I May Not Know Art, but I also Don’t Know What I Like

I try to let a little time pass before writing about some things, largely because it allows for rational thought as opposed to guttural reaction. I make a special effort if it’s been a hot topic in the blogosphere. Here’s hoping…

On March 7 of this year, International Women’s Day, a statue called Fearless Girl was placed on Wall Street. It was commissioned as part of a marketing campaign for an index fund and promote awareness of the gender divide in the investment industry. The statue of a young girl standing defiantly was placed so that it appears to be standing in opposition to the Wall Street Bull, and its material and style make it clear that it’s a companion piece.

I had mixed feelings that still persist today.

The Wall Street Bull, properly titled Charging Bull was a piece of guerilla art installed around Christmas in 1989. The artist described it as a reaction to the stock market crash of 1987 and said that it was representative of the strength of the American people and financial market, playing on the term “bull market”. It’s aggressive, and some might say menacing, in appearance. It’s large and solid. The message seemed to be that the American market would move upward, but the ride would be bumpy and investors should always be careful. Shortly after being installed, it was actually impounded by the police and only found a permanent home after public outcry.

But, at some point in the 27+ years since its installation, people’s view of the Bull changed. Instead of being symbolic of the strength of the American spirit, it became a symbol of Wall Street itself and the excesses of the financial industry. What was intended to inspire became a source of revulsion. Intent no longer mattered as focus shifted and attitudes changed. It became the target of our ire. The Bull was now destruction and danger.

That new view of Charging Bull was what Defiant Girl was placed in response to. She would stand bravely in front of the beast of the financial market. This also highlighted the masculinity of the original piece. This could be read multiple ways, though. She’s standing up to a male dominated industry. She’s standing in the way of progress. She’s about to be crushed foolishly. She’s rebuking an uncontrolled beast. All of these are true. All of these are valid.

Of course the internet exploded. Arguments abounded throughout social media and the comment sections of innumerable blog pieces and news articles. Supporters claimed critics were misogynistic. Critics claimed the piece wasn’t “art” because it was commissioned by an investment firm (which is Bullshit to anyone who knows why most of the greatest works of the Renaissance were financed). The most popular interpretation was that it was a symbol of feminine strength opposing masculine domination. I can see it, understand it, and believe in that message. Yet, I found myself troubled.

The questions of ownership of art have been running through my mind. The artist of Charging Bull has been clear on his dislike of the new piece, feeling that it warps the intent of his own. Does that matter? Who gets to decide? The zeitgeist holds the Bull as the symbol of Wall Street, which it associates with greed and corruption. They don’t view it as strength and hope. To them, Defiant Girl is the bravery of women in the face of overwhelming odds. Can these two pieces exist as both of those things? What’s more, does an artist have the right to change another’s work?

Imagine if someone were to put a statue of a young altar boy in front of a statue of Pope John Paul II. He’d have an open mouth and a slightly frightened look in his eyes, facing the pontiff, slightly below, and very close. They title it The Church’s Hidden Victim and say that it symbolizes the victims of abuse by members of the clergy under John Paul’s watch. Just picture it. Here, have a visual aid.

Not hard to imagine. It’s almost like it’s what the sculptor had in mind. Credit to Paweł Kocik via Wikimedia Commons

Is that still representative of hope or piety? I’m thinking it’s not. And I’m still of two minds as to whether or not I’m ok with it.

For now, I’ll be looking at the Bull and the Girl the way I do those images that can be seen as a duck or a rabbit. From one angle it’s hope. From another it’s oppression. Over there it’s defiance. But from right there it’s obstruction.

Personally, I’d have crafted the statue so that she was putting a ring in the bull’s nose to take control of it. But, I’m no artist.

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