The commentariat can’t seem to let go of the story of the “Fearless Girl” statue, the creation of Kristen Visbal currently taking up a sliver of expensive real estate in a tiny public park off of Wall Street. The fact that she is positioned facing Arturo Di Modica’s iconic bull statue has resulted in some sort of public debate over sexism, feminism and quite a few more isms which I can’t think of at the moment, I’m sure. Originally only intended to be a temporary display designed as an advertisement for an index fund, the girl statue drew so many fans that she now has a permit to remain in the park at least through 2018. For his part, Di Modica is fighting having the new statue there because he claims that it changes the symbolism and meaning of his bull statue.
And he’s right. This is probably the more important half of the puzzling debate which has arisen over this display, but the artist understands what many observers seem to be missing. When it comes to art such as this, context is everything. Let’s start with his own statue. The three and a half ton bronze installation is a decent enough representation of a bull striking an active pose that pretty much anyone could recognize it as such. But by the same token, it’s not exactly a classic era demonstration of perfected realism such as the Statue of David. It’s really just a representation of a large, male bovine. If it had originally been placed in front of a large meat packing plant in Wisconsin or a huge cattle ranch in Nebraska, visitors would probably give it a nod and say, “nice statue” as they passed. But it wouldn’t be world famous. It’s the fact that it’s sitting in the Wall Street district, representing a “bull market” (with all of the positive attributes that go along with that) which makes it iconic.
The same can be said for Fearless Girl. It’s a similarly generic work in bronze, adequately depicting a young girl in a skirt with her hands on her hips throwing her chest out. If it were placed opposite a similar statue of an older woman in an apron with her arms crossed, the title of the piece might well have been, “Girl Throwing Temper Tantrum.” But when you put her in front of the bull, she’s suddenly a symbol of standing up to the man or whatever other magic you wish to imbue in the totem. Either of these figures standing alone could represent almost anything. But juxtapositioned as they are, a new meaning offers itself up if you care to find one.
Returning to Di Modica’s point, it once again all comes back to context and the infinitely variable responses we have to art. One recent segment on cable news featured a woman standing in front of Fearless Girl weeping as she described how seeing the piece moved her to tears. I’m not unsympathetic to that, even if I don’t have the same response myself. I worked for several years with a woman who regularly used the same phrase as she recounted how she too was moved to tears the first time she saw an exhibit of Jackson Pollock paintings in a museum. I have zero doubt as to her sincerity, even though I’ve personally always thought that all of Pollock’s paintings could have been named Explosion at Paint Factory and sold off at a farmer’s market.
The winners in this battle will remain the artists. Kristen Visbal is apparently receiving so many offers for other commissioned works that she’s afraid to leave her apartment. Di Modica is also enjoying a renewed round of attention. There’s nothing that benefits the art world more than a good controversy which gets the public up in arms. (Just ask whoever it was that thought up the “Piss Christ” debacle.) I’m not sure if there are any losers either way.
The legal questions seem to be completely answered on this one already. For some reason I had once believed that the statue of the bull (which I’ve walked past any number of times when visiting the city) was on private property, which would have made this relatively simple. But the park truly is public land and therefore under the control of the taxpayers through their elected representatives. Mayor de Blasio has signed off on a permit for Fearless Girl to continue facing down the bull for at least the next year. I’m not sure if that’s a power directly vested in the Mayor’s office or if it technically goes through some Municipal Office of Art Distribution or something, and frankly I was too lazy to go look that up. But in the end I’m sure it’s a decision he gets to make. And nobody loves a good Social Justice ism better than the Mayor, so if Hizzoner thinks this will make him more popular with the progressive masses, I’m sure the statue will remain. If enough of Gotham’s denizens want Fearless Girl removed that badly, they could vote him out of office in favor of someone new, but I wouldn’t hold your breath.
But I finish this contemplation with a nagging question of why anyone outside of the two artists involved really care all that much. As far as I’m concerned they could leave both Fearless Girl and the bull there forever or melt them down tomorrow to create shell casings. I’m not going to lose any sleep over it either way and you really shouldn’t either. They are small statues in a tiny park and the world will somehow continue spinning on its axis with or without them.