lbs and looks it. It’s rippling muscles and kinetic pose imbue the chunk of bronze with the fearsome quality of the real thing. Considering the damage done in 2008 (not to mention 1929) by the denizens of the area, does this symbol of Wall Street really carry such a “positive, optimistic message?” Maybe you think so. Maybe you don’t. One group of you, according to Mr. Di Modica, is correct.
Which is a ludicrous premise. Especially for a piece of art that sits on public land, which by definition belongs to the citizenry. But even if the Bull were in a museum, it would be served well by being confronted by the Fearless Girl. Any viewer is well served by the interaction between the two pieces. Perhaps Mr. Di Modica himself could see the benefit of it, if he let go of his own fears.