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.

Here’s How You Get People to Drive Electric

Elon Musk and others would like to save the world through technological innovation. His current goal is to reduce carbon emissions using solar power and electric cars, making them affordable and ubiquitous. The official line is that these technologies will save us money, and become useful for everyone, phasing out current methods of travel and power generation. A solar collector on every roof and an electric car in every driveway! But, what about the majority of Americans who don’t own either of those things?

The idea that you can install solar collectors on your roof and cut your electricity bill is an attractive one, especially if you’re fortunate enough to live in an area that sees enough sun to let you go off the grid completely. But, that choice isn’t available to renters or individuals who own condos or co-ops. Renters are subject to the whim of their landlord, who theoretically wouldn’t be obligated to pass savings on to tenants, and multi-unit owners would need to get a motion past their homeowners’ association. While condo residents may not have too hard a time selling the idea, the returns are far less than they would be for a standalone home. Splitting the savings amongst a large building with, let’s say, 100 units might mean that seeing a return on the investment in equipment could take a very long time indeed.

Electric cars are a wonderful concept that are just incredibly impractical for a large percentage of US residents. For example, one of the oft-cited benefits of going electric is that owners simply charge their vehicle overnight by plugging it into their house. Whether or not a particular vehicle requires some sort of power converter is immaterial to folks like myself, who live in an urban neighborhood with street parking. It would be far beyond simply impractical to own such a vehicle, despite the promised benefits.

These new technologies pretty clearly favor the well-off, if not only the outright wealthy, and will not be practical until there’s a public infrastructure for it. But, there won’t be an infrastructure until there’s enough demand for private businesses to roll out. Ideas for implementation seem to be leaning toward the old gas station model, which is a mistake. Electric vehicles take far longer to charge than a gas tank takes to fill, even with proprietary high-capacity chargers, which still take hours to fill an empty battery. And, more importantly, this philosophy ignores the existing infrastructure that exists to carry electricity.

This is one of these ideas that I wish I had the capital to act on. I think it would be incredibly lucrative for whoever implemented it, in addition to doing a good deed. The American dream.

Someone should approach city governments and offer to install charging access points in street lights, MUNI meters, and any other publicly accessible points that carry power. Attach a credit card reader to take payment and install a camera to discourage vandalism. If people could charge their vehicles on the street, either while parked overnight or while running their errands downtown, they’d be far more likely to adopt electric vehicles. I know I would be. Even if the city added a premium of 50% to their charges for electricity I’d be saving against what I pay at the pump. Instead of businesses building charging stations we should be leveraging our existing infrastructure and providing income to municipalities.

As for solar installation, renters probably won’t ever see much benefit.

Hating Black Johnny Storm Isn’t Racist

The nerd-o-sphere has been making a big deal about Michael B. Jordan being cast as Johnny Storm, the Human Torch of Marvel’s First Family, the Fantastic Four. Fans and purists take issue with the fact that the blonde-haired, blue-eyed hero being portrayed by a black man, and I have to admit that I had a negative reaction upon hearing the news. I immediately had to ask myself why.

Over the years plenty of comic characters have been played by actors whose appearance didn’t match the art we’ve stared at in comics for years. Sometimes it matters and sometimes it doesn’t. I don’t think it made a difference that Catwoman was portrayed by Eartha Kitt in the 60s or that Billy Dee Williams played Harvey Dent in Tim Burton’s Batman. Race was unimportant to the characters. Idris Elba made a great Heimdall. All that was required was gravitas, which he has in abundance. I was more upset about 6’2″ Hugh Jackman being cast as the short and stumpy Wolverine. When Michael Clark Duncan appeared as Wilson “Kingpin” Fisk in the atrocious Daredevil movie I was upset.

What producers have to realize is that comic book characters are more than just interchangeable carriers of super powers. They’re characters with personalities and back stories that provide them with motivations that are essential to who they are. It is important that Magneto is a Jew, as his family’s persecution in the Nazi holocaust informed the way he would deal with prejudice against mutantkind, and makes his story more tragic. It is important that Steve Rogers be a blue-eyed, blonde-haired Aryan ideal, not because it’s necessary for  ANY Captain America to be, but because it’s indicative of what the ideal was during the period when the persona was created. And it was important that Wilson Fisk be a white guy, as he represented the archetypical New York mafia don, who are stereotypically portrayed as a teensy bit incredibly racist. While Michael Clark Duncan was a great actor, casting a black man in the part completely changed the character. It’s the same reason you couldn’t have Dustin Hoffman play the Red Skull.

Most of the comic books being adapted to film were created decades ago, long before anyone was thinking about portraying diversity in fiction. This is not a good thing, but it’s true. If they wanted to change the race of a character in the Fantastic Four, how about Mr. Fantastic? Reed Richards, the super stretchy super genius has no part of his character that depends on his race, and changing it would not affect his back story in any way. But, maybe Hollywood is concerned about the way the world would react to a comic books movie that portrayed a black man and a white woman as lovers.

The specific issue in this instance is that Johnny Storm and Sue Storm (the Invisible Woman) are siblings. It’s part of what makes the Fantastic Four Marvel’s “First Family”. Casting a black actor as Johnny, while Sue remains white and blonde, begs the question of their familial relationship. It can be explained away pretty simply, as one of them being adopted, or perhaps they’re half-siblings, or maybe they’ve got “1-in-a-million genes” from bi-racial parents. And that’s fine, but still… unnecessary. I don’t feel like Michael Jordan was chosen for this part because his talent was great or that he suited the role particularly well, but because the producers felt a need to diversify the cast in hopes of drawing a larger audience without thought to the characterization.

There are non-white characters in comics. Really. Hollywood should be using them more. Get me a Black Panther movie, one starring Misty Knight (though taking a chance on a black woman may just be too much for producers), or a John Stewart Green Lantern. And hurry up with the Luke Cage project on Netflix. Get a real actress to play Storm in the next X-Men movie, or include Forge and give him some actual lines, or maybe Sunspot. The X-Men are a particularly diverse group, but the movies only seem to devote time to the white ones. But, instead of casting these roles and giving the characters screentime, Hollywood is making silly changes in an attempt to be more diverse.